Forget Legalising Weed, Just Smoke Red Dragon Instead

Smoking the genetically modified Red Dragon had me pondering Richard Branson's plans to market cannabis with low levels of HTC.
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Smoking the genetically modified Red Dragon had me pondering Richard Branson's plans to market cannabis with low levels of HTC.

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Richard Branson has managed to hold onto a reputation for talking sense. And since the first ever customers for a Virgin product were young weed-smokers snapping up copies of  Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, Branson seems to feel some obligation to talk sense about drugs. So there he was on Sky News persuading Adam Boulton of the virtues of decriminalising the lot and it was wonderful to see. All the same, Branson had a distracted look, as if he just wanted to get back to business. In the debate about drugs there is nothing, as yet, to which his fertile brain can attach a bottom line, unless it’s a chain of  clinics.

Decriminalisation means just that and nothing more - cutting out the gangsters and protecting users from being turned into fugitives who are afraid to seek help. Druggies as sickos is as far as Branson is prepared to push the cause, though there was a moment when a utopian vision of druggies as consumers seemed to flicker in front of his eyes. As Boulton carved off the subject of cannabis for a separate discussion, Branson raised the possibility of licensing it and taxing it. Yes, prepare to defend your local head shop from the corporate onslaught of Virgin Airhead - Branson's chain of cannabis outlets, with free coffee and comfy chairs and knowledgeable advice from cool people dressed in black.

But no sooner was his kite in the air than Branson himself tugged it down, as if he had suddenly remembered the elephant in the room that is skunk. Shrewd old Boulton, appearing to want to give a soft ride to the soft drug, was slyly drawing attention to the fact that the only move towards decriminalisation so far ended in a very messy climb-down. Branson himself was the first to use the 'S' word, probably sensing that Boulton would be only  too happy to revive that malodorous tag. The media have already used and abused it to whip up disgust at David Blunket's decision to make cannabis a class C drug. Skunk, Branson declared, is a different drug from ordinary cannabis, and it is only the latter which should ever be considered for licensing for sale.

Prepare to defend your local head shop from the corporate onslaught of Virgin Airhead - Branson's chain of cannabis outlets.

But skunk is not a different drug from ordinary cannabis, and the rise of synthetic cannabis - since real cannabis was reclassified as Class B - makes it important to keep this distinction clear. Some older people who should know better (most recently India Knight in The Sunday Times) complain that the cannabis on sale now is stronger than the stuff that was around in the seventies. Of course it's stronger, after decades of breeding and cross-breeding to raise the content of  its naturally occurring  psychoactive chemical, handily called THC. Roses bred for colour over forty years might be redder too, India.

Around 80% of the cannabis seized by police now falls into the category of super-strong 'skunk', i.e. its THC content is between 12 and 20%. Branson is proposing to bring back weaker cannabis (that has all but vanished from the illegal market) in order to sell it legally. It may be possible, even desirable - like Becks Beer bringing in 4% Vier because people were getting too drunk on the 5% stuff. But the bone-headed slowness of the authorities to get real about real cannabis has opened the way to alternatives which are flooding in. Even skunk is being shoved aside by a tsunami of strong synthetics that no amount of legislation can ever keep up with. Big bad skunk now looks like a crop of spotty corn beside a field of GMOs.

There is no THC in synthetic cannabis, so Branson's idea of legalising weed with a THC level of lower than, say, 15% is already dead on arrival. What synthetic weed has is something that gives a THC-like high and you can buy it today at any shop selling herbal incense. Ignore the instruction not to inhale directly. Roll it up with tobacco or straight. Puff away. You won't know what you're smoking – it sure isn't just the harmless  herbs listed on the packet. It might contain any percentage of the stuff that isn't THC but mimics THC.  Even the guy who invented it doesn't know exactly what the stuff is or what it does. In fact he thinks that people who use it are playing Russian Roulette.

Meet John W Huffman, the American research chemist who has had the world's top synthetic cannabinoid JWH-18 named after him.  In fact he has had hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids named after him, which makes his work a genie that is going to be very hard to put back in the bottle.

Big bad skunk now looks like a crop of spotty corn beside a field of GMOs.

A cannabinoid is any chemical that reacts on the cannabis receptors in the brain. In the course of  US government funded research into AIDS and Multiple Sclerosis, Huffman proved that what reacts on the cannabis receptors doesn't have to be cannabis, or contain THC. The discovery has made  him the most notorious chemist of the counter-culture since LSD was synthesised by a  Swiss chemist who was, almost spookily, called Hoffman.

After the success of the synthetic cannabis brand, SPICE and a few nuttings-out from big doses that got into the papers, JWH-18 and its closest relatives were banned in the US, Europe and the UK, but not before some chemical factories in China had picked up the scent of a huge new market opening in the West. Other, still legal, members of Huffman's chemical family are being freely imported and used in the manufacture of SPICE-like mixtures.

I rolled some herbal incense called Red Dragon up with cigarette tobacco and took it down to a riverside park to smoke it. I used to spend a lot of time doing this sort of thing, though the cannabis was real then and the pleasure of smoking somewhat spoiled by fear of arrest.

Puffing on my Red Dragon I noticed some anxiety still hanging around, probably because smoking anything in public these days is more or less criminal. Where cannabis is concerned, real or synthetic, it's not so much the smoking that's illegal, its the state of mind.

The Red Dragon state of mind is mildly euphoric, after a mild rush. The speeding up subsides into a pleasant slowing down similar to the effects of the light brown Moroccan hashish people used to smoke before the strong grass came in. It felt just fine to me, very natural, and I was more worried about smoking the tobacco than the synthetic.

But  Huffman, who has no wish to be remembered as the inventor of herbal incense, is now an influential 80-year-old, advocating the legalisation of real cannabis. Here is what he said in an interview last year.

"Marijuana has been studied for thousands of years and the scientific evidence is that it is not a particularly dangerous drug. We KNOW the biological effects of THC on humans. We DON'T KNOW the biological effects of JWH, other than from physicians and emergency rooms... Marijuana should be legalised, sold to people over the age of 21 and heavily taxed."

This, of course, includes the type of marijuana that has been meaninglessly classified as skunk. Put it in your pipe, dear Sir Richard, and smoke it.

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