Menace or medicine? Anthropological perspectives on the self-administration of high potency cannabis in the UK, Anna Waldstein, 2010

Menace or medicine? Anthropological perspectives on the self-administration of high potency cannabis in the UK

Anna Waldstein

Drugs and Alcohol Today • Volume 10 Issue 3 • September 2010



Domestically produced, high potency cannabis (often referred to as ‘skunk’ in the mainstream UK media) has become increasingly widespread in the UK. This paper considers whether the trend reflects an increased awareness of and desire for medical marijuana. Determining whether cannabis is a drug or a medicine depends on its objective physiological effects – which may vary from one individual to another – as well as how and why those effects are experienced. The medicinal and mind-altering effects of cannabis are not easily separable for many cannabis users. The medicinal use of cannabis in Britain has waxed and waned since the early 19th century. Currently, the UK is at the cutting edge of the development of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals, but criminalises people who choose to self-medicate with herbal cannabis. We are living in time of political, social and economic uncertainty, which threatens the stability of national healthcare systems. The broad-ranging effects of cannabis on the human body and mind, combined with its relatively easy cultivation, make it a sustainable and effective alternative medicine. Research is needed, especially on the experiences of people who use cannabis to benefit, enrich and even prolong their lives.

Key words : Skunk, medical marijuana, self-medication, medical anthropology


The word ‘skunk’ is what linguists call a polysemous term, having many different meanings in the
English language. With regards to cannabis alone, skunk refers to at least three distinct phenomena.
From an ethnobotanical perspective, it is the name of a strain of cannabis that is particularly fragrant, especially when grown with care and proper nourishment. In the mainstream UK media, the term can refer to any strain of cannabis that has been grown with methods that maximise the amount of the plant’s active compounds (known collectively as cannabinoids), in particular delta- 9-tetrahydro-cannabinol (THC). And among students and recent graduates of my university, the term ‘skunk’ refers to cannabis that has been adulterated to look like it is highly potent. Thus, when people say they do or do not like skunk, or when skunk is associated with mental health problems, we cannot draw general conclusions about cannabis without specifying the particular form in question (ie. a specific strain of cannabis with a unique profile of cannabinoids; any variety of high potency cannabis; or adulterated cannabis).

The multiple meanings of skunk in the UK have led to confusion about and fear of high potency cannabis, with a number of unfortunate side effects. Some people may have unpleasant experiences when they encounter unexpectedly strong forms of the plant and it is not clear whether this is an effect of the actual cannabis or of cannabis propaganda (Sumnall & Bellis, 2007). Others, who are looking for extreme highs but are otherwise inexperienced with cannabis, may expose themselves unknowingly to toxic contaminants, especially cannabis that has been sprayed with silica or glass crystals (Klein & Doctors, 2006). Professional adults (including politicians) hypocritically defend their own use of cannabis and condemn other people’s use by arguing that the skunk of today is a different drug than the cannabis of their youth (Stevens, 2007). But from my perspective as a medical anthropologist, most unfortunate is the uniform demonisation of all highly potent forms of cannabis, including medicinal varieties.

Is cannabis a drug or a medicine

The terms ‘drug’ and ‘medicine’ are also polysemous, especially when used in relation to cannabis. In
pharmacology, drugs are substances that contain small molecules, which have physiological effects on biological systems (Brody, 1998). In the social sciences, the term ‘drugs’ usually refers to illicit substances that are consumed for illicit (or at best hedonistic) purposes, while, in medicine, ‘drugs’ (especially commercially produced, professionally prescribed pharmaceuticals) are synonymous with ‘medicines’. Anthropological research suggests that medicines can be defined as non-nutritive substances that restore pathophysiological disease states. But there is considerable overlap among medicines, foods and poisons in most ethnomedical systems (Etkin & Ross, 1982; Hugh-Jones, 1993). Depending on one’s perspective, cannabis can be illustrative of all of these definitions. This is a result of the way the human body produces and uses cannabinoids and also the ways that cannabis is experienced subjectively by a variety of genetically and culturally diverse individuals.

Like most mammals, humans produce cannabislike compounds known as endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids control basic metabolic processes within cells, intercellular communication and the modulation and coordination of tissues, organs and body systems (Melamede, 2005). Both endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids (from cannabis plants) exert their effects by interacting
with at least two different types of cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) that are present on various cells throughout the human body. CB1 receptors are found in high concentrations on cells in the spinal-cord regions associated with pain, as well as in many parts of the brain (such as the basal ganglia, cerebellum and hippocampus). However, there are minimal CB1 receptors in the brainstem, which likely accounts for the lack of acute cannabis induced fatalities. CB2 receptors are expressed primarily by white blood cells (Baker et al, 2003) but are also found in most other organ systems.

Russo (2004) has theorised that a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency may account for migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other disorders characterised by increased sensitivity to pain. Chronically low levels of endocannabinoids are also implicated in anxiety and depression (Hill & Gorzalka, 2005; Viveros et al, 2007). Variation in endocannabinoid activity implies that while some individuals would be overly sensitive to increases in cannabinoid levels resulting from the consumption of cannabis, others would benefit from increased cannabinoid levels (Melamede, 2005).