The Story of 'Skunk', the Drug Your Mum Warned You About
How all high-grade weed came to be known as "skunk", and the history of slave-labour that led to its popularity in the UK.
A Cannabis Freedom Festival-goer with marijuana leaf face-paint, pulling on a joint, in Brockwell Park, Brixton, London, 2001. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Archive/PA Images
In the spring of 1985, a heavy-set American landed at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport with a box of seeds. His name was David Watson. Or was it Sam Selezny? Or was it – as he'd later come to be known – "Sam the Skunkman"?
It mattered not to his greeters, Michael Taylor and Wernard Bruining – the latter of whom owned Mellow Yellow, Amsterdam's first coffeeshop – because these seeds were for strains of cannabis which would go on to supply Amsterdam with the dankest weed known to mankind, usurping the Moroccan hash that had previously held a monopoly over the Dutch capital.
It was an intriguing event for a number of reasons – one being that, a month earlier, Watson had been arrested in Santa Cruz, California for growing cannabis. Just how he had managed to then make his way over to Amsterdam has led to some dubbing Watson a spook, an undercover DEA spy sent to the Netherlands to infiltrate its burgeoning weed industry.
Another reason is that it represents the arrival in Europe of the strain with which Watson shares an alias – Skunk #1 – having been involved in the invention of its prototype in the late-1970s. A hybrid of Afghan Indica, Mexican Sativa and Colombian Gold Sativa, and named for its strong smell, Skunk #1 would go on to win the Cannabis Cup in 1988 and be sold to seed banks throughout Holland, becoming the world's first commercial hybrid strain.
In 2017, however, the word skunk has a different meaning; it bears no relation to any specific strain of cannabis – rather, it's become a catch-all term for the high-potency weed you'll find all over Britain, a product driving a £1 billion a year industry, inspiring numerous tabloid scare-stories and triggering police seizures of around 366,000 cannabis plants per year, or roughly 1,000 a day. A substance whose effects can apparently be seen on the UK's citizens, with it claimed that between 8 to 24 percent of all psychosis cases are linked to the drug, including many hundreds every year in London alone.
So how did all high-grade weed come to be known as "skunk", and are its effects as serious as is thought, or part of a tradition of scaremongering that dates back decades?
WATCH: Inside the UK's Weed Underworld
In the 1990s, the Netherlands was at the forefront of the global cannabis industry. While other countries continued to rely mainly on imported hash resin, the Dutch – and the American ex-pats filling Amsterdam – were experimenting with different ways to grow weed. The Dutch had long combined electric lights and fertiliser to manufacture some of the world's best produce and flowers in small indoor areas, and it didn't take long for them to start applying these techniques to the cultivation of cannabis.
Weed farmers then nailed the use of hydroponics equipment – which allowed them to manipulate the nutrients supplied to the plant's root – as well as techniques that made it possible to control the amount, intensity and wavelength of the light directed at the plants, and the carbon dioxide content of the air. In doing so, an expert grower could accelerate a plant's lifecycle to the point that it would flower heavily in just under two months, all while taking up no more space than a table lamp.
"[These techniques] delivered a generous yield of high-grade weed without it growing into a monster ganja tree or it taking three to four months to flower, which is normal," explains Top Shelf Grower, a YouTuber and cannabis expert. "Essentially, it gave growers the best of both worlds."
This meant that anyone outside Holland – provided they read about these new methods in magazines like High Times – could now cultivate weed stronger than anything available to them locally. What's more, the technology required was easy to come by in garden centres and the seeds could be ordered online. As a result, the use of hydroponics among British weed gardeners tripled between 1994 and 2000, while the implementation of high-powered lighting more than doubled.
All this came at a perfect time for cannabis smokers worldwide, as the importation of the weaker hash resin had begun to fall. Part of this could be attributed to a Moroccan crackdown, with the government there destroying a third of its own crop in an effort to curb exportation – but also terrorism, as it was becoming much harder to ship large amounts of contraband throughout the world.
Before these developments, the majority of weed floating around the UK came from the Netherlands. In 1994, eight people receiving methadone treatment in Glasgow reported smoking joints of this origin, with four of them experiencing psychosis ranging from paranoid delusions to auditory and visual hallucinations. The type of weed responsible? "Skunk."
This case was written about in a 1995 letter to the British Medical Journal by substance abuse registrar Alan Scott Wylie, who would go on to become the lead addiction clinician at the Glasgow branch of the Priory, the chain of private hospitals famous for treating celebrities like Kate Moss, Ronnie Wood and Robbie Williams. It seems that this letter is the first mention of skunk in its incorrect context, with Wylie describing it not as a specific strain of weed (i.e. Skunk #1 or a derivative), but as a catch-all term for all high-potency weed.
Back then, Skunk strains in the UK had a strength of about 7 percent THC (the chemical that gets you high) and a market share of 16 percent. They were seen as elite – a rarity, compared to the 4 to 5 percent THC strains that made up most of the weed available in Britain.
This letter – at 200 words long – would go on to be cited by many studies and research papers for years to come.
In the year 2000, skunk as the mainstream phenomenon it is now was still pretty much nonexistent. However, it wasn't long before things began to change: Vietnamese gangs would move into Britain and, in lightning-quick time, exert total dominance over the cannabis market.
These gangs had ties to Chinese slave-labour factories, UK sex work rings and elaborate people trafficking networks. They had precedent, too, as in the 1990s they'd made the same moves in Vancouver, Canada, where they'd wrestled control of the cannabis market from the Hells Angels.
Ingeniously, the Vietnamese tended not to grow plants in rural areas like the Angels had done, instead focusing on busy urban areas where the populations were more transient and less likely to care about what was going on around them. They also staggered their operations so they were always harvesting: if one house or flat was raided, the profits from the others more than covered it. The gangs employed this same under-our-noses methodology in Britain, starting in London and then moving outwards.
"They don't all come from the same crime group," says Simon Harding, expert on gangs and Senior Lecturer of Criminology at Middlesex University London. "They come from different parts of Vietnam, but also from outside, like other parts of Europe or Canada, and the west coast of America. They report back, of course, to Vietnam. Again, this is not one organised crime group controlling all production, but they will have some connection – and, to do what they do, they've got to be connected and defend their business, and that means violence and that means firearms."
Inside the houses the Vietnamese employed the same growing methods and technology that had been perfected by the Dutch and Americans in the Netherlands. They watered the plants once in the morning and once in the evening, rows of them arranged beneath red-hot high-intensity sodium lamps and above irrigation systems. Reflective foil clung to the walls. When space allowed it, ventilation ducts were jammed into the ceiling. The electrical meter would naturally be bypassed so as not to raise suspicion from suppliers.
Police estimated that one of these grow houses cost about £20,000 to set up; its yield would bring in between £200,000 to £500,000 a year.
And so began the widespread availability of strong homegrown weed in Britain. It would take police and the media a year or so to catch on, but when they did, a shorthand was available, regardless of the fact the Vietnamese were growing different strains: "Skunk."
The ensuing uproar was warranted. Once police started raiding some of these places it became clear they were being manned by slaves. Male children as young as 15 had been trafficked over through France, kidnapped from the Vietnamese streets on which they were homeless, or else their families had paid for the privilege – sometimes up to £10,000 – after promises of a new life.
The Guardian interviewed a former grower this March. He described being bound and gagged before ending up in China, where he was forced to package saucepans in a factory. He then spent three months in a shipping container before ending up in the UK, where he was forced into sex work. Ten months later came the grow house. A hellish but not uncommon journey.
The media gave these slaves a nickname: "ghosts", because of their hidden, barely-there existences. Their living conditions were horrendous: often they had little room to move among the overwhelming sea of green, and were given a stock of frozen food, told it would only be replenished if they followed exact instructions. Surprisingly, they were allowed to leave, occasionally taking walks around the block. But where could they could go in the long-term when they spoke no English and frequently feared reprisals on their families back home?
Proof of this can be seen in the fact that, once liberated by police and put into care, many would escape and return to the gangs by choice.
The gangs also had no problem killing Vietnamese: in 2010, many years after asserting dominance, low-level dealers named Khach Nguyen and Phac Tran were sent to an exchange with British criminals and got robbed in the process. When they returned to their bosses – without cash or weed – they were accused of faking the robbery and brought to Surrey, where Nguyen was slowly beaten to death.
The level of exploitation around ghosts – bearing in mind they were regularly held for years – eventually led to the NSPCC calling the product they grew not skunk, but, more aptly, "blood cannabis".
By 2005, these places were everywhere, with police claiming literally tens of thousands around the UK. Seizures of cannabis went up sixfold that year – one day in September, 14 grow-ops were shut down in the London borough of Newham alone – but the farms were very hard to police; cops often had to rely on fires breaking out due to dodgy electrics, or on someone smelling the weed as they passed.
In 2006 came Operation Keymer, the Met's first widespread attempt at stopping the Vietnamese. The operation was considered a success, bagging 28,000 plants, but by 2007 the gangs were largely unaffected: 378 houses were raided that year, followed by 692 in 2009.
I ask Simon Harding what the gangs' presence in the UK was before growing cannabis. "There were small numbers of Vietnamese here," he says. "What they were involved in prior to growing, or around the same time, was counterfeit goods – counterfeit DVDs in particular. They'd be running huge factories to multi-record DVDs, which they'd then sell in pubs or on the street for £2 to £3 a piece."
Skunk had taken over, and it appeared there was nothing anyone could do – except legalise it and take control of production, but that was never going to happen with a Labour government baring their teeth at Tory accusations of weakness. So it was in 2009 that they went in the opposite direction, with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith reclassifying cannabis from a class C to a class B drug.
Surprisingly, much of her reasoning wasn't based on gangs, but on the "uncertainty, at the least" over its impact on young people's mental health.
"The real problem, clinically, is how does a doctor reach the decision about whether a diagnosis of cannabis-induced psychosis should be given?"
The supposed link between cannabis and psychosis has existed for decades, utilised by governments throughout the world to curb use. From this phenomena the term "Reefer Madness" was born, named after a 1936 American propaganda film whose teenage characters commit manslaughter, rape and suicide after smoking weed.
Though the severity of any mental illness shouldn't be diminished, in 2017 the facts still don't support the hypothesis that cannabis causes psychosis – even the high-THC skunk currently available in Britain. A careful reading of the scientific literature will reveal that a certain section of society – those vulnerable to both substance abuse and mental illnesses – are likelier to use cannabis and experience psychosis, but not because one triggers the other.
"It's not clear whether the skunk is the cause or whether it's just a coincidence," says Ian Hamilton, Lecturer in Mental Health at the University of York. "Equally, it could be that people who develop psychosis are more likely to use drugs such as skunk as a way of coping with the early-stage psychotic symptoms they have. The real problem, clinically, is how does a doctor reach the decision about whether a diagnosis of cannabis-induced psychosis should be given? How recently should you have used cannabis, and for how long? It's not an exact science – we don't have the same level of sophisticated tests that we use to diagnose something like diabetes."
It's complicated, but as Professors Charles Ksir and Carl Hart write in relation to their critical review on the subject, "We are concerned that a misunderstanding of the relation between cannabis use and psychotic behaviour leads to an oversimplification of the complex developmental nature of substance use and mental disorders."
In other words: simplifying the issue in order to push policy or write a scary headline probably doesn't do justice to those suffering.
Today – unless you're weed nerd – almost all cannabis in the UK is considered skunk, with average THC levels of between 10 to 20 percent. Furthermore, the UK growing industry continues to thrive, evolving in new ways every year to outwit police. In the past, growers would use every inch of a house; now, they frequently leave the front room untouched, with a television on inside, to avoid suspicion. There have also been raids that show growers are branching out beyond residential buildings: an old Barclays bank in Grimsby, an abandoned GP surgery in Harlow, or – in February – a disused nuclear bunker in Wiltshire.
Recent reports identify that over 60 percent of those involved in the industry are now white British – but guess who still tends to the plants? Vietnamese ghosts. To this day there has never been a single successful prosecution of anyone on counts of trafficking, and many ghosts occupy UK prisons, despite having been forced into their work.
"One of the issues that's happening here is people copying the Vietnamese," says Simon Harding. "White British gangs, black, Russians and Albanians. I haven't seen evidence of a partnership, but because these boys are known and good at what they do, even the others will use Vietnamese growers because of their expertise."
Of course, not everyone's recruiting from the Vietnamese gangs. In Birmingham, for example, a trend has emerged that's come to be known as "groppers", or "granny growers", which is exactly what it sounds like. Using hydroponic and high intensity lighting equipment, a number of elderly women – capitalising on the fact that police are unlikely to suspect them of any criminal activity – have set up grow-ops in their homes and the spare rooms in their friends' council houses, and claiming a large share of the local cannabis market in the process.
Away from these criminal enterprises, and on a much smaller scale, home growers have been able to make use of similar cultivation technology – sometimes to grow weed for their own use, and sometimes to grow plants that can be turned into medicines for people who need them, but aren't able to access them legally.
The UK Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC) – a network of local groups across the country which campaign for cannabis legalisation – have started selling a kit containing tags that growers can attach to up to nine plants in one grow location, which are supposed to inform police that your operation doesn't have criminal intentions. The money you pay for the kit goes into a pot that's there to fund your legal defence if your grow-op does get raided by police. Mind you, that pot hasn't had to be dipped into yet – potentially because raiding personal growing operations is no longer a police priority, with Sara Thornton – Chair of the National Police Chiefs Council – saying that cops are more likely to "record" a tip-off about a grow-op, rather than investigate it.
However, while police across the UK are starting to deprioritise the policing of cannabis – and despite countries around the world relaxing their attitudes to medical marijuana – the law in the UK remains stubbornly in place, with the government saying in July that it has "no intention" of making cannabis legal.
Not that the legality of the plant matters all that much, of course: cannabis remains the most commonly used drug in the UK, with around 2.1 million people using it in the last year. The vast majority of this number are likely to have smoked, eaten or vaped one of the many, many strains that falls under the wider "skunk" umbrella.
Your mum might have warned you about it, the Daily Mail might have tried to scare you out of using it, and it's possible the 20-bag you bought last night was produced under highly exploitative circumstances – but one thing's for sure: "skunk" isn't going anywhere.