BBC journalist never tried Thai ganja, feeds ‘skunk’ hysteria

David Shukman of the BBC claims that “The weed so familiar to many of my generation was characterised by a relatively balanced amount of THC and CBD” when compared to today’s hybrid strains. This is true only of traditional hashish from regions such as Afghanistan, Morocco, Lebanon and Nepal. Because old-fashioned cannabis resin is made from landraces that have been selected for resin production and had little selection for potency, it does indeed often exhibit a roughly balanced 1:1 THC:CBD ratio. But even back in the ’60s and ’70s, an era in which we are told cannabis was a more innocent and far gentler plant, there was plenty of imported pot in which CBD was often entirely absent and THC levels could be very high. Typically, this took the form either of refined cannabis oil ormore usually—of high quality ‘ganja’, meaning cured unseeded or lightly seeded flowering tops from the tropics and subtropics.

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A traditional ganja strain flowering in Manipur, in the Indian tropics.

In Thailand, Malawi, or regions such as South India, the strains of cannabis that have been grown for centuries to produce ganja most often have little or no CBD and can even exhibit levels of THC comparable to those of so-called ‘skunk’. Back in the hippie heyday, such pot was given informal underground brands like Thai Stick, Swazi Red, or Colombian Gold.

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Traditional Indian ganja (‘herbal cannabis’) from Manipur, Northeast India.

In 1975 and 1976 the Laboratory of the Government Chemist reported Thai with as much as 17% THCand that was after the bud had spent months on boats reaching England. THC levels such as this are far from unusual in Southeast Asia. In the ganja growing heartlands along the Mekong River generations of farmers have provided a continuous selective pressure for high potency. A key part of the underground cannabis economy in Thailand has traditionally been formed by specialisists who produce high quality seed, which is then supplied to farmers when they are commissioned by well-connected patrons to raise a field or two. The best of any season’s harvest comes from such fields. Similarly, in the Imphal Valley of Manipur, all farmers and personal growers know to keep seeds from good (i.e., potent) batches of ganja for sowing the following season.

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A garden of ganja plants midway through harvest in Manipur, India.

Clearly the selective pressure in traditional ganja growing is less intensive than that of the modern so-called ‘clone’ method for breeding skunk, in which selected ‘mother plants’ can be kept indefinitely under 24-hour light regimes. However, the cumulative effect over generations of traditional ganja farming can result in very strong cannabis that’s often devoid of CBD. Analysis of samples from tropical India indicates that CBD is typically absenteven in some of the milder Bengali strains. This was the case in the ’60s and remains so today. Regarding THC levels, further evidence that the potency of modern hybrids is far from unprecedented comes, once again, from British seizures. In the words of the Home Office, as recorded in Hansard:

The latest data from the Forensic Science Service Ltd (FSS) show that the average tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of mature flowering tops from plants, otherwise known as sinsemilla, seized and submitted to the FSS from the 1 January 2008 to the present day was 14.0%. By comparison, during the same period, the average THC content of traditional imported cannabis and cannabis resin was 12.5% and 5.5% respectively.

On average, skunk (the FSS called it ‘sinsemilla’) showed only 1.5% more THC than ganja. So much for many times more potent. And, importantly, only in hashish would THC have been offset by a similar quantity of CBD.

In fairness, the BBC’s reporting on cannabis does seem to be improving. Buteven if unwittinglyAunty is still feeding the skunk hysteria.

Postscript:

Looking again at the LGC data I see that in ’78 a sample of Indian cannabis resin showed 26% THC. Customs bagged a 16% THC batch of Moroccan resin in ’75, and a shipment of Pakistani resin with the same strength in ’78. And then there are the concentrated extracts‘hash oils’with Indian, Kenyan and Pakistani samples all hitting around 40% THC. Simple extracts of this potency need to be made from starter material with a high cannabinoid content. The most potent was 48% THC oil from India seized in 1975. This is likely to have been prepared from tropical ganja plants rather than northern, Himalayan charas landraces.

The LGC does make the important point that “Cannabis resins normally had higher THC contents than most herbal material…”. Typically, the ‘herbal cannabis’ reaching UK shores during this era was of fairly low potencymid to low single figures THCeither because it was from poor stock, or had degraded en route. This does, to be fair, support the kind of line Shukman is taking, though not the current media focus on CBD. Historically, ganja is most unlikely to have contained CBD in any relevant quantity. Some of the best bud to reach Britain in the ’70s appears to have been coming from southern Africa, such as Rhodesianow Zimbabwewith a sample hitting 12%. Nigerian and South Indian ganja seizures were milder, at 7.4% and 7.8%less potent, but still entirely without CBD.

Manipuri (2)

Manipuri ganja landrace in full flower, Imphal Valley, Northeast India

Should Thai ganja be seen as exceptional? Perhaps for this era in the UK it should, though both the proportion of samples available from seizures and ample anecdotal evidence suggest there was plenty of it about in the country, in addition to the stronger resins and concentrated oils. The LGC points out the unique appearance of the “Thai Stick” brand: “Green or brown sticks of several seedless tops tied around bamboo with a number of sticks compressed into a slab.” I’m sure there are readers who recognise this, either from having seen the real thing back in the day or on their travels.

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Thai sticks, as shared on Facebook by Peter Maguire, author of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade

The LGC figures suggest that the potency of Thai seizures peaked in the early to mid ’70s, and then began to decline after the Vietnam War and the Fall of Saigon. It’s not clear whether this sample is indicative of changes at the source in Isan, Northeast Thailand. But as the authors state, in ’75 and ’76 “by far the highest quality cannabis originated in South East Asia (exclusively in the form of “Thai sticks”) and this was reflected in its street price, at least in the United Kingdom, over the same period. However, the 1978 seizures which originated in Thailand, while still prepared in the form of sticks, showed a dramatic decrease in THC level compared with previous years. A careful study of the physical appearance of seizures of Thai origin for the three years revealed an increasing seed content in the cannabis.”

To take a contrarian line, perhaps the changes that have occurred in the UK over the last two decades are about catching up to highs the market, and its consumers, had already reached in 1975.

Mango Thai crop2

‘Mango Thai’, a Lao ganja landrace from Vientiane Province, grown indoors

13 responses to “BBC journalist never tried Thai ganja, feeds ‘skunk’ hysteria

  1. Quite right. Good article.
    And all you have to do is travel and you will see that the old strains still available around the world are just as strong as the new strains available in wetern nations.
    The other funny thing about this is that Australia and the USA smoke this stuff too but Britain is the only one having a skunk freak out.

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  3. Yep the dangers of high potency cannabis ‘issue’ is a total red herring useful only for feeding the neo-reefer madness going around these days.

    I smoked great Thai weed back in the mid seventies, there were also great Columbian strains as well some very decent Red, Gold, and Rainbow. Thai eventually became stickless but the potency was still very high. Remember one particularly memorable batch which was called Buddha Stick. Quite dark with a few huge mottled seeds, large with an eighth or more on each stick. Remarkable stuff from around 1980.

    • Yes, discussion around the issue of potency has always been confused. It’s not just a modern Western thing either. Historically, the perception in India has been that charas (hashish) is the great danger. Second in order of evilness was ganja. By contrast, bhang was seen as far safer. Yet if you look at the doses a bhang eater consumers compared to a typical charas smoker, I bet just as much THC gets eaten or drunk when someone takes a dose of bhang.

      Great to hear about 70s and 80s Thai ganja – the Buddha Stick brand was also used in Australia in the 90s.

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  6. back in the day when I started smoking dope, one could find some wicked Congolese weed, very moist and super cured, that got me fucked up and hallucinated as well as today’s strains, which all feel the same at the end of the day (not bad, but similar). Back then, a Kerala COULD NEVER be mistaken for Durban Poison, Columbia Gold, Lambsbread, Acapulco Gold. Each strain had its own identity and its own way of making you fly. Now, almost all the weeds I’ve tasted in recent years in Holland, Cali, etc… taste and feel similar (notice how it is where the stuff is legal that it is increasingly “manufactured” for the masses). The only time I’ve felt something different and “old school” was with stuff that was homegrown, left alone and certainly not doped to maximize yield, potency and so forth. Sometimes I think that legalization was a bad thing and that we should have just decriminalized use.

    • hi – yes, it’s ever increasing homogeneity. The more people hybridise everything, the more it all becomes the same. This is quite literally happening at the genetic level – continual loss of biodiversity the more everything gets crossed and crossed.

      About legalization: whether it turns out to be a good or bad thing all depends on whether it’s done sensibly or not. Potentially, a lot of good can come from it in the most important areas, ie for health, breeding, small farmers, consumers

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