"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. 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. 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. 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.