Today BBC Radio 5 Live aired a piece in which the father of a young man, who had stabbed his mother and cut his penis off, spoke about why we need to upgrade “Skunk” to Class A. What is strange is that this incident, which occurred in 2013, was originally covered in 2014 and recycled in 2015 with absolutely no mention of skunk or cannabis. In fact the initial articles specified that the young man in question was actually intoxicated with alcohol and Mephedrone (often known as Miaow Miaow).

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It would be very easy to dismiss this article as click-bait sensationalism or to shift the blame from skunk/cannabis to Mephedrone. But that would make me as lazy as the original journalists. The real injustice here is that events like this, on the very few occasions that they occur, are not chalked up to a serious mental health issue within the individual, but rather that the finger is wildly pointed in the direction of the easiest target, often whichever substance the media wants to demonise this week in order to sell papers in a flurry of freshly whipped up fear and misinformation.

Let’s make it absolutely clear: Blaming a recreational substance that is used by literally millions of people week in-week out for an exceptionally unfortunate and horrifically violent act such as this is as lazy and inaccurate as blaming Islam for acts of terror committed by Muslim individuals. The vast majority of people who use recreational or illicit substances do so without causing harm to other people. Fact. It doesn’t matter if it’s Cannabis or Mephedrone. What we really should be talking about are the mental health issues prevalent within societies that cause individuals to commit such acts of obscene violence. And, If you really want to look into drugs and violence, do some research into how many occurrences of domestic abuse are linked with drinking alcohol.

Picking and choosing which substances are and aren’t socially acceptable should not be the media’s job and far be it for me to infer any conspiratorial thinking. But it always seems that so called “Skunk” is featured in the papers at exactly the same time as any official regulatory body suggests some form of legal regulation. On this occasion the British Medical Journal has published it’s latest findings recommending the regulation of medical cannabis which can be found here: BMJ - Cannabis as Medicine

It is important to say that the young man’s state of mind may well have been influenced by the apparent concoction of drugs in his system (alcohol included). There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that those with a predisposition to serious mental health issues shouldn’t take psychoactive substances and that any substance can cause what is called a “precipitating event”, in someone predisposed, that can trigger a psychotic episode or breakdown. These event can be quite literally anything that causes undue stress on the individual or their state of mind. Falling down the stairs or receiving some bad news are examples of more common precipitating events.

There are two issues here. Firstly; the mental health of the individual is not properly brought into question. It’s clear that this individual had a history of mental health problems. He was on medication but apparently was not told how important it was that he continue to take it. He stopped taken it regularly before the events occurred. That these major factors are briefly mentioned and barely touched upon whilst “Skunk” is brazened in the headline is very telling about our ability to address mental health as a society and our desire for quick and simple answers to complex issues. Secondly; regulation. Regulation, regulation, regulation.

When you hear the word “Skunk”, what that really should refer to is “unregulated cannabis”. Comparable to moonshine in the era of alcohol prohibition. It’s not prohibited because it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous because it’s prohibited. At the point of writing I am simultaneously halfway through an article on Skunk, however the topic is too extensive to cover here & now. In short, Skunk is but one of many potent strains of cannabis created by the illicit market to make cannabis more profitable. Suffice to say, with proper regulation comes limits on potency, a range of cannabinoid ratios to suit peoples preference and warnings about safe and proper usage on the product packaging. Sentences like “Should not be consumed if you have a history of mental health issues” printed in bold lettering and advice available from a qualified retailer would be in my list of essentials.

Another role of a properly qualified retailer would be to suggest a safer product for the consumer about to make a purchase. Some may wonder what relevance this has to the young man and his severed penis. Simply put; had there been a legal and regulated outlet for substances such as MDMA, the more dangerous substance Mephedrone might not have ever been created. Likewise with Spice in relation to Cannabis. Both Mephedrone and Spice are “substitute substances”, created purely to take advantage of loopholes in our legal system that meant that, for a time, both were legally available. This is no longer the case since the psychoactive substances act and, despite the events in question occurring before the act was implemented, it’s fair to say that the number of people consuming both has reduced minimally, if at all. It’s time to regulate these substances. Not to be available at every corner shop, but to be distributed by safe and responsible outlets with as much safety precautions and sensible advice as possible.

It’s time to regulate, not because these substances are safe, but because they could be much safer.

Alex Fraser - Membership Director - United Patients Alliance