Saturday, 14 November 2015

Is cannabis really being laced with 'ice'?

For some time now I have been asked by a range of people (parents, teachers and health professionals) whether I believe it is true that cannabis is being 'laced' with 'ice'. My response has always been that I have seen no evidence to support the claim and realistically if such evidence actually existed then I am sure the police and other agencies would be getting that information out to cannabis users and the wider community as soon as they were able to - not only is it an important public health message, it's also a great story and would generate some pretty major headlines across the country! I haven't written anything about it because I hate giving stories like this any oxygen ... they feed into the mythology and hysteria around drugs and drug use and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the tabloids grabbed a line from something I wrote that said I didn't believe it was the case and twisted it around to say that drug educators were concerned about the possibility that cannabis was in fact being laced with methamphetamine!

Unfortunately I have recently visited schools where statements have been made to students by visiting speakers about this practice, with figures being quoted about the actual percentage of cannabis seizures found to be containing ice. Now I am not here to knock anybody who makes a living from giving talks in schools about any topic - none of us are perfect and we all get things wrong once in a while (as I often say to students, if you leave my presentation saying "Paul Dillon said it, it must be true!" then you're an idiot! Be a critical thinker, talk about it with others, go and find out more), but making claims like this is dangerous and irresponsible without damn good evidence to support what you are saying (and having a police officer or an alcohol and other drug worker tell you that it's true is not good evidence!). In addition, a story ran about a woman in the Hunter region of NSW who was found to have cannabis and methamphetamine in her system when she underwent a roadside drug test who claimed she had never used the drug. The conclusion was that the cannabis was laced with ice, with the magistrate quoted as saying "When you buy off the street, you don't what you are getting."

I have spoken to a number of police officers that I know in reasonably senior positions, as well as some people in toxicology, and they have all said the same thing - yes, they've heard of this, but none of them have actually seen any toxicological evidence to support that it is actually happening.

It's important to know that stories about one drug (usually cannabis, but also ecstasy and LSD) being laced or intentionally adulterated with another potentially more dangerous substance have been going around for a long time. Back in the 90s there were many stories in the US about cannabis being laced with PCP, in Australia there was lots of talk about the dissociative anaesthetic ketamine (or 'Special K') being used. The first reliable reference I can find about meth-laced cannabis comes from the US in 2008 (although I was also able to find a 2006 online news article from Canada which also makes huge claims without any actual evidence) and I have included a copy of a news release about a warning apparently issued by police at that time below:

If you look carefully at this story, once again, it states that "the police have not actually seized any tainted marijuana", they've just heard about it ... Interestingly, it's not only the authorities who promote these stories, tales of adulterated cannabis are often spoken about amongst those who smoke the drug themselves. If you take a look at drug user chat rooms there are many references to this issue. Here is one that I have edited down a little ...

"I feel like everyone I meet has some story about smoking weed that had been laced with something by the dealer. They always go something like, "Oh yeah dude I smoked some weed one time a few years ago that was secretly laced with meth" and then they go on to perfectly describe all the symptoms of a weed-induced anxiety attack. It's annoying as hell that people actually believe this old wive's tale invented by mothers to scare kids. Has this ever actually happened to someone in a provable way? Or am I right in thinking it's just an urban legend?"

So why don't I think it's happening? It's simple, it just doesn't make sense, particularly economically. Why would anyone put the most expensive drug currently available (i.e., ice, currently more expensive than cocaine or heroin) onto cannabis? The usual reason given is that it is done in an effort to try to introduce users to other more expensive drugs and hopefully get them addicted ... I love this response to that argument that I found in a drug user chat room - it really says it all!

"Ok, I will buy that there is benefit in getting your customer hooked to a harder drug (if you are certain he will be a faithful customer) but wouldn't the customer have to know it to buy more? I mean, if they bought weed, thought it was weed, they would just go back to get the weed, not the more expensive drugs. I know that cutting drugs occurs, and that they are not scrupulous about what they cut with, but is there really a documented case of a drug dealer trying to hook people by adding a more expensive drug to a cheap drug?"

So say, for argument's sake, you've been smoking 'ice-laced cannabis' for a while and now dependent on methamphetamine (not quite sure how that works and how you would know but let's go with it for now!), does your dealer then start giving you 'normal' cannabis and wait for you to notice the difference? Once you have, do you then go back and say that you want what you were being sold before? If at that point the dealer then said that they had actually been giving you 'ice-laced cannabis', I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be too happy ... Seems like a whole pile of extra work and grief for a dealer - as I said, it just doesn't make sense!

Also, how in heavens do you get ice to stick onto cannabis? Most readers would not have ever seen the drug but let me assure you, it's not sticky! Some people have suggested that it could be sprayed on in a liquid form and would then crystalize onto the plant matter over a period of time. If it was to be heated and applied onto cannabis it certainly wouldn't end up being translucent and clear - no matter what process was used (take a look at this discussion from an online drug user forum where the moderator finally shuts it down with the statement - "you simply cannot lace cannabis with meth'). And once again it boils down to the most important point of why would anyone bother with such a labour intensive process when there is a market for ice anyway? A market that is willing to pay a whole lot more for their drug of choice than they are for cannabis ...

I'm not exactly sure what's going on here but my guess is that it is most probably a combination of things ... certainly it's a fear-based thing and feeds into the whole 'evil drug dealer' stereotype and the idea that taking one drug inevitably leads to the use of other drugs. But I think there's another issue and that's got to do with what cannabis can look like when it is being harvested and at a time when the community is so conscious of the whole ice phenomenon and much more aware of what that drug looks like, it's not too difficult to see how people could mistake what they see as the presence of crystalline methamphetamine or ice.

If you look at the three photographs at the top of the post you'll see firstly in the top left a typical cannabis 'bud', below that some ice and then the larger image on the right shows a bud that looks like it is covered with some sort of crystalline product. What that picture actually shows is 'trichomes'. According to the website Marijuana Growers Headquarter, trichomes look like little white crystals (you can see them quite clearly on the image) covering the plants buds, leaves, and sometimes even stalks. When you look at them closely they are not actually pieces of crystal but translucent resin glands that come out of the plant. These are present throughout all stages of plant growth but they rapidly increase as the plant flowers and is one of the main ways that growers know when to harvest their crop. At full maturity these trichomes increase in size and instead of appearing clear, they start to change to a light amber or a cloudy white colour, looking very much like ice crystals. This is not a new phenomenon, trichomes have always existed (which could explain why authorities in the past have believed that products like PCP or ketamine - both available in crystalline forms - could have been added to cannabis) but at a time when we've become so 'ice aware', if you were to see buds like the one shown above it might leave you wondering ...

As far as I am aware there are no documented cases of this practice (if anyone knows of any and can provide me the data, please do - I will be happy to let others know about it). As already said, stories of cannabis laced with other substances, whether it be PCP, ketamine or ice, have been around for a long time and I doubt whether they'll go away anytime soon. Considering the community interest around ice at the moment it's not surprising that people believe this to be true but we have to be extremely careful about passing these stories onto others without having really good evidence to support what we're saying ...


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