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The Story of ‘Skunk’, the Drug Your Mum Warned You About

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.

Photo: Luiz Rampelotto/SIPA USA/PA Images

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.”

Rooms full of cannabis plants found in a police raid on a Woolwich, London property, which uncovered a vast network of cannabis factories run by Vietnamese gangs, 2006. Photo: Glenn Copus/The Evening Standard/PA Archive/PA Images

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.

Photo: Jake Lewis

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.

Cannabis plants tagged with a UKCSC tagging kit. Photo: Jake Lewis

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.

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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.

skunkman sam

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.”

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.”
“[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.”

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.”
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.
In other words: simplifying the issue in order to push policy or write a scary headline probably doesn’t do justice to those suffering.
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.
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?

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.

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.

Personally I do not believe that he bred anything in California, and used other’s work and claimed it as his own. Ie., California Orange. Jerry Kamstra bred that strain and wrote about it in 1973. David claimed he developed it. He also claimed to have personally developed Skunk, but I knew several that grew that and skunkweed was ALL over NorCal by 1977, and it was highly variable. As for Haze. who knows. The version that seems most believable to me is that Haze was bred by a Santa Cruz surfer and one or two other guys that were not brothers and not named Haze. David simply lifted their genetics and sold the seeds, like he did other strains. He seems to be good at marketing and empire building. I do not know any that are good scientists, engineers or technicians, AND good at empire building. The people that develop technology are ALWAYS ripped off by someone else, and the ones that rip them off are always the ones that make the killing. There is what Watson claims, and what the rest of the world claim. Of course he says that he was ripped off by Nevil, but I believe Nevil on that score. Nevil paid David for the goods. I say touche’ for outsmarting the fox in the hen house. David went on to make a killing as well, several times over. And avoided any prosecution in Holland, which is. well, unbelievable without some sort of divine intervention.

Forget all the VICE and Strain hunter crap.
As for Sammy Skunk, Dr. Beanstein or Dave Watson (if that is his real name) and GMO? If you believe that CRISPR is GMO, as I and many others do (flipping, splicing and editing genes), then I believe he is guilty as charged. If you do not believer that CRISPR is GMO, then I guess you can acquit him. I believe that CRISPR should be labeled as GMO. But ‘they’ are trying to get around that in a global debate.

Interesting. Though I do not attribute his knowledge as being as deep as claimed, by him and many others. To me it seems superficial. Or flat out contradictory. Davis Watson has many aliases, AKA: Sam the Skunkman, Sam Skunkman, Sam Selezney, KnowItAll4Sure, Jingles, Selgnit, Dr Frankenbeanstein, Hemp Guy, and likely a dozen other aliases. Mario Lap, Joe Pietri and Steven Hager have written and posted a lot about him. I have also had several conversations with one of his aliases in print, mainly on IcyRag before I was banned there. What struck me was and is his version of what happened around Monterey Bay in the 60s and 70s, and my own personal experiences there are 180 degrees apart. I was around Santa Cruz, Capitola and Corrolitos a lot in the 70s. I was perplexed by his replies early on, and amused when I dug deep into who he was. The oddities and contradictions added up fast. He has many aliases. I can find no photos of him. No one I know or knew in the Monterey Bay area smoked anything called Haze until later on. No one knew of any Haze Bros growing $250 an oz weed in the 70s. For that matter, no weed there then went for anything near $250 an oz. Not even hashish or Thai sticks sold for that much. One version which I am inclined to agree with is that the real Haze Bros. were in New Jersey, and they sold Haze around NYC for some insane prices in the 70s. But even this is likely inflated from reality.
Big Sur, you’ve said some things in this thread that I find really interesting. We’re about the same age and I think similar background in a lot of ways, except weed. You grew up in California in the thick of the action in the 1970s and you were, from what I can tell, pretty deeply involved in the weed scene. I grew up in South Jersey and never saw a Thai Stick or much more exotic than Colombian, for the most part. So I really appreciate your first-hand accounts of what was, or was not happening in the California weed scene in the 70s.
Yep yep. So true. I was there. 1969 Detroit. Terry Reid and BB King opened up for the Rolling Stones AND we were out of our minds with Thai Stick! Top 5 concert for sure! And then there was the two grocery bags of peyote buttons hehe.
IMJ, Amerika lost her innocence in the 60’s starting with the coup in ‘63; the sadness was the loss of many friends from death, suicide and addiction due to Nam.
I think we have to draw the GMO line someplace. CRISPR is genetic engineering. Mr Watson tries, as others do, to label CRISPR as being “like hybridization”. Sorry, but I do not see any similarity, or that standard breeding will ever get you to where CRISPR does. Its like them saying that TEL was great for gasoline. And that global warming is a myth. “Don’t worry, modern industry will take care of you.” All in the name of profit, and some rich fat cats being retired someplace. Like Mr Watson is now after pawning off his several companies.
Because that whole history remains completely and utterly clouded and full of false flag stuff and lies and cheating.

Amusing to be so quoted. I was born the same year as Nevil. I was in NorCal and Oregon from the late 50s to the present as a participant and observer. I have my memories of many wild times. I guess I am slated to be a chronologist of those events? I have no ego to protect or product to peddle, and the statute of limitations are up and/or weed is legal in the states that I have lived in. I do not sell seeds either. Some people have contacted me on several forums to complain about my seeds! Sorry guys, I have never sold any seeds through any channels (except in bag weed back in the day). Given away or traded seeds? yes. Sales? no. Though that has become a controversy in itself, in that people do not believe that I froze many now otherwise non-existent strains of seeds, or that Cannabis seeds can be frozen and remain viable. You can look on 420rag at my posts there of my older list of strains, and all the flap that those posts have stirred up (google: original source seeds from the 70s). Back in the 70’s pretty much every bag of weed had seeds. People threw them away for the most part. Free genetics for the tossing. I collected and froze the better weed seeds. Also in the 70s there were the hippie ideals of he late 60s, free love, peace and understanding. In the 80s he hippies became yuppies grabbing cash, buying houses, and all the rest. Anyway, I am intrigued with people’s interests in the weed scene in California in the late 60s/70s/80s. Many keep asking me about it, and I am putting together a book of short stories with a theme similar to In Watermelon Sugar. I am interleaving that with a simple book on growing weed, based on the theme of my first and favorite book on growing weed, called The Complete Cannabis Cultivator by Mary Jane Superweed.

Interesting read. The GMO-CRISPR debate is one I’ll stay out of but I am a student of weed history and find a lot of this discussion interesting, and

Before these developments, the majority of weed floating around the UK came from the Netherlands. In 1994, eight people receiving methadone treatment in