We’re such stoners that 4/20 isn’t just a day, it’s an entire week. And it’s not just weed we love, it’s the act of smoking and everything even loosely related to breathing in toxic fumes — whether that’s chain-smoking cigarettes, vaping Juuls, suffocating a rack of ribs, or hell, even committing arson! Welcome to our exploration of all things smoke.
When I was 15, a friend and I headed to Camden Market, which back in the mid-2000s was considered by most people living in the English suburbs to be the mecca for purchasing weed. Those with booths there would sell secretly on the side, and the stores that lined the high street often had basements filled with pipes, water bongs and legal highs like Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid that’s sometimes used to make joints.
My friend and I met the weed dealer (aka Superman) in a KFC. After handing him the £25 we collected from our allowance, we were given a box of chicken bones, under which was a loose bag containing a mixture of green and light-grey buds. Having never seen weed outside of Google images, it made sense that it tooks us about 90 minutes before we realized the weed we were sold was of bad quality and completely ineffective (so much so that we couldn’t even pretend we were high).
But the urban legend that you don’t get high the first time you smoke wasn’t to blame. Instead, we were dead sober because weed in London is absolute shit. I mean that literally, too: Earlier this month, researchers at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid found that cannabis sold on the streets in European capitals, including London, were contaminated with human feces. This was partly because the weed was being smuggled in by human drug mules who swallow it and later poop it out with the help of laxatives. But this isn’t the only example of how bad weed is in London: Regular smokers say that not only is it expensive (around $28 to $40 for 3.5g), it tends to be “too weak,” “too strong,” “dry” and/or “stale.” All of which means smoking weed in London has “a weird aftertaste, like you’ve inhaled a bunch of toxic air.”
“London is filled with shitty weed,” says Dan, a drug dealer based in East London, who you may remember as the guy who sells legal viagra to men who are too afraid to ask for it at a pharmacy. I hung out with Dan as he was preparing for a big night selling product nearby the O2 Arena, where Drake was scheduled to perform. Dan was expecting to sell a lot of pills, and he lined up small, see-through baggies of cocaine in a blue plastic box propped open on his dashboard. In his glove compartment was a box of baggies of weed that he sells at $25 a pop; he wasn’t, however, expecting to sell much. “There’s definitely this idea that weed in London really sucks, but it’s more complicated than that. You can go to places where you’ll get all the high-end shit — hybrids, rare strands of [weed], a lot of stuff imported from California. But they’re usually pretty exclusive.” One such example is London’s secret “cannabis coffee shops” such as the U.K. Cannabis Social Club, where access to hundreds of different stains is invite-only.
Thus: “People just accept shitty weed in London,” he says. “If you’re someone looking for a fun night, or if you just want to smoke, it does the job — but that’s it. Nobody actually expects it to be good.” (For his part, when Dan sells bags of cannabis, he often does so along with other drugs, and sometimes, he’ll throw in a free bag of weed just to get rid of his stock.)
Tom Usher, a London-based writer for VICE who has written extensively about drugs in the U.K.’s club scene, agrees. “People do coke at parties because they want to run head first into each other socially like rhinos fighting,” he tells me, “But weed here is shit. It’s either too strong and zombies you out or mixed with all types of shit like Thai weed or hash.” As a result, Usher says, London is in a situation where “weed is grown all over the city, and there’s a big supply of it, but it’s usually crap quality because of how its grown artificially and what kind of chemicals are used.” Plus, there’s little incentive for drug dealers to grow better weed, especially if they’re dealing on the street or through apps like Wickr (a popular place for dealers to connect with customers), WhatsApp or Facebook.
“The thing about growing weed is that there’s fuck all profit,” Usher says. “When you grow it yourself, you have to put a lot of time, energy and resources into growing it at the right [temperature], and you have to be precise. Usually, you need the space to grow it, and because it’s illegal in the U.K., you need to grow it in a place where you avoid the police.” This, he says, is in stark contrast with manufacturing pills and cocaine, where a pill press — the tool needed to make capsules — is relatively inexpensive and can be bought easily on the Silk Road. Furthermore, “you can make loads of pills by cutting as little as 30 percent of the substance” with other chemicals like Lidocaine, Hydroxyzine, or Phenacetin. Overall, Usher says that you can make up to $2,000 in profit by selling 100 pills at a London nightclub.
Some regular weed smokers are expecting things to change soon, however. The British government has already suggested it’s open to altering laws around recreational weed use, following its easing of access to medicinal marijuana last year, allowing doctors to more easily prescribe drugs with THC- and CBD-based substances. Some doctors believe that criminalization of cannabis has directly led to the circulation of dangerous strains of the plant. This kind of weed is known as Skunk, which if smoked regularly can lead to severe psychosis. As another dealer tells me, “Dealers want to sell the strongest weed they can because it leads to more customers. So even at a production level, the kind of strains you get are the strongest and [contain] the most chemicals.”
Because of this, both medical professionals and business leaders in medicinal marijuana believe that eventually the U.K. will have no choice but to shift cannabis production to a regulated, mainstream commercial market. “The best way to reduce the role of organized crime in the supply of drugs is to put it in commercial hands and to price it appropriately so people don’t need to go to the illegal market,” North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones, among the country’s most senior police officers, said earlier this month.
How would this affect Dan, or any other drug dealer’s business? He believes it would mainly make the rest of his/their merchandise more attractive. “When you get rid of the weed dealers, they don’t just vanish,” he explains. “They’ll move to something else that they don’t understand, that the person buying it doesn’t understand and it’ll cause a whole other mess.”