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Section 5 - The Cannabis Market

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The variety of products and prices within the UK cannabis market is not usually revealed by official statistics. Police and HM Customs sometimes give cash values for amounts seized, but these figures are often disputable, and the means by which they are calculated are opaque. Variations in availability and prices by quantity bought, and by region, are obscured by variations in different police forces' reporting methods, which are not made public.

Home Office statistics distinguish between 'Cannabis Resin' and 'Herbal Cannabis', but not usually between varieties within those broad categories. There is considerable variety in potency and composition. Cannabis users do distinguish between brands where a choice is available, although they seem less well-informed about their choices than in the past. We asked what percentage of their usage was of each variety (the market share), which they preferred (rated from 0-10), and what they would usually pay for them in various quantities. As well as the more common varieties we asked about a fictitious variety, 'OT' and about 'other/unknown' hashish and herbal cannabis for the benefit of those who either don"t know what they are buying or don't care.

Cannabis for personal use is almost universally sold in 'imperial' measurements of fractions of an ounce. Common 'deals' are 1/16oz (1.75g), 1/8oz (3.5g), 1/4oz (7g), 1/2oz (14g) and 1oz (28g), with the unit price decreasing with larger amounts bought. Moroccan resin typically appears in the UK in º kilo (approx. 250g/9oz) 'bars', and the units of measurement used are usually metric above this quantity. Asian 'black' resin would commonly appear in kilo blocks. Imported herbal cannabis would normally arrive in the UK in the form of dried fruiting tops compressed into blocks.

The most common 1/8th price is £15, and the most common ounce price £90, although "eighths" can sell for anywhere between £10 and £20 (typically £13 to £15), and ounces typically from £75 to £100. Significant numbers of respondents reported lower than average prices for resin, and higher prices for herbal cannabis, particularly the hybrid varieties such as "Skunk". (Tables 5.4 & 5.5). The proportions of regular use claimed for some rare varieties have probably been over-reported and the more common varieties under-reported.

Cannabis Resin (Hashish)

Legally known as 'Cannabis Resin', hashish or hash accounts for roughly two thirds of UK consumption. By far the largest proportion comes from North Africa, known as Moroccan hashish. The other common source is the Indian sub-continent, producing the softer, darker "black" resins from Afghanistan, Pakistan (e.g. 'Red Seal'), India, and Nepal. Lebanese hashish was popular in the UK until the mid 1980s, although it is rarely seen now.

Hash from Morocco and the Lebanon is usually produced by sifting mature cannabis plant tops through fine sieves until a resinous powder remains, which is compressed and heated into blocks sealed with cellophane or cloth. The hash may be any colour from a dark yellow through reddish-brown, to dark brown. The consistency is normally hard and brittle, sometimes layered (light Moroccan) and sometimes slightly malleable (Lebanese).

The method usually used in the Indian sub-continent involves rubbing the resinous tops of the plant with hands or implements, allowing the resins to stick to skin or leather. These are then scraped off and rolled into lumps, and later compressed into blocks. The colour is usually dark-brown to black on the surface, lighter inside. The consistency is normally soft, and a lump can be moulded into various shapes. Some 'black' -type resins are now imported from Central Africa.

The range of potencies (measured as THC content by dry weight) found in seized hashish has varied from under 1% to 26%, but would typically be 3% to 8%. Prices vary from £70 to £120 per ounce, typically £85 to £95, or £12-£15 per 'eighth'.

Asian Resin

The average reported retail price per eighth ounce across the UK for Asian 'black' cannabis resin was £14.83, the average UK ounce price was £90.68, and the average 'nine-bar' price was £648.30. Expressed as prices per gram, these would represent £4.24, £3.24 and £2.59 respectively. Users gave it an average rating of 7 out of 10 and a 9% share of the overall market.

Moroccan Resin

The most common type of cannabis available in the UK, accounting for 35% of the total. Dark Moroccan resin, also known as 'Soap Bar' or 'Black' is dark brown in colour, sometimes greenish, with a shiny exterior. Quality is extremely variable and the average rating is 6.9/10. The average retail price per eighth ounce across the UK was £14.41, the ounce price was £88.34 and the average "nine-bar" price £629.26. As prices per gram, these would be £4.12, £3.16 and £2.52 respectively. It usually arrives the UK in 250g blocks approximately æ inch thick, wrapped in clear cellophane, like a block of brown soap, often with a makers imprint.

Light Moroccan or 'slate' is normally found in thin slabs around º to * inch thick and light brown in colour, which is normally poor to medium quality, and crumbles to a powdery texture on heating. It is becoming less common, taking approximately 19% of the market in 1994. Average rating was 5.7/10 The average retail price per eighth ounce was £14.22, the ounce price was £86.80, and the average 'nine-bar' price was £617.87. Expressed as prices per gram, these would be £4.06, £3.10 and £2.47 respectively.

'Soap Bars' had 16% of the reported market share, almost certainly under-reported, as most respondents would not now differentiate between 'soap' and 'slate', 'Moroccan' would now almost always represent the soap-bar type.

The price differential at retail level between Moroccan and Asian "black" resin has substantially disappeared; the comparative 1984 prices of Moroccan were 35% cheaper than black at the retail level; in 1994 the differential was only 2.9-4.3%. Prices at "nine bar" level now reflect a similar differential, with 250g of Moroccan roughly £20-£30 cheaper than the same weight of Asian resin. Prices for 1 ounce or over were not gathered in 1984.

Lebanese Resin

Lebanese resin appears in blocks up to 1 inch thick, wrapped in coarse white cloth commonly bearing a makers trademark. Quality is variable. The colour is gold/blond to dark red-brown and it has a pungent aromatic aroma depending on age and quality. Average rating was 6.6. Average prices were £14.42 per 'eighth', £88.65 per ounce, and £639.02 per 'nine-bar', or £4.12, £3.17 and £2.56 per gram respectively. Now rare (5% of consumption would appear to be an overestimate), but the runaway market leader in the 1984 survey.

The eighties prices for Lebanese were only 60-70% of those of 'black', this price differential has now been eroded, so perhaps users now pay a premium for novelty or nostalgia value.

Herbal Cannabis (bush, weed)

Referred to in UK law as 'Cannabis', herbal cannabis accounts for roughly one third of UK consumption. Also known as 'Bush, Grass, Weed, Ganja, Herb, Draw, Marijuana, Sensi' etc. Normally what is sold is the flowering plant tops, with or without seeds. The presence of seeds indicates a lower quality product. Material which contains only leaves is generally considered of poor quality. Premium prices are normally paid only for indoor-grown intact or manicured flowering buds with only the smaller surrounding leaves remaining.

Herbal cannabis can be sub-divided into three distinctive quality ranges, Home Grown (rated 5.6), Imported(7-7.9), and 'Skunk' and other hybrids (rated 8.9). The different ratings of these varieties were reflected in the unit prices.

Potencies of herbal cannabis may range from 0.3% to 22% THC according to age, presence of seeds, method of storage and variety of parent plant. These would typically be 1%-9% of dry weight for compressed imported cannabis with seeds, 5%-15% for prime manicured buds or indoor hybrids, and 0-4% for leaf ,. Herbal cannabis tends to be consumed more rapidly than hashish. (Table 5.2) This may be partially due to deals of herbal cannabis containing amounts of stem (5-15% dry weight) and seeds (0-30% of dry weight), resulting in less usable material than the equivalent amount of resin.

Home Grown (leaf)

This is the lowest quality (average rating 5.6), normally green leaf material or whole plants, especially those grown outdoors which would commonly bear some seeds. It accounts for 8% of consumption. The mean 1/8oz price of home grown herbal cannabis range was £7.26 (£2.07 per gram), ounce prices £46.85 (£1.67 per gram), and a 9oz (250g) price of £132.15 (53p per gram). In each case the lowest price, and the most commonly reported, was zero, i.e. the cannabis had been given away free. Although 'other/unknown bush' is generally assumed by buyers to be imported, some of it may be high quality homegrown.

Imported Herbal Cannabis

Considered to be of medium to good quality with an average rating 7.2, most imported cannabis comes in compressed blocks of dried flowering and fruiting tops (with seeds), most commonly originating from Africa or the Far East (e.g. Thailand), with smaller amounts from the Caribbean. In total, these imports account for 21% of consumption.

Mean reported prices for one eighth ounce ranged from £15.12 (African) to £16.89 (American/Caribbean), or £4.32 to £4.83 per gram. Mean ounce prices ranged from £92.51 (other/unknown bush) to £99.24 (American/Caribbean), or £3.30 to £3.54 per gram. Mean 250g prices were from £620.42 (African) to £674.33 (other/unknown) or £2.48 to £2.70 per gram. African cannabis can sell for as little as £10 per 'eighth', or £70 per ounce, although £15 per eighth and £90 per ounce are the most common prices. Overall, prices of imported bush are slightly more expensive than cannabis resin, typically in the range £80 to £110 per ounce.

Skunk and other hybrids

The proportion of cannabis grown in the UK would appear to have doubled between 1984 and 1994, most of this being attributed to indoor cultivation of better quality cannabis strains. These make up 13% of reported consumption. Such plants are typically bred for short stature, bushiness, early flowering and high flower/leaf ratio. Most of the highest potency buds (17%- 22% THC) grown indoors in the UK have used high intensity lights and traditional organic-based compost, rather than a hydroponic growth medium.

The name 'skunk' refers to a particularly pungent, but not unpleasant-smelling hybrid variety which has been very well publicised by the press and police in recent years. Much of what is sold as skunk is simply buds of any indoor variety, and as such the quality is not guaranteed. Premium quality cannabis is found in manicured buds with a minimum of surrounding leaves, and few or no seeds. It is mostly grown by individual users with little leakage onto the open market, although commercial-scale operations have been seized by police. Occasionally it is imported from Europe. The mean reported prices for "Skunk" were £21.26 per eighth ounce (£6.07 per gram), £128.79 per ounce (£4.60 per gram), and £888.85 per º kilo (£3.56 per gram). Other hybrids, particularly 'Northern Lights' have their followings, and command similar prices (typically £100-£160 per ounce), and a range of other exotic varieties (e.g. 'White Widow', 'Jack Herer') have become available. There appears to be little evidence to support a common police 'skunk' valuation based on unit prices of £10 per gram or more.

Other/Unknown Cannabis

Around 10% of reported hashish use and 7.5% of herbal cannabis use are "other" or "unknown". Some of the 'other' was rare or exotic varieties not listed on the survey form, and where respondents gave information about these the answers were coded appropriately - e.g. 'charas', a very high quality hashish from the Himalayas, went under "Asian Black". These were typically very small proportions of total use. Most of the respondents seem to have meant 'unknown' in that they did not know, or perhaps care, what the ultimate origin of their supplies was. If anything, the results suggest today's cannabis users to be less sophisticated than their predecessors, with little awareness of origin besides broad terms such as 'Rocky', 'Black', 'Bush' and 'Skunk'. The 18% of the market buying 'Other/Unknown' hash and grass support this theory.

Geographical variations in price

There were some differences in cannabis prices related to the type of area (i.e. urban/rural) the respondents lived in, but none of these variations with locality were statistically significant, except for 250g 'soap' bar resin, Thai and African bush. Although 'Home Grown' prices tended to be lower in rural areas, this was not significant due to the very wide variations in prices (Table 5.6).

There was very little regional variation in cannabis prices between areas within the UK, although they were slightly higher in the South West, and lower in Scotland. The range of prices for most varieties was narrowest in Scotland (Table 5.7).

Comparison of the market profile with seizure statistics

Of the 94,847 police and Customs seizures of cannabis products in 1994, 64.4% were of resin, 29.5% of herbal, 6% of plants (total herbal & plants 35.5%) and 0.1% of liquid cannabis ("hash oil"). The respective proportions in this survey (56.7% resin, 41.8% herbal), tended to underestimate resin by around 8% and overestimate herbal by around 6%. The very much higher proportion of oil reported in the survey (1.3%), as well as the unexpectedly high reported levels of Lebanese probably result from selective memory underestimating usage of common varieties and overestimating the rarer types.

Other price surveys

The Drugs Intelligence Laboratory (DIL) and Customs & Excise (HMCE) price lists provide no information on how the data was gathered, although these are understood to derive from police sources. There appears to be little consistency in cannabis prices quoted from different police areas, some quoting genuine 'ounce' prices, others an ounce price based on the equivalent eighth or sixteenth ounce price. In February 1994 DIL quoted UK average prices of £100 per ounce, varying between £80 to £140 both for herbal cannabis and resin, with 'skunk' prices quoted from £140 to £160 per ounce. In March 1996 HMCE quoted a UK average resin price of £94 per ounce, varying between £60 and £120, with kilo prices from £1600 to £3500, and a herbal price of £105 per ounce, varying between £50 and £140, with kilo prices from £1500 to £3500, and 'Skunk' prices quoted at an average of £160 per ounce .

The 1994 Release survey of street drugs agencies questioned staff at drugs agencies throughout Great Britain, finding that the price of both cannabis and cannabis resin was fairly constant at £15 per 1/8th ounce, with ounce prices quoted at £100 per ounce, and varying between £70 and £120. Neither the Release nor the police surveys state the number of reports on which prices are based (sample size), or the type or origin of cannabis or cannabis resin involved.

Economics of the market

Cannabis prices are virtually uniform throughout the UK, with little if any variation in price by region or by locality. Although prices are now roughly double those reported in 1984 (e.g. Moroccan resin at £14 per º oz or 7g), most of the intervening rise in price took place during the period 1985-87, and cannabis prices have remained more or less stable ever since. The 'drought' of Moroccan resin during early 1986 did not appear to have any long-term effect on prices. Although 'skunk' and other varieties have become more common, these types form a small fraction of the market, and such supply tends to be informal, rarely involving any organised criminal syndicates or large-scale production.

Cannabis trading in the UK is apparently a responsive free market , where choke points in the supply chain from overseas grower to consumer have little or no effect on the overall market. There are choke points provided by Customs and police activity, which other agricultural luxuries such as olives or coffee do not experience. From the evidence we have it seems that those pressures must act in the same way as the tariffs and subsidies which are used to make agricultural markets efficient, by stabilising prices and availability. Surpluses are diverted and destroyed by legal action, or redirected by suppliers to other parts of the market inside the UK or elsewhere, or warehoused. Shortages are responded to by flexible supply and distribution networks obtaining the product from multiple sources. Prices are more variable in larger quantities, indicating that the bottom of the supply chain is responsive to consumer pressure. Traders in this sort of market have, in economists" terms, a 'reasonable expectation of normal profit'. Another economic model which might fit some of our evidence is a national monopoly, which would also provide stable prices and availability, but that does not fit with the range of sources and quality, or with the conviction and seizure statistics.

Estimating prevalence from arrest indicators

A total of 582,204 persons had been convicted or cautioned for cannabis offences up to and including 1994. If these persons represent 21.2% of regular users (the proportion of respondents "busted"), the respondents to this survey would represent some 2.75 million individuals. At average consumption of 24.8g per month per person, this group would consume some 817.3 metric tonnes of cannabis products in 1994, worth £3.5 billion at street level. The true figure could be higher or lower, depending on a number of factors including whether the proportion of respondents, mainly festival attenders, who had been 'busted' was representative. Given the likelihood that festival goers (attenders of outdoor events) may be up to twice as likely to be arrested for drugs as other users, and the year on year increase in cannabis arrests, these figures probably underestimate the size and current value of the cannabis market in 1997.

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