The strength of Irish cannabis has more than doubled in the last decade leading to increasing numbers of young people seeking treatment for addiction and psychosis.

The strength of cannabis resin coming from Morocco, in particular, has been increasing at a particularly fast rate in recent years compared with cannabis herb (marijuana). This increase in strength is a response by Moroccan producers whose product has been squeezed out in recent years by home-grown herbal cannabis, according to a European-wide study published in the scientific journal Addiction.

“Cannabis markets in Europe have changed dramatically in the last 10 years”, the reports lead author, Tom Freeman, told The Irish Times. “There have been real developments in the extraction of cannabis resin from the plant matter and this has increased the potency dramatically and significantly. It’s a response to domestic, European cannabis production. It’s a way for Moroccan producers to make in-roads in that market.”

Cannabis resin contains far more of the active ingredient THC per euro’s worth, the study states, which can be seen as better value for money for the user. THC is the psychoactive component of the cannabis drug, which gives users the ‘high’ feeling. The resin also contains much less cannabinoid (CBD) – a non-psychoactive substance – compared with previous years.

Data collected from 28 EU member states based on drug seizures show the average potency of cannabis resin has increased from 8.14% THC content in 2006 to 17.22% in 2016. The potency of herbal cannabis increased from 5% to 10.22% in the same timeframe.

A wide variety of tests can be used to detect cannabis, including urine, oral fluid, hair as well as nail clippings. All of these tests vary in their windows of detection so recent or chronic use can be established. In addition, ingestion as opposed to environmental exposure can be distinguished.

Drug testing cannabis with urine

The quickest way to establish whether someone is misusing cannabis is by using urine drug testing. The donor provides a sample of their urine in a fully-contained screening pot, which is then analysed for particular substances. As well as being quick, this method is accurate and provides an immediate result.

Urine drug testing is known as a ‘narrow-window’ form of testing as its period of detection is only a few days, although this can depend on the particular substance taken. AlphaBiolabs’ urine drug test kit can analyse 14 drugs and their metabolites. Most drugs will be flushed out of a person’s system in a matter of days. Drugs including cocaine and methamphetamine can be present in urine for roughly 3-5 days, but cannabis can stay in urine for as long as 28 days after chronic use.

Drug testing cannabis with oral fluid

Oral fluid drug testing involves analysing a sample of saliva. The entire test takes 20-30 minutes and involves placing a large swab inside a donor’s mouth for a few minutes to soak up sufficient saliva. This is another ‘narrow-window’ form of testing and is therefore a quick test to determine recent cannabis use. Its period of detection is approximately 30-60 minutes after ingestion – up to 48 hours – although, again, this can depend on the particular substance taken.

Drug testing cannabis with hair

A more comprehensive overview of a person’s cannabis use can be established with hair drug testing. This is a ‘wide window’ form of testing and can determine a history of drug intake for up to 12 months. After cannabis is absorbed into the bloodstream, metabolites are absorbed through the root of the hair and become embedded in the hair shaft. These metabolites remain in the hair as it grows, hence it is a suitable method for detecting a person’s historical cannabis use.

By segmenting head hair samples into monthly 1 cm sections, a month-by-month profile of drug use can be attained. Analysis of small segments can help establish a positive hair test in a narrow timeframe, but unlike oral fluid and urine tests, hair strand analysis cannot show recent drug history. It takes between 7-10 days for the hair containing the drug to grow above the scalp.

Hair strand analysis can also detect environmental exposure to cannabis. Each hair sample is chemically washed three times to remove or reduce any drug present prior to analysis. If a donor admits to being surrounded by cannabis smokers, the washing solution could be used to back up any test results.

Drug testing cannabis with nail clippings

Nail drug testing can give an overview of cannabis use for up to 6 months. The drug can be detected in nails because when it is consumed, its metabolites circulate in the bloodstream. These substances pass from the blood vessels below the nail into the keratin fibres as the nail grows. They then become trapped and can thus be detected. Either fingernails or toenails can be used for the test. Approximately 10 mg of nail is required in total and they need to be collected as close to the nail bed as possible.

More people seeking treatment

The potency of herbal cannabis, particularly home-grown strains, has been a matter of significant concern for health and addiction workers in recent years because of its connection with severe mental health problems, including psychosis. For the first time, cannabis use is now the primary reason for people entering drug treatment at a European level, according to Mr Freeman.

Ireland has seen a steady rise in cannabis users entering drug treatment since 2007, and many treatment groups now offer cannabis-specific programmes, such as Coolmine, the Peter McVerry Trust and the Tallaght Rehabilitation Project. In 2007, about 1000 people entered drug treatment because of their cannabis use. By 2015 that figure had risen to about 2750.

“We are getting more and more young people with psychosis and all sorts of stuff related to cannabis use”, said David Marsh, a drug treatment worker with Dublin-based Coolmine. For information on any of AlphaBiolabs’ drug-testing solutions, please call 0140 29466 or email us at info@alphabiolabs.ie