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What Is ‘Skunk Weed’ and Where Did It Originate?

September 8, 2016
What is “Skunk Weed” and Where Did It Originate?
Anyone who has travelled to even the most minimal extent knows that words can sometimes change depending on area. Over time, these words evolve along with changes to society and the actual people using the words. We’ve already covered the nuances in cannabis industry terminology on a broad level; now we’re going to look into a specific phrase in cannabis terminology: “skunk cannabis,” or as it’s more commonly referred to, “skunk weed.”

“Skunk” in the United States

In order to understand the meaning behind the word, it’s important to take a step back and look at the etymology of the word “skunk.” In the States, the meaning of the term is inextricably linked to everyone’s favorite, liquid-spraying mammal, the skunk. Despite the brave reputation restoration battle fought by the suave Pepé Le Pew, skunks are still mostly known for possessing an amazing defense mechanism, their eye-watering odor.

Unsurprisingly, this descriptor was chosen as the perfect fit for certain cannabis strains that emerged in the 1970’s and seems, in the U.S. at least, to have retained that meaning in the public’s consciousness. “Skunky” smells “stinky”; this is a term that has old-school marijuana references and is probably one of the most common smells associated with cannabis.

“Skunk” in the United Kingdom

“Skunk” in the United Kingdom
The word “skunk” is also commonly used in the United Kingdom, but there the term has taken on a new life and is far more popularly used in a different context.

When media in the United Kingdom speak about skunk, they mean all high-THC cannabis varieties, regardless of their genetic heritage. In the U.K., skunk is widely used as a generic term for non-pollinated, seedless, and potent cannabis flowers grown for the purpose of smoking.

Sinsemilla became widespread in the U.K. in the early 1990s after a revolution in growing techniques, typically incorporating the use of high-pressure sodium lighting (HPS) and other high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps, often combined with the use of hydroponics (i.e. growing plants in nutrient-rich liquids rather than in soil).

The First “Skunk” in Cannabis Culture

The First “Skunk” in Cannabis Culture
For some smokers, skunk has simply become another generic word for cannabis. Not only is the generalization inaccurate, it also undermines the true genetic identity of the plant, as true skunk is an independent strain with its origins dating back to the 1970’s.

In the 1970s, growers in the USA began to crossbreed short, mountain hashish strains, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan with the tall, potent sativa cannabis strains from Central and South America, and strains from tropical Asia. These cross breeds could be grown outdoors in marginal climates in the USA such as northern California, in greenhouses in the Netherlands, and indoors under HID lamps.

Later appropriately named Skunk #1, the first skunk was stabilized as a true breeding variety in the 70’s and is still one of the most consistent and predictable strains available today. Breeders produced a plant that is highly adaptable, very potent, and with a short flowering period.

The original skunk cannabis strains were known to have a very pungent, dead animal-like smell reminiscent of a skunk. Thus, the name has stuck because it is fitting.

Skunk #1 is a hybrid strain that has influenced cannabis on a global scale, parenting a horde of skunk crosses. The strain was developed during the early 1970’s in California by a group of growers and breeders known as Sacred Seeds, led by the mythological David Watson who is more widely known by his moniker Sam the Skunkman.

Following his release from prison in 1982, the Skunkman brought several kilos of these seeds with him when he moved to the Netherlands. Once there, he made his way to Amsterdam, where he founded Cultivators Choice seed company. Dutch growers have since refined and cross-bred the plants to produce a number of strains including Super Skunk, Early Girl, Northern Lights, and Jack Herer.

Reefer Madness in the U.K.

"Reefer Madness" in the U.K.
Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in the U.K., although its consumption in recent years has fallen. The proportion of 11 to 15 year olds in England who had used cannabis dropped from 13.3% in 2003 to 7% in 2013, while the proportion of 16 to 59 year olds using cannabis in the same period fell from 10.6% to 6.6%.

Still, the variety of cannabis colloquially known as “skunk” has attracted much publicity in recent times. Much of this publicity is inaccurate, describing the strain as a “super-weed” and even implying it is a new drug entirely. Skunk is simply a variety of cannabis developed for indoor cultivation, producing hybrid plants, with early flower development, and a pungent aroma.

According to DrugWise, traditional cannabis contains 2 to 4 percent THC with more potent varieties averaging 10 to 14 percent. Claims that skunk is 20 to 30 times as powerful as “traditional” cannabis are simply spurious. A European review of cannabis potency in June 2004 concluded that the overall potency of cannabis products on the market had not increased significantly because imported cannabis dominated the market in most countries. However, as home-grown cannabis has become more widely available, especially in the U.K., consumption of stronger varieties has increased.

Generally, the UK media cover cannabis accurately, but some of the headline writers occasionally overstep the mark. The Sun‘s article, “Scientists warn smoking ‘skunk’ cannabis wrecks brains,” and the Daily Mail‘s companion pieces, “Proof strong cannabis does harm your brain” and “cannabis TRIPLES psychosis risk,” were not based on sufficient evidence to justify the extravagant headlines.

The first study found that skunk users underwent structural changes in the corpus callosum. This type of study cannot prove cause and effect, only suggest a possible link, so “proof” is by far too strong a term to use. Also, the study didn’t look at how the small changes in the brain associated with skunk affected thoughts or other brain functioning, so it was not fair to say skunk “wrecks” the brain.

What this study doesn’t tell us is whether these structural changes do any harm or cause any negative mental health effects, which is why The Sun‘s headline is too strong. The study simply didn’t look at this, and the effects of cannabis use are not firmly established.

This study wasn’t designed to look at the effect of skunk on mental health illnesses, only small changes in brain structure, so it tells us little about the link between cannabis use and the development of a mental health illness. Of course, cause and effect cannot be illustrated with a study like this. By definition, the only type of connection here is a correlation, and correlation does not necessarily equal causation.

Regarding the study which served as a basis for headlines such as “cannabis triples psychosis risk,” there are shortcomings in the research that are not addressed in the sensationalized headings. While Sir Robin Murray, professor of psychiatric research at King’s College London, doesn’t wholly discount the findings, he warns that the study doesn’t provide a causal link:

“The argument initially was that the people who are going to smoke cannabis are a bit odd anyway … In south London, two-thirds of people have used cannabis and it seems unlikely that two-thirds of people are abnormal.”

Crucially, skunk and hash use was self-reported in this study, so we have to assume that participants knew what they were smoking, and can only guess at the true levels of THC and CBD in the cannabis being used. Ideally, samples would have been taken and the precise levels of these cannabinoids assessed, but this isn’t practical in studies of this size and design.

This meant that researchers had to rely on patients being good judges of how often they smoked, how much and, most importantly, what they smoked. Considering there are all sort of street smokes sold all over South London, like synthetic powerful highs known as “Spice,” the findings become even more controversial. A more refined, close to reality reporting would have been obtained if blood tests and analysis had been made.

The problem with the term “skunk” is that it’s almost totally ambiguous. Sure, it pertains to strong weed, but there is a real lack of concrete information on the product that people are consuming, hence the necessity to generalize it as skunk.

“Skunk Cannabis” Summarized

"Skunk Cannabis" Summarized
We’ve learned that skunk is not only an adjective employed to describe the distinctive smell of cannabis in the U.S., it’s also a general term that is used as a blanket description for all potent, high-THC strains in the U.K. This strain also has genuine pedigree; it’s a 70’s superstar that has been transformed, kept up with the times, and exerted influence down through the decades to become a staple in the weed world.

What is the reason behind the division of meaning, though? Why does skunk imply stink in the U.S. but potency in the UK? My theory is that the lack of information regarding cannabis in the U.K. is so severe, especially in terms of identifying genetics and true lineages, that the term “skunk” is used as a convenient catch-all for unidentified weed.

Just as the term originally developed to describe a potent, aroma-rich strain in the U.S. and the Netherlands, the term “skunk” never lost its association with strong weed in the U.K. Essentially, a misunderstanding occurred. While in the U.S. a very specific cannabis culture emerged allowing the identification of myriad strains, that development never happened in the U.K. Skunk became the street nomenclature of last resort and emerged in popular culture as the go-to label for any high-THC strain.

In the U.K., people haven’t stopped smoking cannabis because it’s illegal, but they’re subjected to the dangers of an inferior product with no quality control, no freedom of consumer choice, and no thorough testing or data on strain genetics. Unfortunately, anti-cannabis crusaders like to possess a core argument to maintain the illegality of cannabis, and skunk is a convenient target.

The term “skunk” embodies the problem in microcosm: a general term masking a dearth of knowledge as a consequence of prohibition. As always, the solution should be more accurate information, not less, leading to better informed and safer consumers.

Ross Scully's Bio Image

Ross Scully

Ross hails from the west coast of Ireland but currently resides in Seattle, where he is a product manager for Leafly.

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  • CajunAggie

    Every time I catch a wiff of a dead skunk, I can’t help but think of some tasty, smelly, (and often bricked up) weed from the 70s and 80s. 🙂

    • Philip Cammarano

      It is too bad they used to brick it up that so messed up the potency, can you imagine what some old Columbian gold or red would have been like if it was just all bud! I intend to find the seeds to redo my childhood experiences, only the weed will be grown to it’s maximum potential and it will be cured properly and savored as I should have those years!

  • Sergio Farias

    Educational article.

    • Mark McCombs

      Yep. Not news.

      • Sergio Farias

        This is not news, this is just an educational article for people that want to learn something new about cannabis.

  • Granger Null

    I think every one in the in the UK is odd, but here in The USA it is much worse.

    • lovingc

      Too many like you.

    • jobb

      here here

  • jdaniels1

    In 1975 my older brother,cousin,and I leased two acres from a farmer in southeastern Oklahoma. It was next to a pond so rainfall wasn’t a problem. My brother had a frat brother that lived in Fla. and had a connection for bulk seed. To make a long one short the plants by the end of summer were 12 to 18 feet high and we had to bend and bind them under our camo nets. We harvested at the end of Sept. and sold the bulk back east. We put the stems and cuttings in mason jars and when you took the lid off after a week or two the skunk smell was overwhelming and after a joint your were couched for the day.

    • Jeffersonman

      Got any seeds left?

      • jdaniels1

        Sorry, we planted two more seasons and got popped. Spent 18 months in El Reno Fed.

        • SpiralDreams

          Man, that sucks. Your adventures sound comparable to my Dad’s at the same time. Sad to say it but I’m glad you only got 18 months,. I’ve heard stories of people getting life for the same.

  • mister faustus

    Great bundle of info on “skunk.” I will say though, here in Southern Minnesota, ever since I was a young smoker, at 14 or so, we used the term “skunk” to mean a specific strain that 1. it always kicked ass, whatever it was, and 2. it always smelled just like a skunk, when burned or just bagged. It was only later I generalized the term to mean “potent weed,” “kind bud,” or “fire,” as in the UK, since all the best smoke seemed to smell like a skunk.

  • Cherry Connolly

    thought there would be so info on why the scent similarities?

  • Ed Zeppelin

    THAT is some good reporting right there. That’s what that is.

  • B. Alvn

    My roommate grew some real skunk from some seeds from some Humboldt outdoor…just 3 or 4 plants…we lived on the 3rd floor, back from the street quite a bit. When they were ripening, the smell got so intense when you opened the front door from the street sidewalk you could smell it, at least on some days…not exactly like the animal but pretty close actually…the smell of actual skunks has a slight sweetness to it, which not everyone knows…this strain is well-named. Luckily no cops noticed, but the neighbors (and postman and lots of others I’m sure) must have known. Good times!

  • Keith Barron

    Skunk weed is just weed that stinks like a skunk when it’s smoked. It usually means a bad quality of weed, but that isn’t so true, since great weed can smell skunky, too. This article is BS.

  • timmy hite

    skunk is bad news. hell at that point why don’t you just inject heroin or meth, snort cocaine, or smoke crack ? cuz it’s just as bad. I had a friend who was a stand up guy for 30 years. for some unknown reason he bought a few skunk seeds for high dollar, and grew some giant plants. he proudly showed them to me. he harvested them, got rid of most of it. but he was also starting to smoke it daily. a short time later he threatened his wife, she called the cops, and they SWAT teamed his house. he got thrown out of his own house, and his wife divorced him. the next time I stopped by, he was super paranoid and was acting funny and sort of confrontational for no reason at all. he was imagining threats that didn’t even exist. so I stayed away for almost 2 years. well I stopped by to visit him and he flipped out on me, was in really bad shape mentally and physically, and threatened my life and my son’s life, for no reason at all. completely delusional. so much for skunk weed. if you want to end up threatening or killing your own family or close friends, cuz you went nuts, keep smoking and growing skunk weed. if you want something that strong, just shoot heroin and kill yourself quick already. really. this dope stuff is assinine and stupid. wake up and smell the coffee. that stuff took a mild mannered, hard working guy, who was a good person and friend, and turned him into a delusional psycho, who is headed for a life in prison, unless he gets off that crap.

  • Dustin Murray

    Not True. Skunk Bud existed long before 1973 when Mr. Skunkman crossed Acapulco and Columbian Gold with Afghani and called it Skunk Bud. I’ve grown or purchased each of these and I dare say none of them smelled like skunk. Skunk bud is a favorite of many people including myself. When you open the bag, the house smells like a skunk sprayed. The legal strains of skunk that myself and others have tried in Colorado, don’t have much if any skunk in them. The smell of skunk from skunk oil and the smell of skunk from a marijuana plant are the same. They both produce oil that contains a Moietic called Thiol. It’s difficult to determine if the skunk or the plant had it first. Marijuana plants can absorb, duplicate and produce moietics. It is not entirely impossible that skunks sprayed while in Cannabis fields and the plants came to share thiol. These genetics have high resistance to insects and could have originated thousands of years ago.