What is in soap bar?

Interview with Neil Montgomery, Director of Research, ISPS (Institute for the Study of Psychoactive Substances)

What kind of research have you been doing on hashish, for people that don't know yet?

It became obvious in the mid 1990’s through my anthropological research into cannabis use in the UK that concern was growing among the cannabis using community about the quality of a particular type of imported cannabis resin, commonly known as ‘Soap Bar’. Numerous articles in cannabis related publications and in some national newspapers warned of the widely reported, undesirable effects of ‘Soapy’. The Cannabis Resin Impurities Survey Project

(CRISP) was established in early 2000 with a mission to uncover through chemical analysis whether or not there are indeed impurities in ‘Soap Bar’ and what these impurities might be. Ethnographic research was initiated to collect and examine ‘Soap Stories’, and particular attention has been paid to occurrences of the use of, and discourses on, ‘Soap Bar’ while conducting other research projects involving cannabis and cannabis use.

Would you assume that most hashish on the European market is contaminated?

It’s difficult to assess just how much of the cannabis resin consumed in the European market is likely to be contaminated; I think levels rise and fall for various different reasons, not only throughout Europe as a whole but also within each country. For instance, in the UK, in the late 90s and the early years of 2000 there was a distinct increase in home cultivation, some of which was quite large scale, well-organized production and distribution, so demand for resin dropped as relatively potent ‘bud’ became readily available. It seems likely to me too that this increase in home cultivation had emerged from an increase in Customs activity surrounding heavily publicized human trafficking, which made mass importation of resin or herbal cannabis much more problematic. Now, however, because of the success the police have had here in closing down these so-called ‘cannabis factories’, and a more relaxed condition of search at borders for human trafficking, the prevalence of hashish, particularly ‘Soap Bar’ is on the increase again.

Is there any reliable way to tell, or should users just stay away from hashish and buy marijuana instead?

Hashish could be described as a cannabis conserve; the fibrous material, likely to deteriorate, is removed, in different ways, and the bulk of the psychoactive component is kept, contained in a smaller, more durable volume. There are many, many types of well-known hashish and potentially as many types as there are types of plant. ‘Soap Bar’ is quite distinctive in its shape; the 9-Bars (nine ounces or approximately one quarter of a kilo), which are formed as cooked product is sealed in plastic then cooled giving a pillow shape to the bar and thus the nickname. Edges are curved and tend to be shiny; the hash is hard and brittle and has an unpleasant smell when roasted. Good quality hashish tends to be malleable and a bit sticky, or if firm it fluffs up when crumbled, whereas ‘Soap Bar’ turns gritty. While cannabis use remains illicit users will tend to remain uneducated about not only the types of cannabis but also the different effects to expect from these different types. This lack of education about cannabis among users and non-users is perhaps the most socially debilitating effect of prohibition. The lack of choice is also a problem, and I don’t mean that flippantly; because ‘Soap Bar’ is so cheap it tends to be consumed by youngsters and people on low incomes and because it is more readily available than say ‘Silver Haze’, those on the fringes of the illicit market, like therapeutic users, tend to end up with it through ignorance; in short, those members of society that could be described as more vulnerable are the ones most exposed to the contaminated product.

What kind of contaminants did you find?

During pharmaceutical analysis some samples of ‘Soap Bar’, provided to the laboratory by HM Customs and Excise, were examined using standard procedures for HPLC, GLC and TLC analysis. During the dispersal procedure on one of the samples a black viscose residue emerged that appeared to be liquorice; another sample seemed at this stage to be 80% soil. These samples all appeared to contain excesses of wax but some samples did not appear to contain adulterants or contaminants in as obvious proportions as others. One sample exhibited a large yellow spot anomaly in the Thin Layer Chromatograph, which the laboratory considers to be ‘significant’ and most likely a phenolic compound. All the samples we analyse have to come from a licensed source so, thankfully, the Institute for the Study of Psychoactive Substances has been supported in its research by HM Customs and Excise, the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office and the Crown Office, and can proceed with stage two of its research as soon as funding becomes available.

Is your report available to the public?

The first report detailing Stage One of CRISP will be published soon on the Institute website www.psychoactive-research.com

Are the contaminants dangerous?

The study is primarily designed to investigate whether impurities exist and what they are; whether they are dangerous or not is quite another question, but one that can most likely be illuminated by the results of our research. Dangers will often emerge from forms of consumption rather than forms of impurity; for instance it seems that eating liquorice is probably not dangerous, but is smoking it?

Would you say that there is a difference between good and bad quality hashish, or is most of it mixed with some sort of filler?

Like anything else good quality is better than bad quality, certainly in the realm of hashish both exist.

How has the situation developed since you first did your research?

The landscape is constantly changing, however, slight progress seems to have been made with the provision of cannabis based medicines and research into the Cannabinoid System, but we are still a long way away from being able to say that society is living comfortably with the plant, particularly as a recreational substance.

Are you aware of any differencies between countries in regards to quality?

Those Countries that have a more relaxed attitude to the recreational use of cannabis tend to have a better quality product available and more choice for the consumer than those Countries that adopt a strict regime of prohibition. This is a lesson the world should have learned from the Volstead Act in 20’s America.

Do you feel that the government or health ministries are trying to play down the fact that cannabis is contaminated? Have you been in contact with any of them?

I suspect that most Governments and Health Ministries are concentrating on the perceived risks of cannabis use and thus regard cannabis impurities as a matter of secondary importance. ISPS will distribute the findings of CRISP on its completion to as many Governments and Health Ministries within Europe, and further afield, as possible.

Have there been any health issues reported for smokers ?

The most commonly reported unpleasant side effects of smoking ‘Soap Bar’ are a headache, sore throat and a tranquilized effect unlike the typical cannabis‘stone’. These reports come from users who compare their experience to smoking other forms of cannabis. Smoking, and the health issues related to it are of course far more reaching than the consumption of cannabis.