Attention, cool parents: cannabis is no joke


Ageing festivalgoers still treat smoking weed as harmless fun. But its mind-destroying effects can no longer be denied  The festival season looms, mud and music for the wristbanded, tent-toting Glastobunnies, Latitudinarians and Bestivators. Sellers of falafels and fairy wings stock up, headliners and hopefuls load amps, and an MSN survey reveals that without children the average age of festivalgoers is now 35. The average! Even the BBC’s mass invasion of Glastonbury doesn’t explain that.

Of course many festivals are family outings, spawning happy tribal jokes about when Dad couldn’t find the tent after a 3am pee or Mum grumbled that the heavy-metal arena was drowning the verbose miserabilist in the Poetry Tent. Since the free, heady Sixties when my generation defied parental interdicts, festivals have become big business with £200 tickets, media villages and corporate VIP areas. And that’s fine. A British friend exiled in the upper echelons of Italian society mourned at Latitude that her new compatriots are just not “ludic” like us: too elegant to camp and romp and play.

But there’s a side to this romping that I hate. As one friend said, “It’s a moment to revive old habits”, the habit in question being cannabis. He knows that weed will be plentiful, and legal reprisals unlikely. Festival organisers piously warn against drugs but surging muddy crowds are hard to police. Last year the value of illegal substances seized at festivals saw a 75 per cent decline in confiscated cannabis while others, including Class A, rose. This suggests to me not so much a decline in festival spliffery (just stand downwind of one in the dusk) but an understandable reluctance by police to spend time snatching roll-ups from woozy middle-aged ravers who know that nothing worse than a warning or spot fine will result anyway.

So what’s the big deal, why mention it? It’s part of summer, innit, getting down with the kids and mellowing to the music. Why so sour, sister?

I wish I wasn’t, but it is only a few days since we heard that hospital admissions for mental disorders linked to cannabis use have risen by 50 per cent in three years. Psychiatrists warned for years that this could happen, estimating that people who smoked the newer strong stuff (now 80 per cent of the UK market) are many times more likely to suffer psychotic episodes. Youth runs the sharpest risk: a study of young Germans over a ten-year period found that those who started in their teens were nearly twice as likely to develop psychotic symptoms. Other factors (trauma, class, etc) were accounted for. In this country Professor Robin Murray of King’s College London says that even “use of traditional cannabis is a contributory cause of psychoses like schizophrenia”. An American study found that after cannabis became widely available in the US army in Europe, schizophrenia among troops increased 38-fold.

It needn’t even be the strong new stuff: it is fully forty years since Sir William Paton, professor of pharmacology at Oxford, found that even quite limited use could precipitate enduring hallucinations and fragmented paranoid thinking in people with no previous problems.   Let us be cautious and fair. There are more than 2 million users in Britain and most do not become psychotic. Either they don’t smoke enough, or they aren’t vulnerable. It is possible that people with a predisposition to mental torment are more likely to turn to cannabis for comfort anyway. And yes, alcohol is a vast problem too; so are harder drugs.   But slice it how you like, the evidence is ever stronger that young cannabis users not only risk what one study called “significant and irreversible” reduced IQ, but are playing Russian roulette with their mental health.

The criminal courts see cases of violence, including infanticide, linked by defence lawyers to a cannabis habit and resulting delusions. But the likelihood of self-harm is far greater. Which is why I get ever more sorrowful about the nonchalant normalisation of the drug,

and despise those who scoff at the evidence and shrug off their children’s and friends’ use in order to seem free-spirited: joking about being stoned, choonged, zoned, high.

I hate it because those who do suffer, suffer horribly. Patrick Cockburn, the eminent foreign correspondent, wrote movingly about (and with) his son Henry, who smoked joints heavily from the age of 14 and ended up with years of severe mental illness and near-death exploits of irrationality: swimming across a freezing river, climbing a railway viaduct. He would be found wandering naked, and spent years in institutions diagnosed as schizophrenic. Read Henry’s Demons. Then try to get the nearest pothead or stupid-cool parent to read it too.

Because, get this, my friends: psychosis is not fun. Really not. It is not some fabulous doors-of-perception experience from which creative minds return inspired. Some have been lucky with drugs and returned to fame and equilibrium. Lucky them. Others never come back but wander lost in a horrible world of threats and terrors, savage demons and shivering humiliations, cut off from love and health and fun and success and proper adventure. They are driven to the streets, the cells, to suicide. Yes, we all need risk: but the risk of madness is not an exhilarating one.

My sorrow over cannabis-cool has a personal dimension because my own son was a young suicide suffering (probably, from the evidence) from slowly advancing prodromal schizophrenia. It can happen spontaneously, or after physical illness, and so it did. Nicholas was never a drug user, recognising his fragility, and yet the tiger got him. So now I loathe seeing healthy kids deliberately strolling around in the tiger’s cage, assuming that it won’t ever wake up. And I despise adults who turn a blind eye or skin-up alongside their young at festivals, and fashionable role models who giggle irresponsibly about it in self-regarding articles and interviews. They are demons too.

As to the law, it could be that limited decriminalisation, Netherlands-style only more circumscribed, would serve better than our hypocritical semi-tolerance. I don’t know. But above all, just despise it. Bring on a culture of healthy social contempt, award cannabis its “tobacco moment” of declining status. My son, sailing with young Dutch shipmates, reported that they spoke of frequenters of cannabis cafés as pathetic: losers, unattractive wimps. Right on! If youth can’t laugh and relax without chemical assistance, it really is pathetic.


Source:   Libby Purves June 17 2013 

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