AT THE end of the Nineties, when I was editor of the Independent on Sunday, I launched a campaign to decriminalise cannabis that became, perhaps, the most notorious and hotly debated newspaper campaign of the day.
My reasons for wanting a change in the law were straightforward. It didn’t seem fair that occasional cannabis users were being branded criminals, while it was perfectly legal for heavy drinkers to cause untold damage to themselves, to their families and to society as a result of their habit.
More pertinently, I believed that if cannabis was legalised, it might stop young people from experimenting with harder, and infinitely more damaging, narcotics.
That may seem like perverse logic - after all, many anti-drugs campaigners claim that cannabis acts as a ‘gateway’ drug to cocaine and heroin.
But the way I saw it, if there was a gateway effect, it was because the dealer who sold you cannabis might try to sell you something harder. I believed that if you could take the sale of cannabis away from street dealers and into strictly controlled legal outlets, then we could break this vicious chain.
My campaign was pilloried by many sections of the Press, not least by this newspaper. But, ultimately, I suspect it served as a catalyst that eventually led to the reclassification of cannabis from a Class B drug to Class C - the same level as steroids - which Labour introduced in January 2004.
So why now, 15 months later, do I find myself wondering about cannabis all over again? Why do I have a lurking fear that cannabis users today are playing Russian roulette with their mental health? Why, too, has Tony Blair now hinted that he is looking again at the legislation and may yet reclassify cannabis as Class B?
It all began when I found myself sitting next to an old friend at a dinner party. He had supported my cannabis campaign, but he was now having second thoughts. The reason for his change of heart? Three teenagers he knew were suffering psychosis as a result of smoking an enhanced type of cannabis known as skunk.
Put simply, psychosis means suffering from delusions and hallucinations. And what was beyond doubt for these three boys was that skunk had caused a dramatic, sudden and very distressing change in their personalities. They had become withdrawn, paranoid and suffered wild mood swings.
A couple of weeks later at a party, I had a similar conversation with another close friend, whom I will call Fiona.
Fiona’s son, Craig, had also suffered psychosis as a result of smoking skunk and was in a bad way. Her graphic description of what had happened to her son chilled me to the core.
Craig is dyspraxic and as a consequence he’s always been shy and somewhat anxious.
Dyspraxics have poor hand-eye coordination and find school difficult: sports are all but impossible and sufferers may end up isolated and often bullied as a result.
WHEN Craig first started smoking cannabis in his late teens it seemed to help him relax and make friends. Fiona hadn’t worried.
Like me, she grew up in the late Sixties and always regarded the occasional puff of dope as harmless, something that made you mellow and giggly.
But that’s not what was happening to Craig. ‘I noticed that what he seemed to be smoking smelt different,’ said Fiona. ‘He was changing: he went into rages, he became incomprehensible and paranoid. He was convinced he was worthless. The skunk would help him sleep, but then he’d wake up and be desperate for more.’ Craig’s problems became more acute and he became an inpatient in a psychiatric clinic where he was under the care of Dr Mark Collins. Dr Collins has long been an expert in the field of drugs and addiction, but he has noticed a marked increase in the past five years of people suffering from cannabis psychosis.
Interestingly, his patients, and those of other doctors and therapists in his area of medicine, are always young men (Collins’ last ten patients have all been male).
What was going on?
Disturbed by what Fiona had told me, I decided to investigate.
I began by going to meet Dr Collins and asking him about the new kind of psychosis.
‘Cannabis psychosis mimics classic schizophrenia or a manic illness,’ he explained. ‘People develop paranoia, strange delusional beliefs, hallucinations.
They lose insight into what is going on. The worrying thing is that it doesn’t go away when you stop using the drug. These patients stay ill for a long time.’ Most, though not all, of Collins’ patients had exhibited some schizophrenic or manic tendencies before they began smoking skunk. But crucially, he believes that in most cases their symptoms would have remained benign were it not for the heavy use of this new type of cannabis.
SO WHAT is it that had changed the relatively mild drug which so charmed my generation into today’s monster?
The answer lies in the way that cannabis is now grown.
Thirty years ago the cannabis sold on our streets would have mostly been illegally imported from Morocco, Afghanistan or the Lebanon. It would have been grown naturally and came in varying strengths, but nothing overpowering.
Skunk, by contrast, is a superstrength variety of cannabis resulting from growing specially bred seeds ‘hydroponically’ - in special mixtures under artificial lights.
These intensive farming methods produce a drug which is utterly unlike the cannabis of the past. The key difference is the content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The cannabis I used to smoke contained around 1 per cent THC. Skunk sold on London streets today has up to 30 times that amount. Dr Mark Collins likens this intensively farmed cannabis to some intensively farmed chickens.
‘You feed them on steroids and chemicals and they become almost poisonous.
Cannabis that is intensively farmed, blasted with fertilisers, chemicals, artificial light and had its genes tinkered with, warps the natural plant into something wholly different.’ Interestingly, Rastafarians, well known to smoke cannabis, will not touch skunk on the grounds that it has been grown by these artificial methods.
THC acts on the brain receptors and strong doses, used repeatedly over long periods, cause the brain to release huge floods of dopamine, a chemical which can unbalance a developing mind.
Recent research has shown that those who smoke skunk heavily have a four times higher risk of being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, with the severity of the symptoms linked directly to the amount smoked.
Scientists now suspect that there may be a genetic link, too, with some people up to ten times more susceptible to cannabis psychosis than others.
I called a friend, Julie Lynn-Evans, who is a highly respected child psychotherapist. She didn’t mince her words. ‘Skunk is one of the most serious things on our streets today. I would rather my daughter took heroin.’
Her explanation was chilling in its rationale. Heroin addiction can be cured, but the horrendous effects of skunk on some young people cannot. The symptoms of skunk-induced psychosis are permanent.
Julie explained what this means in the real world, out on the streets.
‘Gangs, or crews as they’re known, of 14 and 15-year old boys wearing hooded tops get stoned and seem not to care about ethics or morality.
‘Unlike the old-fashioned dope, skunk makes people aggressive: they’re stealing, breaking into cars and snatching phones.
Many of them are middle-class kids who were smoking at their public schools and ended up at tutorial colleges in London after being expelled.
‘I do a lot of work with the police and they are very worried about this new wave of juvenile crime.’ Julie went on to describe how, even when these youngsters try to stop smoking skunk, they suffer horrendous symptoms: ‘They hear voices and have alarming mood swings. They feel very fearful and will go to any lengths to get more skunk.’ This was not what I had campaigned for.
Not by any stretch. How on earth had this happened?
I spoke to Amanda Neidpath, founder and director of The Beckley Foundation which works with the Government on drug policy and the science of drugs, who explained how skunk has supplanted the milder versions of old.
‘It is now so easy to grow high strength cannabis in Britain under polytunnels that people no longer import so much,’ says Amanda. ‘It is cheaper and easier to sell the stuff that’s been grown here in the UK under artificial conditions than it is to import cannabis grown abroad.
‘What is particularly frightening is that there is no way for someone to tell what they are buying. Imported varieties of cannabis, like the stuff that used to be smoked in the past, are now far more expensive than UK grown skunk - it is little wonder that most people opt for the cheaper variety.’
HER views are echoed by Dr Clare Gerada, head of the Drugs Misuse Unit at the Royal College of General Practitioners, who said that enhanced more powerfulk forms of cannbis ‘are now the norm rather than the exception.
In fact, in many cases it is difficult for users to buy anything else.
‘With higher potencies more widely available than ever before, it is time we looked again at the health risks.’ For some, it may already be too late. Two cases this year have shocked the nation to the core.
Last month, Mark Hobson was found guilty of the savage murder of two sisters, Claire and Diane Sanderson, and of an elderly couple, James and Joan Britton, in their home.
Hobson had once been a hardworking family man but something had made him capable of unrelenting horror.
Back in January, 16-year-old Luke Mitchell was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of his girlfriend, 14-year-old Jodi Jones. He had once been described by teachers as a bright, attentive and popular pupil but in the months before the murder had become introverted and prone to violence.
One thing linked both culprits, beyond the brutality of their actions. Both were young men who had become heavy users of cannabis - most probably skunk - in the months before their crimes. Friends of Mitchell said he used cannabis ‘99.9 per cent of the time’, while Hobson’s ex-wife revealed that a combination of alcohol and cannabis had ‘rotted his brain’.
Now we learn that the chief suspect in the stabbing of Abigail Witchalls, who took his own life this week, was likewise a heavy cannabis user. As one of Richard Cazaly’s former employers put it: ‘If Richard’s committed a violent act of that intensity, then I think the authorities should be looking at cannabis psychosis, because there’s no doubt he was a doper, someone who smoked cannabis regularly.’ I am certainly not suggesting that cannabis use leads inexorably towards extreme violence. But I do now believe that, just as roughly 10 per cent of the population will develop alcohol problems, so will 10 per cent of cannabis smokers develop problems with skunk.
Moderate use of both intoxicants will cause no problems, but heavy use of either can.
And it’s not just the extreme cases that can lead to tragedy.
Even those with relatively moderate side-effects can have their lives destroyed by smoking highstrength cannabis.
When my friend Fiona’s son Craig came out of hospital, he stopped smoking skunk and took up a place at the London School of Economics, but he found the social pressure of living in a university hall overwhelming and started to smoke again to try to fit in.
He suffered a seizure, went on to heavy medication, got behind in his studies and is having to redo his first year. He is now back at home living with Fiona.
‘He accepts that skunk has horribly exacerbated his problems,’ she says. ‘It creates such a feeling of edginess and paranoia that when you’re coming off it, you just want to have more to take the feeling away. I think you have to have a very strong sense of yourself not to be affected by the drug - something that teenagers don’t have.’ What, then, can be done to prevent others from falling victim to the skunk phenomenon? In the Netherlands, which has long had a liberal approach to cannabis, the Dutch government is considering legislation to ban skunk, on the grounds that it is unlike all previous strains of cannabis and should instead be reclassified as a hard drug.
might seem the sensible option - but it is not one that I favour. I believe that the present legislation in Britain regarding cannabis is confusing enough already, without having separate penalties for different strains. So why not ban it altogether?
Again, it is my personal belief that this would not work in practice. There always have been and there always will be recreational drugs in our society and penalising users will not resolve the crisis we are encountering with skunk.
Far more important now is that people can have open access to honest, sensible information about this new type of cannabis.
At a recent conference, the Royal College of General Practitioners said that doctors shied away from questioning patients about drugs, due to their own lack of knowledge and concerns about confidentiality.
When even GPs do not understand the dangers of skunk and cannot advise their patients accordingly, then we are truly betraying an entire generation of youngsters, many of whom will experiment with drugs at some stage in their life, just as they have done for decades past.
As Mark Collins says, it is time that we treated young people as grownups.
Skunk is a new phenomenon and is clearly a danger which we need to face up to honestly and openly or the consequences for society will be dire.
It is time, in short, for a new cannabis campaign - one that makes it clear that smoking skunk can destroy some young lives for ever.