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3rd February 2014

Cannabis: The other side

Tim Harcourt-Powell tells the story of a student struggling with a major cannabis problem

She gingerly draws her tongue along the adhesive and smooths it down. Her fingers nimbly squeeze and roll. Holding it up to the light, she inspects her work. She’s done it. Sam has rolled a joint, one foot long.

Cannabis has enjoyed relatively positive press lately. Uruguay announced their intention to legalise the use, retail, and production of the drug. Colorado has created the world’s first regulated recreational cannabis market. But whilst recent news seems to all be in favour of leniency towards the drug, naturally this isn’t always the case. Back in 2009 Professor David Nutt, former chief drug advisor to the Government, was asked to leave his position following a lecture on drugs policy in which he asserted that cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. Opinion was split over Nutt’s statements, and the man himself ultimately saw his dismissal as a political move (Subsequently he reinforced his view that, despite what he had said, the drug was not safe). The fact that the countries top drugs advisor and the government fell out so publicly over cannabis demonstrates the schism the matter generates.

The dangers of smoking, alcoholism and ‘harder’ drugs frequently make the headlines, billboards, or sides of buses. For example, take the numerous anti-smoking adverts which have proliferated our lives in recent years, the many alcoholism or heroin story lines offered in the soaps, or last years PMA/Ecstasy scandal at The Warehouse Project. But the darker side of our favourite illicit drug is rarely shown.

The UN describes cannabis as the ‘most widely used illicit substance’. According to the UK governments 2012-13 Crime Survey, 6.4% of adults aged 16-59 used cannabis in the last year. But despite this, or possibly because of it, it is often seen as a ‘soft’ drug. A common argument for its safety is its roots, literally. Because it comes from a plant, the thinking goes, it is a ‘natural’ drug, therefore it can’t be that dangerous. Unfortunately this argument is undermined by, if nothing else, dealers bulking up their crops weight with contaminants in order to increase profit. FRANK, the government’s drugs education service, reports that a study has found cannabis ‘adulterated with henna, lead and aluminium’.

But this aside, another great risk remains. This is where Sam comes in.

Sam is tall, with a shock of fiery ginger hair and a pale complexion to complement.  She is a close friend, and is undeniably dependent upon cannabis. She doesn’t hold a job, and relies on money from her parents and friends to live. Before smoking cannabis she played netball to a high standard. But her once porcelain-like complexion has turned to an haggard pallor.

‘Do you have a hoodie I could borrow?’ She once asked me, ‘I need one before I Skype my mum…’

She wasn’t cold or envious of my sartorial choices. Her mum had sent her money to buy food, bus fares, and winter clothing. None of the aforementioned items were ever purchased. The money, instead, bought her weeks supply of Cannabis. She needed to borrow a hoody to keep up the pretence.

A few months later the ‘Bank of Mum’ wised up. The bailouts dried up, and Sam received supermarket deliveries and packages instead. With her primary income diminished, now as her little bag of weed starts to dwindle Sam can be seen with her hands rummaging down the side of the sofa in an attempt to scrape together enough money. It’s also common to see her pleading to borrow money from her flatmates. The list of debts is growing.

When the weed goes missing, you quickly glimpse another side to Sam. A desperate side: storming about the house, turning it upside down, irritably shouting at housemates trying to recover her drugs. When it’s found, the reunion is almost touching.

Sam spends most days, and often nights smoking cannabis. Apathy, laziness, general lack of perception, dulled senses, hours lost melting in to the sofa, are just some of the numerous side effects. Conversationally, Sam tends to be slavishly obsessed with talking about the drug, too.

The cynic may see this as a result of personality rather than drugs. Initially I assumed that this was the case too. But as I started asking around, I found Sam’s story echoing again and again. The most harrowing I heard from Polly, as she told me of her ex-partners decline in to the drug’s embrace. She spoke slowly, pausing for the right words. Her eyes dropped and her fingers toyed with one of her many bracelets.

“Before smoking weed he was active, with a balanced diet, and on track to a decent sports related job, such as coaching. He had a part time job and had over £3000 in savings which isn’t bad for a 19 year old who also just left college with outstanding grades: a complete A* student. He was also very social, with friends whom he saw often.”

This all took place some years ago, Polly said. Time didn’t seem to have eased the memory, it was clearly still an uncomfortable subject for her.

“He moved into my shared house. My other housemates smoked weed occasionally, and after socially smoking with them he asked them to grab him a £10 bag and that’s how it started. I came home from work most afternoons and evenings and he was in our bedroom, stoned. Pretty soon £10 bags turned into £20 bags which turned into £40 bags. This was in the space of two months. He became so unattractive, messy hair, blood shot eyes all the time, slob-like clothes and lost a lot of weight through his now awful diet!”

Like Sam, Polly’s partner was often misleading about money. After racking up a debt of almost £1000 to her, a £500 cheque from his parents, intended to pay for bills in the shared house, disappeared and quickly went up in smoke.

“A very low point for me was putting petrol in my car and realising I was 12p short because he had spent the last of my money. I had to drive home and scour the room for coppers. I came home and just fell apart. He saw me sobbing and miraculously took me to a cash machine and withdrew £250! But, as we headed home, he demanded I buy him a takeaway dinner and pick up his weed with the money because he had been kind enough to pay me some back…”

Eventually, the relationship became more than Polly could bear, and she left him.

To clarify: I am not anti-drugs. I am in favour of the legalisation of drugs such as cannabis, provided it is regulated efficiently. I applaud the steps Colorado and Uruguay are taking as brave. Whether it exists from the outset or not, awareness around the issue of dependency on cannabis is only going to increase in an open market. Those who are dependent should not be stigmatised or criminalised for their habit, allowing the national conversation to begin in earnest. The work of charities such as ‘Release’ with their ‘Nice People Take Drugs’ campaign is helping to remove the stigma associated with drug use, which may one day help to prevent users sliding down in to dependency.

“I packed a bag the next day and that was that. He then said he had given up smoking as he was heart broken… I didn’t believe him: too little, too late… but I’ve since learnt he is weed free. He plays for 2 cricket teams and is doing well and plays football again when the seasons change… He has a full time job and is on a decent wage.”

It took the destruction of their relationship for him to realise what he had become. But whilst Polly’s ex managed to climb back out of his dependency, many other cannabis users continue to smoke habitually.

Sam is studying at college. She wants to go abroad to a top European university to study. This morning she came back from college looking despondent: her test scores are low, her attendance is the worst in the class, and deadlines looming. Her sleep pattern and motivation have been decimated by her cannabis usage. But, for now, she can smoke her foot long spliff. The lighter clicks. She draws deep upon it, the tip glowing red. A glazed smile spreads across her face and her eyes become vacant.

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