Friday, January 20, 2006

Out of joint - you’ve been warned.

This speaks for itself

The government's decision that cannabis should remain a Class C drug came as it accepted it could trigger serious mental illness. Here, one father tells the traumatic story of how cannabis turned his bright and promising teenage son into a wreck.

My son James was always a popular teenager. He had masses of friends, was good at sport, and was also intelligent and handsome. Like many boys in their teens, he was constantly going out to meet friends, arrange football or cricket games or see his long-term girlfriend.

He'd done well at school with 10 GCSEs and three A-levels, and he went off to Southampton University to study history and politics. He was following the fine example of his sister Joanne, who had been to Nottingham University and was doing well in public relations.

I remember thinking one sunny day seven years ago that life was good, and couldn't get much better. I had a good job as a journalist, a great wife, and two lovely children. I was proud of both of my kids and thought they had a great future ahead of them.

But I hadn't reckoned on cannabis.

I didn't know of the damage it would inflict on my son and my whole family. I didn't know then that it would ruin his life and he would be plunged into a deep and dark nightmare, which has still not ended. My wife and I knew that James had smoked some cannabis when he was younger, and was still dabbling in it. But we were not aware of the dangers he faced from the drug. In fact, when I was a student at university in the 1970s I had tried it. Unlike Bill Clinton, I had inhaled. But I never smoked regularly and hadn't touched the stuff for decades.

When we suddenly found out there was a problem, it was unexpected and dramatic. My son had just finished his first year at university, and it was the summer break. When we returned from a weekend away, we found our son was a different person. It was as though someone had stolen my lovely James overnight. He was talking weirdly, his thoughts were all over the place, he was having hallucinations, and was totally paranoid. He thought people and vampires were after him. But it was going to get a lot worse, and I'm still waiting for my son to fully return to me.

We found out that James had started smoking cannabis regularly from the age of 15. He was very good at hiding it and controlling himself when he'd been smoking. He'd even given it up when he sat his exams.

Cannabis, often grown indoors now, is said to be stronger. But at university he went wild, spending around £5,000 in one year on cannabis, much of it on "skunk weed" - a particularly potent variety of the drug, that's between 10 to 30 times stronger than ordinary cannabis. It had literally blown his mind.

Some experts claim that for many younger people who have "drug induced psychosis", like my son, this sort of mental illness would have happened anyway. That is total rubbish. He was a perfectly normal boy, until this happened. Once we knew he was really ill we tried to get help for him, but in our West Country town the doctors and psychiatrists were hopeless. We paid for him to see a child psychiatrist, and after he put James on some anti-psychotic drugs things began to calm down.

James took a year out of university, but it took about six months to wean him off cannabis, as he was psychologically dependent on it. Just over a year after his breakdown, he went back to Southampton. We were hoping this would all be forgotten; just a bad memory. We were wrong. James was clean of the drugs but he was still terribly paranoid. He started to focus on food, and thought people were trying to poison him, so he stopped eating properly.

By Christmas his weight had fallen dramatically, from 11 stone to just over seven stone. He'd given up sport, his girlfriend had left him after five years, and many of his friends had given up on him. Although he managed to pass his exams, and finish his second year at college, by the summer things were not looking good. James went to stay with his sister in America, but then stopped taking his medication and started drinking. When he got home it was clear things were going off the rails. He was getting angry and violent, and we were worried he might harm himself.

Eventually, just before the following Christmas, he was so bad we had to section him under the Mental Health Act. It was the worst day of my life, and the authorities made it even worse by screwing up the arrangements. He barricaded himself into his bedroom and it took 10 police officers dressed in full riot gear to smash his door down and drag him off to hospital. They thought he was a danger, but he wouldn't have hurt a mouse.

It took another trip to hospital a year later, before James finally realised he needed to take some sort of medication to stay stable. That was over four years ago, which I'm told is a hopeful sign. Since then he has not only given up all drugs, but also cigarettes and even alcohol. Things are slowly getting better, but sometimes the progress is glacial. He still cannot hold down a full-time job and his paranoia can be powerful and debilitating.

What appalled me about David Blunkett's decision two years ago to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug is the signal it sends to our young people. My own son told me: "It's okay Dad, it's herbal and organic."

That may be so, but as our experience shows, cannabis is anything but harmless.

Some comments people added:

Thank you for speaking out, and publicising the problems. I wish you and your family luck.
DM, Scotland

Could it be that James was dabbling in other chemicals as well as cannabis?

Like most kids, I dabbled with Cannabis but grew out of it. The friends that carried on and got in to it heavily are now a shadow of their former selves; heads always hung low, not very coherent, very slow reaction to anything. It's actually a real chore to see them now and these are guys I grew up with and had a laugh with.

This upsetting story is not isolated. My experiences of psychiatry as a medical student showed that there were virtually no cases of paranoid mental illness in which cannabis did not play a role of some kind. If you ask many psychiatrists working in the area they will tell you that cannabis is worse than heroin as a cause of mental illness and behavioural problems.
Charlie, Oxford

I'm a user of Cannabis and I have been for only just over a year. I'm 21, going on to 22, I feel that I'm quite intelligent and I'm working towards a career in the music industry (I posses 11 GCSE's, the equivelent of two A-levels in music performance and half a degree in music production). My choice to use the drug was not peer based... it was my own decision because I enjoy the drug. I personally don't believe that Cannabis is the cause to this psychosis.
Damian Lee, Nottingham, UK

James' story is heartbreaking. I see my son going the same way and very fast. I am at my wits' end.
Jill, Cambridge

I agree. A family member changed beyond all recognition due to long term cannabis use. He was once the life and soul of a party and full of life. Now he's a shadow of his former self suffering severe anxiety and depression.
M, Hastings

It's a tragic story, but isn't it amazing how easily you can substitute cannabis for alcohol in this story?
Lars Petersson, London

How do you know he was a normal boy inside. If he managed to conceal his heavy weed habit from you for the best part of 3-4 years, how can you say you know for certain that he was normal? And how can you know he would not of gone on to develop a mental illness anyway? You most certainly do not. I could argue that the cannabis didn't start his psychosis etc, but I have no evidence to say that either.
George De Ath, Exmouth, Devon

I completely agree. My ex partner with who I have a son used to have so many friends and I loved being with him. He regularly smoked cannabis prior to our son being born but I thought it was controllable. He became violent, paranoid, slept all day, could not even get a job due to not getting out of bed let alone hold one down. So many people believe it is harmless but when you see the dramatic changes in someone like I have you would disagree.
louise, Lancashire England

It is sadly true that many people, particularly teenagers, go to excess and cause themselves serious harm. However there is a difference between using cannabis and using it to excess, just as there is a difference between drinking and drinking to excess. The key is moderation.
Mark, Oxford, UK

James' story is tragic - but suppose he had spent that £5000 (£100 a week) on alcohol instead - what impact would that have had on his mental and physical health? Any addiction that severe is bound to have damaging consequences.
Adam, Southampton

This is a heart rending story and one which I am sure is repeated up and down the country. But we have to keep in mind that excessive substance abuse of any kind will cause damage. Alcohol if taken to excess breeds alcoholism, however it is legal and socially acceptable.
Jack Robertson-Worsfold, London

To say that the words of an expert are "total rubbish" is just foolish. Whether this condition would have developed naturally without the cannabis unfortunately we will never know, but in some people it does.
Steven, Edinburgh

Whilst I respect the gentleman above for telling his story a single case is not evidence for a direct connection between the cannabis and the psychotic and paranoid behaviour. It is a powerful story but it is equally likely from the description above that instability caused cannabis use (it certainly seems to have resulted in alcohol use).
Andie, Oxford

I'm sick and tired of all this cannabis fear-mongering. I'm in my 30s, a PhD student and I smoke cannabis daily. I agree that teens should not be smoking it because the research is frightening, but for the rest of us mature adults, please treat this stuff without this 'Reefer Madness'.
Nick Fine, London, UK


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