It is the end of a taboo: articulate, middle-class parents are speaking out about the nightmare of seeing their children spiral into drug abuse and, all too often, mental illness. Many blame themselves for staying silent, assuming that modern strains of cannabis were little different from the pot that baby boomers smoked at college. The reality is very different
Tracy McVeigh, chief reporter The Observer,
In the front room of a stucco-fronted three-bedroom home in Chiswick, a deeply middle-class suburb in comfortable west London, Susanne apologises for the smell of the recently walked dog, but it is the sweetly oppressive stink of skunk cannabis that lingers most strongly among the plumped-up Ikea cushions.
"It does reek," said the 52-year-old mother-of-two, sniffing. "That bloody boy has been smoking that stuff down here when I've been out with the bloody dog." She puts her head in her hands. "The smell gives me such a headache."
John and Susanne were happy to talk about life with a son who regularly uses cannabis, but changed their minds about giving their real names or occupations after watching the fallout that has engulfed author Julie Myerson, whose estrangement from her cannabis-smoking son Jake was deepened when she wrote a book about his behaviour that culminated in him being thrown out of the family home.
The couple's own 17-year-old son, also called Jake, insists on the use of his name. "I'm not ashamed, you know. I have looked it all up and read a lot of research and I am quite well informed," he said. "Actually, all my friends are; it's the so-called adults who have forgotten that they did a bit of this themselves when they were young - - a long time ago," he added with a sarcastic grin at his mother.
"He reads what he wants to read, hippy websites mostly," said his mother, who has a whole folder of clipped-out newspaper articles and internet printouts full of research and opinion on cannabis that she regularly tries to get Jake to read. It sounds like a well rehearsed exchange between the pair.
"We certainly have had these discussions again and again for two years. Paradoxically, it's when he's stoned that he actually engages," she said.
His parents had thought it was the au pair who was smoking in the house when Jake began using cannabis at the age of 15. "We thought we were ready for a bit of pot," said John. "Our daughter came back from a party and was really ill from it when she was 15 and we teased her about it - of course, she never touched it again. I smoked at university, we all did, and always envisaged how I'd tackle it chummily with my kids, play the cool dad. God, how stupid. This stuff is not the same ballgame."
Then came the school truancy and the stealing. "All for a drug they try to tell us isn't addictive," said Susanne. "His life is disintegrating before our eyes."
Debra Bell will use her real name. From south London, her son William is now 21 and also through the worst of what she believes was a skunk addiction that turned a sporty public schoolboy into a violent, aggressive thief.
"We knew about cannabis, but nothing about skunk. It was all such a shock," she said.
"We were undermined as parents, by the government downgrading it, by doctors not taking it seriously. William could just shrug his shoulders and say everybody at school was doing it, and it was pretty obvious in the months that followed that they were.
"My husband is a barrister and he started to see that this was a drug addiction. He began to wash his hands of him, but this was my beautiful boy. we fell out a lot over it. Guy's stance was tough and eventually we did throw him out of the house and I didn't see him for a year. It was a nightmare."
All her efforts to get help foundered. "The professionals were just out of date in their understanding. We felt deeply ashamed that we couldn't get a good outcome for our son, as he was sliding more and more into this nightmare."
Now reconciled with William, Bell set up her own website in the end and found a flood of other families desperate for such a helpline. "Suddenly we were just hearing all these carbon-copy stories, thousands. It is such a hidden subject, but such a huge phenomenon. No respect for class or creed or colour. I think we have betrayed our children through our ignorance. Our generation smoked, but here and there. Everybody did it - but children didn't smoke it, children whose brains were still developing."
Whether or not there is a new middle-class phenomenon of teenagers - mostly boys but also some girls - who are at best losing great swaths of their youth and at worst endangering their mental health to the mind-numbing effects of skunk is at the moment only anecdotal. But =ADcertainly there is a huge rise in the numbers of articulate parents who are prepared to speak out about their experiences.
Strong cannabis is nothing new: its hallucinogenic effects were recorded at the beginning of civilisation and echoed in literature in stories of writers from Alexandre Dumas to Paul Bowles. But many believe that the new, hydroponically grown strain is a thoroughly modern threat to a generation who see traditionally "addictive" drugs like heroin and crack as "dirty", and cannabis as somehow the healthy herb despite its genetically modified new form.
In the foreword to a 1972 report to US President Richard Nixon and Congress of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, the commission's chairman wrote: "Seldom in the nation's history has there been a phenomenon more divisive, more misunderstood, more fraught with impact on family, personal, and community relationships than the marihuana phenomenon."
As the commission noted more than 30 years ago, the concept of cannabis dependency or addiction and its impact on health and psychology was highly prone to misunderstanding and disagreement, something that seems to be the same today.
Over decades, successive government committees, books, research papers, medical studies and experts have taken robust views, opposing views and speculative ones. In the US at the moment there is a movement to use cannabis to treat hyperactive primary age children, while other experts claim it has links to schizophrenia, depression and even =ADtesticular cancer.
"What is clear is that nothing is clear," said Harry Shapiro, the director of communications at the charity Drugscope.
"There are problems associated with cannabis and nobody has ever denied that. A lot of our members who are active in young people's drug treatment services or psychiatry will of course only be seeing the worst-case scenarios. If a million or so people are using cannabis in the country, then obviously that is not the normal experience. An issue that is coming up now is this idea that cannabis is 20 or 50 times stronger than it used to be, but the forensic data makes it clear that, as more and more cannabis is grown in this country, that will be producing a stronger kind of cannabis, about twice the strength, maybe, of what you would expect from the resin of the 1970s. But you can't say that that means it is twice the danger," he said.
Shapiro stresses that vulnerable groups or those, especially young men, with a pre-existing tendency to mental health problems, are more likely to get into difficulty with cannabis.
"But for a lot of young boys it is about wasting time. And wasting time is the biggest threat they'll face. Smoke it regularly for a couple of years and you're doing nothing else. So while obviously the mental health issues we know about are at the more dramatic end of things, there are other issues and we have to be careful and look out for the people likely to get into the most serious problems, who are those self-medicating against problems in the family, at school, with their friends." He feels there are myths around skunk and that strong cannabis is nothing new. "Even in the 1960s we had Nepalese temple balls and Thai sticks, the connoisseurs' cannabis if you like."
General statistics on drug use show the heroin-using population is ageing: it is not attracting new users. But cheap alcohol and cannabis are more attractive as patterns of drug use shift. "At the moment, skunk is supplied by gangs growing it in houses and flats, and the police are getting good at shutting those down. There is evidence there is a growing demand for imported cannabis again, so if that goes on you might just see another shift away from it."
Many people believe that waiting for change is not enough and legislation is needed to deal with the problem. Helen Sello is in her mid-50s and her son is schizophrenic. "I'm not sure which one thing caused the other," she said. "Did the schizophrenia come from the drug or was he self-medicating? It's not really a useful thing to do if you have any high risk toward mental illness, and who knows who can pick and choose?
"I thought it was perfectly harmless. I thought I'd prefer him to do that more than getting drunk. I support legalisation, not because I think young people take a great deal of notice of the law - they don't - - but because I think that with legalisation comes control. Give people more information: vulnerable young people need to know what this drug can do. If anything makes me really angry it is that this is such a polarised debate, an immature debate. It's either that cannabis is good or it's bad."
For Tory MP Charles Walker, the chair of the all-party parliamentary committee looking at children and cannabis, the damage that has been done both by the historical and generational tolerance of cannabis and by the government's out-of-date attitudes has meant that a seriously dangerous drug is not recognised as such.
"I have met and spoken to so many families who have been devastated - I mean devastated - by this drug," he said. "It is clearly highly addictive both psychically and psychologically and the damage is terrible: high-achieving children turning into shadows of their former selves and creating widespread misery.
"I think there is a historical legacy, which is why cannabis has been so downgraded by people in their 40s and 50s like me who don't understand that we are facing a different drug from the one everyone smoked in their youth. I wish we could change its name from cannabis to emphasise that.
"It's a hallucinogenic drug and it's having a far greater effect on the teenage mind, whose chemical make-up is so delicate. I think we need a new awareness. Better education in schools, far less tolerance from society. Let's intervene earlier and let's forget the historical legacy of our own experiences because they are obsolete. Thank God, as a parent myself, that I found out about this in order to talk to my own children before they reach their teenage years."
But not everyone is convinced we are sitting on an enormous generational time bomb. Author Anthony Horowitz attacked what he called the "Myerson angst" of fearful parenting. The author of the boy spy Alex Ryder books has two teenage sons. "Frankly, we need to lighten up a bit. We need a little less angst and fear about teenage boys - after all, we have to remember they grow up to be us."
He said he could not be a children's writer if he didn't have a belief in the essentially positive nature of young people. "The constant demonising of them by press and government and now by parents is a drip-drip of venom that will only erode their faith in themselves."
A 60-year-old mother from Plymouth agrees with not giving up on the child. Her son is now 24 and lives in Wales. He began smoking cannabis on a family camping holiday at the age of 15. "He doesn't like to come back to Plymouth now, because many of his old friends are still in their bedrooms, smoking dope. It's a nonsense that this is not an addictive drug, a nonsense. I think he felt very guilty and knew he was throwing these precious years down the drain.
"I pinned up articles in his bedroom, talked to him and talked to him. It was a four-year nightmare: he stole his sisters' pocket money, he frightened his sisters and he would kick their doors in to get money or in rage. I had thought at first 'OK, he's a 15-year-old boy, he's going to dabble' - I was so innocent at first."
But she believes she was right to wait it out until her son got fed up of wasting his life. "Don't throw them out," she said. "Just love them, give them nice food, make sure they know you are there for them. Never give up on them and they'll come back to you."
Cannabis: a history
. Cannabis has been used for more than 4,000 years, including for medicinal purposes in Indian, Chinese and middle eastern civilisations. In China, it has been used to treat such conditions as malaria, constipation and rheumatism.
. Doctors in the west began to take an interest in its medicinal use in the middle of the 19th century. Queen Victoria was prescribed cannabis by her doctor to relieve period pain.
. The drug was outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1928, following an international drugs conference in Geneva, at which an Egyptian delegate claimed that it was a threat to society and as dangerous as opium.
. Recreational use in the UK began in the 1950s as migrants from the Caribbean arrived. It soared in popularity during the "flower power" years in the 1960s.
. A Home Office investigation in 1968 concluded: "There is no evidence that this activity is causing violent crime or aggression, anti-social behaviour, or is producing in otherwise normal people conditions of dependence or psychosis requiring medical treatment."
. Advanced cultivation techniques have led to an increase in potency over the past 20 years. Average levels of THC ( tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient ) in marijuana sold in America rose from 3.5% in 1988 to 8.5% in 2006. "Skunk" is the most potent strain and now dominates the UK market, according to Home Office research.
By Tracy McVeigh
March 15, 2009