The Daily Mail
26th March 2008
Just a few puffs on a rolled-up cigarette containing "skunk" - a strong form of cannabis - was all it took to strip Nicky Taylor of all her capabilities and to induce a terrifying combination of paranoia, fear and anxiety.
As the drug took effect, she was rendered incapable of doing anything save look anxiously around her and try to calm her trembling hands.
But Nicky is not just another of the millions of Britons who smoke cannabis regularly. She chose to experiment with the drug as part of a BBC documentary in which she investigated just how damaging smoking different forms of the drug can be - with herself as a guinea pig.
"I felt absolutely terrified," recalls Nicky, a divorced mother-of-three, thinking back to her first experience just over a month ago.
"Paranoia set in, and I felt as if I was having a panic attack. At one point, I was simply too frightened to get out of my chair.
"I had a feeling the drug had unlocked some sort of paranoia in my head that would never go away again - I suddenly felt everyone hated me. Without doubt, that was one of the worst moments of my life."
It has been well over 20 years since Nicky first smoked cannabis, which she tried as a student.
But for this investigation she has spent the past month in Amsterdam, where she smoked around a joint of cannabis - which two years ago was downgraded from a class B to a class C drug in Britain - every day.
Controversially, she also allowed herself to be injected with pure THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in cannabis.
Her aim was to discover the true effect cannabis had on her mind and body - and conversely on the millions of Britons who now smoke it regularly.
While some will question Nicky's wisdom in committing herself to such an experiment when she is a mother of three young children, there is little doubt that her experiences are both enlightening and cautionary to anyone who might think cannabis is harmless.
At one point during her investigation, scientific tests proved that, thanks to the drug, she had developed a level of psychosis well above that seen in individuals with schizophrenia.
It is estimated that 15 million people in the UK have tried cannabis, and up to 5 million smoke it on a regular basis.
In the UK, cannabis use has increased 1,000 per cent since the Seventies, and according to a recent Unicef report, the UK has the third highest rate of young people smoking cannabis in the Western world.
Yet there is now considerable medical evidence that cannabis causes psychosis. It has also been linked to schizophrenia, and is believed to be behind a string of violent murders.
Even mild short-term use can result in depression and sleep disturbances.
"As a mother, I wanted to find out what is in store for my children if they ever try cannabis," says Nicky, who lives in Kidderminster with her children Freya, nine, Millie, eight, and Harry, six.
"Also, there is no doubt that cannabis has got stronger - over the past few years, home-grown cannabis has been genetically altered so that it contains 10 to 15 per cent THC, whereas naturally-grown cannabis contains only 3 to 5 per cent.
"I wanted to know whether there is any truth to the claim made by dope smokers that you can smoke cannabis and carry on with life as normal. And I wanted to find out if the drug really does drive you into madness."
To conduct her investigation, Nicky spent a month in Amsterdam, working part-time at a coffee shop that sells the drug.
Although she would not be allowed to smoke during her shift, she lit up every day after work.
"The first time I smoked cannabis in Amsterdam it contained one of the strongest forms of 'skunk' on sale, and the result was absolutely horrendous," says Nicky.
"At that moment, I felt like pulling the plug on the investigation, packing my bags and heading home to my children, who'd stayed in the UK with my mother. I ended up having a row with my cameraman, too, because I was so irrational and paranoid.
"It all felt a world away from the feeling of harmless giddiness I'd remembered having from smoking it a little as a student. It hit me that I could be risking my sanity - and it didn't feel worth it."
However, waking the next morning, Nicky's paranoia had dissipated and she decided to carry on. That is not to say she didn't feel any physical and mental after-effects of the drug.
"Although the paranoia had gone, I was left dazed and my mind seemed to be operating much more slowly than it usually does," says Nicky. "I had no motivation and just wanted to go back to bed. I had no idea how anyone could get stoned at night and then function properly the next day."
Over the following week, Nicky smoked different varieties of cannabis on a daily basis. While she did not encounter the same level of paranoia again, her ability to work was nonetheless compromised by the drug's effects.
"At one point, I went to interview the man who runs Amsterdam's hemp museum after smoking cannabis," says Nicky. "I wanted to appear professional - as any reporter from the BBC would. But this proved to be next to impossible. I was giggly and could hardly keep my mind on what he was saying.
"Embarrassingly, my attention suddenly wandered to a pile of guinea pig bedding which was sitting in the corner of his office, clearly intended for someone's pet.
"I rushed over to it and kept picking it up. I felt as if I'd just discovered the Holy Grail, but the poor man clearly thought I was incredibly odd. He was obviously uncomfortable in my presence, and I was clearly unable to be professional while on the drug."
To find out how much her concentration had been compromised, Nicky set herself the task of assembling a flat pack cabinet, first free from and then under the influence of cannabis.
Without having smoked the drug, she found the job straightforward. While stoned however, it was a different matter.
"I took only two puffs of cannabis, but was totally hopeless when it came to assembling the cabinet," she says. I felt so spaced out that I ended up passing out on the sofa with the cabinet still in bits around me. The drug totally destroyed my ability to think."
Over the course of the four-week investigation, this "mental oblivion", as Nicky describes it, was to become a familiar feeling.
On a daily basis, depending on the strength of cannabis she had smoked, she either spiralled into depression and paranoia or simply passed out and had to go to bed.
"I noticed very quickly that the stronger the variety of cannabis, the more paranoia and depression I experienced," she says.
"Some nights, particularly after smoking 'skunk', which is high in THC, I couldn't sleep at all and would be pacing my room, becoming more and more paranoid and thinking everyone I'd met at the cafe, as well as the BBC crew, was talking about me.
"But even the weaker varieties rendered me completely useless. I'd often go to bed at 8pm and be totally crashed out until morning. I felt constantly groggy and unmotivated, I couldn't wake up in the mornings and I'd find myself longing to go back to bed all day.
"My motivation was reduced to zero and I felt totally slowed down.
"I'm a very active person, with a mind that normally works at a million miles an hour. I thrive on multi-tasking and getting through my daily 'To do' lists. Yet, with cannabis in my life, I reached the end of every day feeling frustrated that I'd achieved so little.
"By the end of a month of smoking cannabis every day, I felt as if my mind had been turned into treacle and nothing made much sense to me any more.
"Even basic things like trying to send emails or talk to people on the phone became a real effort of will and brain power. There is no way I could carry on with the life I lead now, looking after my children, at the same time as smoking cannabis, even if it was just occasionally."
If Nicky's mind seemed to be getting smaller, her waistline was expanding. Over the course of her investigation, she gained half a stone, due to the drug's tendency to bring on cravings for junk food.
"Cannabis triggers a chemical surge in the brain which stimulates the appetite, and in particular makes you crave sweet and salty snacks while you are stoned," says Nicky.
"I could easily get through a couple of packets of biscuits and a huge bag of crisps, and the result was I quickly gained weight.
"I usually go running every day, but the effect of the drug on my lungs meant this was no longer possible either, because cannabis compromises lung function three times as much as ordinary cigarettes.
"And I not only felt groggy - I looked groggy, too. I woke up every morning with puffy eyes and sallow skin. It was as though the drug had destroyed my ability to refresh my body as well as my mind."
Once back in the UK, Nicky visited the Institute of Psychiatry, where, for the final stage of her investigation, she took part in a unique experiment.
Scientists there are interested in the effect of the ratio between the drug's two main components - THC and cannabanoid - and the levels of psychosis induced in the user, and are undertaking trials in which volunteers are injected with both pure THC and THC mixed with cannabanoid.
Nicky agreed to do this, too, and following each injection, she underwent a series of psychological tests designed to assess her state of mind.
Even though injecting the drug means it reaches the bloodstream more quickly than if it's smoked, the results were shocking.
"With the mixture of THC and cannabanoid - which is roughly equivalent to the sort of 'grass' people smoked in the Sixties, I felt very giggly and silly," says Nicky.
"I felt groggy afterwards and wouldn't want to feel that way all the time, but there wasn't anything too troubling about the experience.
"The psychological tests indicated that while I was flippant and had lost any sense of care and responsibility, I had not become psychotic."
However, Nicky's experience with pure THC - more akin to the strong "skunk" favoured by cannabis users today - was far more sinister.
Within minutes of receiving the injection, she was overcome by morbid thoughts.
"I was suddenly gripped by the idea that the scientists conducting the experiment were characters from a horror film who were somehow out to get me," she says.
"I later found myself fantasising about jumping out of a window and crawling away somewhere that I would never be found. I was increasingly agitated and convinced they were trying to trick me in everything they said to me."
Most alarmingly, she also took a test, in the form of a series of questions about her state of mind, in which a score of four points and above indicates significant psychosis of the level seen in people with schizophrenia - she scored 14.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw my result - it was terrifying to think I was experiencing greater psychosis than someone with schizophrenia," says Nicky.
"It proved without doubt that the drug was playing havoc with my mind, and inducing a psychotic state that I would never have reached without it.
"I was reassured that once the effect of the drug had worn off after a few hours, I would return to normal, but it might be a different case for individuals with a family history of mental illness."
With her investigation now behind her, Nicky is adamant that she will never touch cannabis again. Thankfully, she appears not to have experienced any long-term effects from using the drug.
"I do feel extremely worried for my children's future and will certainly do all I can to ensure that they stay away from the drug," says Nicky.
"Until now, I hadn't really considered cannabis had that much more effect than a bottle of wine might do, but now I know that's far from the truth.
"The drug took me to some dark and frightening places, to which I hope I never return."
Nicky's investigation: Should I Smoke Dope? can be seen in full on BBC3 tonight (26th March 2008) at 10pm.