Cannabis, identity and dialogue:

Cannabis and me:

I was 13 years old when I smoked my first spliff. I’d never even smoked a cigarette previously. I remember the pain in my lungs and throat as I inhaled, sucking air through my teeth in imitation of an older girl we were smoking with. Unlike the cliche in almost every film that depicts the first time smoker, I didn’t cough and splutter, but bore the discomfort with as much cool as I could muster.

A week later, excited by this new activity life had introduced me to, and with the possibilities it offered, I began experimenting with popular urban myths around legal highs. Attempts to wrap Rizla round and light a banana skin failed miserably. I did however manage to smoke a full cigarette with a line of toothpaste along the top. To my delight this delivered the exact same effect as that first spliff. The ground moving beneath my feet, the intense buzzing in my head and juddering vision. I ran to the phone to call a friend and announce the fact I had discovered that ‘toothpaste really did work’. ‘Are you sure you’re not just getting a nicotine rush?’ he enquired calmly. ‘A what?’. I wasn’t aware cigarettes did anything in particular. The reality being my first smoke, as is common, had no effect on me at all bar a huge head rush caused by the tobacco the hash had been rolled with. I didn’t try the toothpaste method again. However I was by now determined to discover what getting high, stoned, mashed, mash up, red, et cetera, really felt like. It wasn’t long before I found out.

A friend at school, whose mum’s flat acted as a storage unit for a major local dealer, had picked up a small ball sized crumb from the bottom of her wardrobe. As we flicked it around our desk in the art room he told me he didn’t want it and that it was mine if I wanted. The next lunch hour I took it to a hippy chick’s house and her older brother gleefully racked up a small hand held pipe. I puffed and puffed away, and this time I did cough and splutter a fair bit, but without the tobacco I was disappointed to find little of the buzzing sensation and nauseousness I’d come to expect. I left a little early on my own to get back in good time for afternoon maths. This involved a walk past the City Farm and up a lane through the local allotments. As I found myself walking into the pig pen, and not the normal path, I realised something was up. I found my way back and began laughing hysterically in the confusion, rolling my tongue around my teeth which felt strangely detached from the rest of my body. I mumbled “I’m the Big Green Giant” all the way back to school, where I pondered every minutiae of the classroom scene, none of which included anything I was actually being taught.

The early experiences of cannabis use were filled with laughter, silliness and wonder but these reactions did not come to define my pothead youth. As it went from novelty experience to cultural norm you were not expected to act as if anything major had changed between each state. Giggling hysterically would be a sign of weakness, admitting a state of confusion or psychosis even more unacceptable. I spent a lot of time in a state of confused angst desperately trying to appear cool and normal, as if everything was just as it should be. An intense, psychotic metaphor for how we get by in life generally perhaps.

Beyond as well as during the times when I was actually under the influence, it was a short while after I first started smoking cannabis that certain issues started to arise that plagued my childhood and much of my early adult life. Something changed in the way I perceived the world around me and I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Once in class I broke down in tears. A girl comforted me and tried to find out what was wrong. ‘I don’t know’, was all I could say. There was no one answer – there was no one thing. That was the essence of the problem. I was suffering a total cognitive breakdown which I can most succinctly describe as the inability to entertain the idea of anything in the context of anything else. This state of angst still occasional creeps up today. I know how to deal with it now. One thing that helps, apart from the wisdoms of age of course, is that I don’t, or at least I very rarely, smoke weed any more. I have no doubt that life’s complexity, the speed at which we are expected to process mass information and normalise our identities, our ambitions and our reality, combined with an active mind and over active imagination, not to mention biological adolescence more generally, could all have contributed to these issues. However I find it hard to dissociate the impact of a psychoactive drug, at such a young and formative age, in fuelling and exacerbating the problem.

I almost knew this back then it would be best to stop, but back then stopping was not an option. It began to fill my identity and stopping would be an admission of failure. When I went to college after leaving school a group of local friends would stop by on most week nights. One lad, whose parents owned a shop, would steel large sums of money and spend it on ounces of slate (shortly before the arrival of skunk). We would sit in my bedroom for a few hours, smoke and barely pass words. This went on for a while until one day my mum blew up. “I want them out I want them fucking out!”, she screamed. Her tirade went down in folklore, immortal words still often recited on visits ‘home’.

When I went to University at 19 I decided to quit and start afresh. The problem was there were people there who were just starting, who couldn’t even roll a spliff properly. I remember a mature student in my halls of residence gasping with relief when I passed him one of my blessedly well rolled versions after the cigar sized bum roaches he had been subjected to. I was a hardened toker. I had a reputation to keep. I didn’t want them to think it wasn’t ‘who’ I was. I promoted bucket bongs to demonstrate just how messed up you could get, expecting them to struggle though I was more likely to do so. Quantity and experience don’t harden you to something if you’re naturally inclined to negative reactions. In fact it simply makes it worse. On the other hand If I have a smoke once every couple of years I’m much more likely to enjoy it.

So University, which was meant to be the escape, simply became another phase in my cannabis years. A failed second year and repeat without attendance followed. I eventually scraped through with a 2-2, much as I’d stumbled through my ‘A’ levels previously.

At 26 I decided to quit. By that time I had been smoking for half my life. An experience spending a week alcohol and drug free during a time – now in my working life when a smoking weed was filling my week days and the alcohol my weekends – I saw another possibility. Not just a different choice in lifestyle but a different choice of identity, for that was what was required to escape this particular habit. Since that time my psychological state has steadily improved. That is not to say it wasn’t already, or that the decision to stop is the single most important reason, but that is the fact.

I have no idea what my life would have been like if, (like my friend who gave me that lump of draw in art decided never to smoke given inherent dangers in his ridiculous ease of access), Cannabis played no part in my life. All I know is these facts, and I’m pretty sure whatever it did, it didn’t help.

Cannabis, identity and the sacred:

I started writing all this down as I recently read a report about young people, cannabis, and mental health and got caught up, inevitably, in the comment thread below the line. Many people were outraged and angry that anyone was approaching cannabis as an issue – not least given the negative impact of alcohol. Cries of ‘Leave weed alone’, ‘it’s benign’, ‘reports are exaggerated’, ‘where’s the evidence?’.

Debates about the rights or wrongs of cannabis have been on going throughout my lifetime. I’ve long considered it to be a hopeless conversation, but one that represents a very typically polarised impasse. It’s a great example of where a manichean divide can inhabit positions of those without any need of religion. The historical and deeply illogical demonisation of cannabis by governments and society at large has led many to embrace it with reactionary defiance and worship. I did. Many young people still do.

As a youth worker in Bradford, when involved in alternative education with young people, I noticed a similar habit to one I had at the same age. Lads, for it was predominantly boys, would draw hash leaves on their folders, the front of their books, cartoon pictures of characters smoking huge spliffs, or just huge spliffs on their own – wiggly lines denoting the smoke rising from the tip. It looks like a form of worship, deifying the leaf. It was cross community too; young Muslim lads unburned by any specific koranic chastisement, white lads who didn’t care either way, those of Carribean descent with normalised cultural endorsements – all in awe of the green god. Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill were my contemporary prophets, 2 Pac that of young South Asians in late 90s Bradford and in private education, and more internationally, Bob Marley, whose image has recently been coorporately acquired as the face of legal marijuana, has always been the high priest of hashish.

I was a convert too. When I discovered that my grandad, a liberal life peer, had stood up in the Lords and quoted from the Old Testament the Rastafarian tract “And the earth brought forth grass and herb, and God saw it was good” – I was immensely proud and told a number of friends. One, born a rasta child until his mum became a born again Christian, was suitably impressed and let his mum know all about it. “He might be your grandad but I’m sorry he’s a fool” she said. “It causes paranoia”. We laughed and ignored her. But during my days imagining knife attacks round every corner, or fretting about a short walk to the shop, I remembered those words.

I kept the faith, my personal faith, in the cult of cannabis for another 13 years. As the messages against cannabis become less overblown and the drug becomes more accepted and common place, I get the impression that young people today hold it in less high regard. But those messages run deep. The demonisation of the drug has created a haloed counterpoint that means saying anything negative about it is immediately dismissed as an articulation of that same hysteria. Societies’ legal hypocrisy around drugs never changed the degree to which cannabis inhibited and stunted my ability to overcome issues of low self esteem, paranoia and psychosis in my youth and early adulthood. Statistics about the number of people who die as a result of alcohol consumption don’t change my reality. Just because someone says something is wrong for the wrong reasons, doesn’t mean there are not other wrongs with good reasons. But as adults we can remain locked in positions that are essentially childlike reactions to parental rules. I’ll do and believe the opposite of whatever it is you tell me, not least where it is presented in an illogical and misguided way as well as mis-administered.

The cannabis debate was one of the first I noted to be a stunted and limited area of dialogue. Much of this is due to the influence of identity, of sacred attachments and reactionary ideas. It is a debate where such influences as these are in full effect without any need of religion or politics. It sometimes feels that we don’t always acknowledge the strength of identity beyond these more obvious core beliefs, even though they often mirror them in their sacred nature. As a result we may be less aware of the significance of the way in which they shape our opinions or behaviour. Therefore in all debates, and not just those pertaining to ingrained cultural and religious heritage, we should remember that minds are not easily changed due to argument, but may only change when deeper attachments are removed and deeper identities shift – which takes time.

So identity, and our attachment to ideas, lifestyles and arguments, affect our ability to talk about things but also, as seen in my past, our ability to alter or change our life choices and beliefs. I had decided smoking cannabis was, for me at least, a bad idea long before I was able to articulate that thought with any clarity. In the end it took a deeper shift in my identity to transform my relationship and attitudes toward it.

But I don’t now think cannabis is evil, and booze can be an undoubted nightmare, I just think all drugs are merely things that change us mentally and physically, for better or worse. They affect different people in different ways and mean different things in different social contexts. Neither evil nor devine, and rarely benign.

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