CANNABIS has always been marketed as a symbol of freedom. It carries with it connotations of an “alternative” lifestyle, of the atmosphere of 1960s and 70s, when it was fashionable to drop out of normal society and simply have a good time, much to the horror of the establishment.
When I was a university student, it was fashionable to have posters of aliens smoking cannabis joints on your walls, to show just how unusual you were (the irony being, of course, that these posters were mass-produced and mass-bought).
Smoking cannabis, and therefore copping a supposedly anti-establishment attitude, was seen as a bit naughty but at the end of the day, just another way to have a fun. It certainly wasn’t seen as something incredibly harmful.
As the saying goes, with great freedom comes great responsibility. In this country our Government’s downgrading of cannabis from a Class B drug to a Class C one has apparently made cannabis more accessible, and less demonised.
While many are confused by the technicalities the downgrading, of what you can or can’t do without breaking the law, there is one message that certainly seems to have been conveyed: it’s alright to take drugs. And it would appear that this dose of freedom is turning around to bite us on the backside, in the most sinister and tragic way imaginable.
Cannabis is now cheaper and more readily available than ever before, and the results are beginning to show. At the moment barely a week seems goes by without a story appearing in the press about a murder or manslaughter committed by someone suffering psychosis as a result of excessive cannabis smoking.
Only recently a Welwyn Garden City man was sentenced for stabbing his father to death after becoming convinced he had been sexually abused as a child. He had been smoking cannabis since his teens and had developed paranoid schizophrenia.
Tom Palmer, a 20-year-old from Wokingham, was sentenced last month for killing two of his friends, aged 16 and 14, with a hunting knife. He was a daily cannabis smoker. A court heard last week that David Watson, currently on trial for stabbing a security guard to death in Norwich, had been smoking cannabis since the age of six.
Okay, so the Daily Mail may use this glut of tragic deaths as a stick with which to beat the Labour Government, but the evidence is there in black and white, with studies suggesting that cannabis users are at least six times more likely than non-users to develop schizophrenia.
Not all heavy cannabis users will develop mental illness, but medical experts say that people who are already prone to psychosis are more likely to go on to develop symptoms, and the charity Rethink says smoking the drug exacerbates symptoms in people already diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Cannabis was downgraded from Class B to a Class C in 2004, in order to give the police greater ability to concentrate on cracking down on hard drugs.
It is still illegal to possess or deal cannabis, the maximum sentence for possession being two years and an unlimited fine. Dealing or supplying carries a jail sentence of up to 14 years, plus an unlimited fine.
So has this change of tactics worked? Certainly we hear of major drug rings being smashed, but are we paying a price?
I am sure that Government ministers in charge of the downgrading were not expecting to see legions of teens turned into lethargic, de-motivated zombies, with red, puffy eyes and voices that sound like they’ve just woken from a two-year sleep. And I’m sure they are aghast at anyone being murdered by a person rendered violent through drug-influenced psychosis.
But it is useless to simply sit back and watch as this situation worsens. We constantly hear from politicians about how society is falling apart because of the decline of the traditional family unit, and drug use is inextricably linked to this.
I know plenty of people who enjoy smoking cannabis occasionally, or even regularly, but I would not classify them as heavy users, dependant on the drug to get them through the day.
The key is that they have something else in their lives that they enjoy or look forward to. They have fulfilling jobs, loving relationships, good prospects. Cannabis, to them, complements their daily lives; it is not the only bright spot in an otherwise dull and mundane existence.
In a country that has changed dramatically in the last few decades, young people have become more disengaged from the rest of society than ever before, and it can come as no surprise that they seek solace in something easily available which helps them relax and have a laugh.
But, as we have seen with binge drinking, freedom is something that, in this country, we have sometimes difficulty handling.
Young people need guidance and protection from those in power, they do not need to be handed freedom and simply left to get on with it. A teenager, naturally, will often be convinced that they’re invincible.
They might not be wise enough to realise that what they are doing now could cause them serious problems in the future.
Many people try drugs during their teens and go on to lead perfectly normal lives. While there is evidence that cannabis makes psychosis worse, it is not the only factor that comes into play when a tragedy such as those above takes place.
But surely if our leaders were to take a tougher stance on cannabis, as a precaution, it would be worth it. Otherwise, instead of just dabbling in drugs, our young people will end up drowning in them.