Dope: the political class’s drug of choice?

Some are happier promoting cannabis over booze, because dope pacifies its users rather than making them confident, cocksure and up for fun.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

Fears that cannabis-use could lead to an increase in mental health problems have been boosted by new research carried out in Britain which suggests the danger may be greater than previously thought. However, whatever the merits of this research, and the real risks of cannabis-use, the latest news reports reveal a schizophrenic attitude to the drug itself.

According to research published in the British medical journal the Lancet, smoking cannabis increases the risk of schizophrenia by 40 per cent, while people who smoke cannabis daily have a 200 per cent increased risk of psychosis. The researchers estimate that 14 per cent of 15- to 34-year-olds currently suffering schizophrenia are ill because they smoked cannabis, a figure previously thought to be between eight and 10 per cent. According to the current diagnosis rates, around 800 people would apparently have been spared schizophrenia if they had not smoked cannabis. The researchers said the evidence was the strongest yet to show that it wasn’t simply the case that those with a disposition to mental illness were more likely to smoke; cannabis actually caused psychotic mental illnesses. Dr Stanley Zammit of Cardiff University said: ‘We think the evidence is such that we need a new official warning about the risk.’ (1)

The findings came after a rush of stories about cannabis: various ministers in the British government declared their cannabis-smoking pasts; prime minister Gordon Brown ordered officials to consider whether the drug should be reclassified amid fears about its more potent ‘skunk’ form; a six-year-old was reported as being ‘addicted’ to cannabis; and another report, in the journal Thorax, suggested that smoking a cannabis ‘joint’ can be more harmful than smoking five cigarettes.

These discussions about the medical consequences of the drug form part of a wider discussion on the pros and cons of cannabis-use – on its apparent ‘qualities’ compared to alcohol, and the need for the consumption of booze to be carefully monitored and regulated. Rather than existing in a pungent fug of its own, the ongoing debate about cannabis gets to the heart of officialdom’s hands-on approach to drink, pubs and clubs. Behind the galaxy of facts and figures, statistics and reports, the discussion is informed as much by old-fashioned class prejudices and political expediency as it is by research.

Many drug experts have pointed out that there is still insufficient evidence to suggest that cannabis directly causes schizophrenia. Professor Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, who is an expert on cannabis-induced psychosis, said the Lancet study added ‘very little’ to the understanding of the health risks associated with smoking the drug. ‘Individuals who – perhaps with some mild predisposition – would not otherwise have developed schizophrenia will do so because of taking cannabis. It’s a bit like how people with only a minimal predisposition to diabetes will develop it if they eat too much.’ (2)

Dr Brian Iddon, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on drugs misuse, also thinks the study is mostly unconvincing. ‘I don’t think the causal link has been proved. I think cannabis might, possibly for genetic reasons, trigger psychosis at an earlier age.’ Iddon, who is also a member of the House of Commons science and technology select committee, said there is a danger of criminalising ‘hundreds of thousands of young people’ if the status of the drug is changed. As he said: ‘If Gordon Brown changes the class of the drug, it won’t be evidence-based but for political reasons.’ (3)

While the science on cannabis-and-psychosis might appear a bit light-headed, there is a growing consensus that dope is definitely preferable to drink. Using the government’s drug classification chart, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in London recently published a report that suggested that alcohol would hover between the high-ranking classes A and B. Commentator John Harris says this shows that ‘our biggest drug problem is not skunk, or even the hapless thousands addicted to crack and heroin, it is an ocean of cheap alcohol, and how much it aggravates Britain’s dysfunctional drinking’. (4) Harris proposes VAT increases on booze (as if there isn’t enough tax on the stuff already) and bemoans the apparent liberal dispensing of drinks licences. His complaint is that ‘cheap booze’ leads to blokes filling alleyways with piss, and faces with fists, at closing time. If only they would consume less booze (and more skunk, perhaps?), then maybe they would be a far less troublesome rabble.

This basic argument gets to the nub of the dope-vs-alcohol debate: alcohol makes people louder and brighter, sexier and funnier – up for a fuck and maybe a fight. Thus, downing booze is seen by many as woeful and wrong. As shocking as it might be for those who come from sheltered backgrounds, this is precisely why millions choose to neck alcohol. Drugs heighten an individual’s sensory isolation; alcohol lowers our social inhibitions. It fuels conversation. It helps us get closer to each other.

For many commentators, that is all part of the problem. In a culture that considers ‘getting closer’ to be potentially dangerous, it appears commonsensical to eulogise the cushioning effects of dope over the loosening effects of alcohol. Much has been made of dope’s becalming, nay pacifying, qualities; dope eulogisers like the fact that the drug obliterates and neutralises an individual’s awareness of others. If the political class had a ‘drug of choice’, dope really would be it (5).

Indeed, there has always been a bit of a class divide on the issue of booze or ‘blunts’. Drink has tended to be working people’s choice of ‘poison’, an aid to letting off steam after a hard working week, a social lubricant to kick in the weekend, as vividly captured in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. That is why there is a lingering disdain for what could be politely called a ‘drinking culture’, and a scrunched-face disdain for the supposed sea of shaven-haired blokes with outsized guts and tattoos who lurk inside and outside pubs. Even smack addicts, with their Pete Doherty-style air of devil-may-care, I-don’t-work-for-a-living raffishness, are seen as preferable to the pejoratively titled ‘pub bloke’. (It is striking that the prefix ‘pub’ – as in ‘pub rock’, ‘pub philosopher’ – now denotes something that is second-rate and absurd.) So strong is the current backlash against pubs and drinking that the London listing bible Time Out recently wondered if we should turn Britain into an Islamic state in order that ‘juice bars’ would replace pubs. This is a magazine that has previously celebrated dope culture.

While middle-class illiberals continue to skin up on such anti-alcohol arguments, perhaps it is time the tables were turned to expose the nonsense surrounding dope. For a start, why bother inhaling something that’s going to make you even more introverted, more uptight and more zoned out than you were when you were sober? You can get more thrills from a local anaesthetic or a fistful of Mogadon than you can from dope. Then there’s the grand self-delusion and sudden errors of aesthetic taste that come as a side-effect of smoking dope. You don’t need acres of medical research to see that dope often leads to outbreaks of sporting tie-dye garments, bandanas and ‘Mr Spliffy’/tokin’ alien t-shirts from Camden Market. And what about the cringing argot and slang that surrounds this rather foolish subculture – ‘wacky backy’, ‘ganja’ ‘getting the munchies’, etc? Not for nothing do schoolboys often have a bizarre preoccupation with weed. Alcohol and pubs are for grown-ups; dope is for kids.

Many commentators will argue that the open discussion on dope is a welcome and mature response to the issue. Maybe. But both the restrictions on dope back in the 1970s and 1980s and the increasing tolerance of it today are flipsides of the same controlling coin. Dope was only criminalised back then in order to justify tight policing of certain sections of society, especially inner-city black youth. Invasions of black communities by tooled-up riot police were often justified in the language of ‘looking for dope’. And the police were not averse to using a potential drug conviction for possession to pressurise political activists.

Today, dope is still a means of control – it’s just the form of that control has changed. When politicians and commentators argue that dope is less harmful than alcohol, and therefore more acceptable, they really mean that it’s an agreeable pacifier of individuals. A few years back, there was a cannabis bar experiment in Stockport, England, which the BBC has often shown approving footage of. Rather than this dope bar crackling with noise, laughter and unpredictable behaviour, it was sanguine, becalmed and devoid of anything edgy or uproarious. In fact, it was all a bit like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with a morass of green bobble hats and Duffer jumpers rather than zombie attire. It certainly didn’t look like a great night out. But that, of course, is the whole point.

The slew of cannabis stories, reports and commentaries is not just down to the summer ‘silly season’. In recent years, officials from across the political divide have looked for ways to colonise and sanitise public space. From calling on the tax man to increase taxes on booze, to bemoaning the existence of city centre pubs, there has been no let-up in proposals for how to rein in adults’ social life. Compared to this agenda of control and intervention, schizophrenia and psychosis are the last dopey side-effects we should currently be worrying about.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport asked why everyone loves ‘Dopey’ David Cameron. Jamie Douglass looked at Charles Clarke’s bad trip and drug use in schools. While Josie Appleton looked at how morality is being injected into the drugs debate. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) Experts Dismiss Case for Cannabis Reclassification, David Batty, Guardian, 27 July 2007

(2) Experts Dismiss Case for Cannabis Reclassification, David Batty, Guardian, 27 July 2007

(3) Experts Dismiss Case for Cannabis Reclassification, David Batty, Guardian, 27 July 2007

(4) Our biggest drug problem is an ocean of cheap alcohol, John Harris, Comment is Free, 26 July 2007

(5) See Drugs: Child’s Play, by Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics