Back to the stoned age

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When Nick Harding left university for a high pressure career, he consigned his days of regular dope-smoking to the history books. More than a decade later – and with recreational drug use more prevalent than ever – how would this balding, 38-year-old father of two cope with a cannabis habit? He decided to cultivate one in the name of research... with startling results

I first smoked cannabis when I was 18 – a late starter by today's standards. It took many years before I even came into contact with illegal drugs. Ironically, given my subsequent habit, I'd been fervently anti-drugs up until then.

Miami Vice had a lot to do with that, as did Zammo from Grange Hill, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The predominant cultural message I was exposed to while growing up was "Just Say No", "Don't Do It", drugs are bad.

To a teenager in leafy Surrey, 25 years ago, narcotics were rarer than Fabergé eggs. Ignorant and fearful, I mentally lumped all illegal drugs together and, I confess, I was petrified of them. I'm sure that, if I had seen a drug when I was 14 or 15, I would have run off screaming in the opposite direction.

Today, that attitude seems quaintly innocent. Cultural icons such as Kate Moss, Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse are defined less by their career achievements and more by their ability to consume copious amounts of narcotics. You can hardly turn on the radio without hearing a rapper extolling the virtues of cannabis. And so, unsurprisingly, the average age children start smoking dope now is 13, according to the latest Home Office figures. Somewhere along the way – arguably in the early 1990s, when rave culture sparked a huge surge in the consumption of both cannabis and ecstasy – drugs got a makeover.

By the time I was 18, the anti-drugs narrative had run its course and everyone I knew had either necked a disco biscuit or smoked a joint. So when I first placed the soggy end of a spliff against my lips, there was a grim inevitability about it all.

Peer pressure made me do it, pure and simple. I was hanging around with a group of horseracing stablehands at the time. They were all tough as nails, and drugs were commonplace on the lower rungs of the racing world. I knew nothing about racing but loved my pals and I wanted to be like them and be accepted by them. They were hard-drinking, hard-living characters one and all.

I took my first puffs on a joint sitting on the floor of shabby communal digs in an outbuilding on a stud farm, while thoroughbreds whinnied in the dark outside. I didn't tell anyone it was my first time for fear of ridicule. I was terrified as I took those first tentative puffs. I was expecting my head to explode or my lungs to melt in my chest and dribble out my nose. I distinctly remember the adrenalin rush, and it wasn't the dope, it was fear of the unknown. But, as tiny burning specks of cannabis resin – hot rocks, in drug parlance – peppered the carpet around me, I started to grin. Not bad, not bad at all, I thought. I ended the night curled up on the floor, not knowing whether I wanted to vomit or giggle.

Cannabis and I had our first awkward dates, and as time progressed we fell into a meaningful relationship that lasted the best part of 10 years.

To begin with, I never actually bought cannabis. To my mind, that would have made me a drug addict, and they were sick, pallid, diseased individuals, half-alive and half-dead. I was a casual smoker. If there was a joint being passed around at a party, I'd be first in line, but only mugs bought the stuff.

So, until my early twenties, cannabis and I were more like a couple who couldn't commit. We would spend a night together, but then we wouldn't see each other for a few weeks. As far as I was concerned, this ability to take it or leave it was a sign of mental fortitude.

But the thing with cannabis was that I liked it, I liked it a lot. And as the Nineties trundled on and it became increasingly common, I succumbed and bought my first stash.

I was 19 and working in a local newspaper selling advertising space, a dead-end job as far as I was concerned. Most of my days were spent in a fug of boredom, so in the evenings I'd let off steam drinking and smoking dope. Nine-to-five life was humdrum and I yearned for some excitement and risk. Cannabis, with its exotic allure, filled the gap. Buying it from a shady dealer was like sticking two fingers up at convention.

Inevitably, if you wanted to buy cannabis 20 years ago, you were sold resin, a sweet-smelling brown block that looked like a stock cube and probably contained bits of old tyre. There was no choice, you accepted what you were given and consumed it gratefully – consumer choice and free market economics hadn't caught on yet in the drug world. You took what was available or you went hungry. Actual grass was rare, and for students and youngsters on low incomes, resin was a cost-effective option. You bought in imperial weights – a sixteenth if you were skint, or an eighth. An eighth cost £15 and the price stuck there for as long as I can remember; drug dealers obviously never got to grips with the concept of annual inflationary price rises.

Preparation was somewhere between a Japanese tea ceremony and an origami demonstration. You'd heat your little block until it became hot enough to crumble without starting to burn, and you'd pepper the resulting granules over tobacco removed from a cigarette and laid out on three carefully arranged cigarette papers. Master joint-rollers were treated with reverence and awe. I could never get my joints to roll properly, so I bought a rolling machine.

Having conquered the mental hurdle of turning from a user to a buyer, I never looked back. Cannabis use was exploding, so it was not a great leap of faith. At the age of 22, I decided to go back to higher education and study for a degree, and student life was awash with the stuff. Everyone was at it.

To supplement my income, I started working bars in nightclubs – tacky mainstream Home Counties ones full of secretaries and panel-beaters. They were awash with cannabis, too. It was Generation X time, and slackers and stoners were cool. Half of Camden Market depended on cannabis users; you could buy bongs and water pipes and tiny wooden boxes with elephants engraved on them to keep your stash in. Suddenly, smokers had the choice of hundreds of different types of cigarette paper, some seemingly the size of wrapping paper. It was a Klondike rush. It might still have been illegal, but by the mid-Nineties cannabis had become mainstream.

For me, drugs were recreational and social and had ultimately become a badge. I probably smoked a joint or two a day for the three years I was at university – always in the evening, though, because I still had a strong work ethic and wanted to get good grades.

That was the contradiction. I wanted to be subversive and edgy, I loved Bret Easton Ellis novels and Nirvana and Pearl Jam, I wanted to stick two fingers up at convention and be a drop-out, but I also wanted a career and future success, so the best I could do for rebellion was a minor but regular cannabis habit and long hair. It was a cop-out by Pete Doherty standards, but in the uniform 'burbs where I lived it made me one cool cat.

Depending on where and when I smoked it, cannabis made me sociable or relaxed. I can't ever remember being stressed between the ages of 19 and 25. Life was a floaty cushion of narcosis. It made crap movies good. It made music sound better. It made mundane tasks interesting. I loved going out when I was stoned. It felt like I had a special little secret that no one else knew.

But the best thing about cannabis was the sleep. That last joint of the day, usually smoked craftily out my bedroom window (I lived at home with my mum and dad at the time), invited the most peaceful, restful blanket of sleep that I've ever experienced.

So that was my life for many years – relaxed and carefree. But time moves on and people grow up. I started a career in journalism, which became increasingly pressured, and I could not afford to be anything but 100 per cent focused. I lost touch with the circle of friends on whom I could rely to supply me, and I smoked less and less and stopped buying it until, in my late twenties, I hardly came into contact with cannabis at all. The final nail in the coffin was when I became a father and the occasional puff stopped altogether. It just didn't seem right any more. I'd gone full circle.

However, no matter how much distance between me and that last lungfull, I'd often be taken with a nostalgic yearning. Sometimes I'd be out somewhere and catch a whiff of someone else's joint and hanker after a puff. Other times I'd catch myself sitting in the garden with a glass of wine and the sun on my back thinking how nice it would be to have a spliff on the go.

These were not the sweaty, feverish cravings of an addict in withdrawal, they were more like wistful pangs that, over the years, turned into curiosity. What would it be like to smoke dope now? How exactly did it used to make me feel?

The landscape seemed to have changed. I started reading stories that disturbed me; stories about feral youths, half-crazed on super-strength skunk, smashing innocent people to oblivion. I had no idea what these miscreants had been smoking, but I'd never known anyone to become violent because of marijuana; quite the opposite. I felt like a codger ruminating on the good old days. When I was a stoner it was the most we could do to get the ring-pull off a can of Dr Pepper, let alone stove in someone's skull in a tempest of violence.

This wasn't how I remembered things, so I set myself a secret task. When my wife took the children away for a week for a holiday, I was going back to the stoned age. I would score some dope and see just how much things had changed.

As they left one July morning, I felt a surge of guilt as I waved them off, like I was about to cheat on them all. I'd always been proud of myself for being able to steer clear of temptation, but now I was going to do the dirty on them. And, like a cheating partner skulking off to meet his mistress, I also felt a twinge of excitement.

You see, on the face of it I had a very stable life and I'd done it all by the book. I had the mortgage, the family car, the pension, the accidental death cover and the smoothie-maker. I'd conformed and played along. Now I was going to do something a little bit subversive – and that felt good.

The first hurdle, after 10 years out of the dope loop, was – where does a 38-year-old balding father of two score some gear?

I only ever knew one dealer. He lived in Surbiton, the town where The Good Life was set. His name was Craig and he lived in a mid-terrace house with his mum. He dressed like an extra from Wayne's World and dealt from his bedroom. He was a pleasant chap, a bit older than me, and I had him pegged as a mature student supplementing his income. He only dealt in resin, and on the couple of occasions I went round his house he'd bring out a slab of the dark brown stuff, heat a knife with a blowtorch and slice off a block, weighing it on a set of scales. It was like going into an old-fashioned sweet shop to buy fudge.

I had Craig's number in an old address book and got up the courage to call him. An old lady answered; I assumed she was his mum.

"Hi, is Craig there?" I asked.

"Who is this?" she answered suspiciously.

Christ, I thought, what if he's dead, or in jail?

I told her I was an old schoolfriend just back after years living abroad. It turned out that Craig had left home many years ago to go and work for an investment bank in Hong Kong, where he was now married with two children. Luckily, I had a plan B. One of my daughter's friends had a father who I knew liked a joint occasionally, so I asked him. He had some spare, and later the same day he dropped off a small bag of weed. When I asked him what it was, he told me that it was skunk. This was going to be interesting.

I set myself some sensible middle-age parameters. Definitely no smoking at work – and if I felt the urge to commit mindless violence I would flush the lot down the toilet.

I'm a non-smoker, so I bought some tobacco and a packet of king-size cigarette papers. I figured that rolling tobacco would burn slower than cigarette tobacco so I wouldn't flood my system with a sudden torrent of poison and be tempted to conduct an orgy of violence. I sat down at the table to roll my first joint for what must have been eight years. I used the skunk sparingly. It stunk even before it was lit.

I didn't want the house full of smoke, so I went out into the garden to smoke my joint. It was a warm July evening, and both my neighbours were in their gardens too. We exchanged pleasantries as I nervously tried to hide my joint behind my back. Realising that the smell would alert anyone within 200 yards, I went into the shed at the end of the garden, shut the door and sparked up.

I was too paranoid to savour the situation. What if my neighbours could smell the dense, pungent fumes? I puffed away furiously trying to finish the thing, but because of the rolling tobacco it took an age to burn down. Finally, having finished it, I furtively opened the shed door, peered round to make sure the coast was clear and bolted for the house.

Back on the sofa, I started to feel the world soften. The edges become curves, it all got a bit looser. I started to find it difficult to concentrate on anything for more than 10 minutes. I put on a few DVDs and flicked through the TV channels but couldn't find anything that held my attention.

I munched my way through a bag of Doritos and a Mars bar and decided to head for bed and the promise of a night of cannabis-induced sleep. After two children and six years of broken sleep, I was looking forward to the most peaceful night's sleep for ages.

Bleary-eyed, I turned the light off at 11pm and started to make mental notes of what I needed to do the following day. Slowly, those mental notes started to multiply. They started to snowball and the snowballs turned into an avalanche. It was like a tap I couldn't turn off. The more I tried to blank my mind, the more it raced and the more it raced the more anxious I got. At 2am, I tried turning the light back on and reading a book but I couldn't concentrate. At 4am, I finally fell into a fitful sleep for two hours, and then the light woke me and my exhausted mind started racing again. I got up, shattered.

I was a zombie. It felt like someone had opened my skull and poured treacle into it. I couldn't make a decision, I couldn't concentrate, and underneath it all I had an unsettling feeling of anxiety. It wasn't how I remembered at all.

The following night I rolled up again. I figured that my body might be used to the cannabis this time. I crept back down to the shed and smoked my way through another skunk joint. I had a piece to write the following day and decided I'd sit down after a joint and see how well it lent itself to my creative process. Well, it worked for The Beatles.

Staring at the computer screen, I couldn't clear the fog from my mind. I couldn't focus on anything for more than a few seconds. I'd float in and out of lucidity, staring vaguely at a fixed point somewhere on the screen in front of me and losing all conscious bearings before snapping back into the here and now and wondering how long I'd been zoned out. It was a bizarre feeling, disconcerting and unsettling. I started to worry that I had developed some kind of mental illness. Bits of consciousness were flaking off.

That night was the same as the first. I sat fidgeting in front of the TV, anxious and confused. I gorged on junk food. Every half hour I'd wander into the kitchen, confused about what I wanted, having forgotten what I'd eaten 30 minutes earlier. I couldn't make my mind up about anything. Even deliberating over whether I wanted sweet or savoury snacks became a tortuous process.

And, once again, the sleep I craved never came. Instead, I endured a night of fretful apprehension. I felt a nervous sense of foreboding but couldn't quantify what was unsettling me.

The following night, I met up with friends for a pre-arranged meal. I tested the social aspect of the drug. On the train to meet them I panicked that someone was going to talk to me. I hid behind a newspaper but could not read it. I'd repeatedly go over the opening paragraphs of the same story, get halfway through an article and realise I'd forgotten what it was about. And it wasn't like I was reading Wittgenstein, it was London Lite.

In the restaurant, I was quiet, edgy and paranoid. I couldn't follow conversations and kept looking at my watch hoping for the night to end.

This was the pattern for five days. Exhausted, anxious and increasingly delirious, my mind was racing, unable to stop and focus. By the time I stubbed out my last joint, I hated the stuff and feared I'd done myself irreparable harm. I'd gone looking for nostalgia and cosy familiarity but instead discovered a new, horrific reality that bore no resemblance to what I remembered. Skunk is a whole new ball game.

In hindsight, and with a clear head, it's now evident that much of the appeal I felt for cannabis wasn't about the drug per se, it was about the drug in context. Cannabis amplified my thoughts and feelings, so when life was carefree and fun, cannabis made it even more so. Two decades later, wrapped up in career and mortgage, with middle age breathing down my neck, it served to augment my worries and drag them kicking and screaming from my subconscious, right to the forefront of my mind.

But there is another, more worrying, conclusion. It is that cannabis itself has evolved into something unrecognisable – skunk, which is now the market leader, accounting for 81 per cent of the marijuana sold on British streets, compared with just 20 per cent in 2002. It's around three times stronger than normal cannabis thanks to higher levels of the compound THC, which causes the psychotic symptoms, and lower levels of another compound called cannabidiol, which experts think protects users from the effects of THC.

The cannabis that fuelled the hippie generation's quest for world peace has been contorted by market forces and cross-pollination into a nervous, twitching grotesque. The latest government stance on marijuana is to suggest that it be reclassified from a class C drug to a class B drug, based largely on the fact that skunk is now so prevalent.

Bizarrely, given my past, I am now inclined to agree with them. What I took bore no similarity to the dope I used to enjoy, but as my generation moves into middle age – the generation that experienced the so-called Second Summer of Love, the birth of rave culture and the explosion of recreational drugs – we will start to assume positions of responsibility and influence. The next generation of public policymakers will arguably have more experience of illegal drug culture than any before, so it follows that the debate on the subject will be more open and informed, with less inclination towards panicked knee-jerk policy.

Which would all be good if we were talking about the type of cannabis on the market in the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, we are not. Today, cannabis has lost its innocence.

Pot luck: In their own words

Bill Clinton, 1992

"When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn't like it. I didn't inhale and never tried it again."

Jeffrey Archer, 1992

"I don't agree with smoking, let alone cannabis. I've never tried it – certainly not. But you don't have to shoot someone to know about murder."

Sid Vicious, 1976

"Pot is for dropouts. Only hippies like pot."

Gary Barlow, 2007

"In 2002, when I was dropped as a solo artist, I was smoking 15 spliffs a day. At the end of the night, I would smoke only half my last joint so when I woke up I could have the other half before reality set in."

Paul McCartney, 1997

"We [The Beatles] were kind of proud to have been introduced to pot by Dylan – that was rather a coup. It was like being introduced to meditation and given your mantra by Maharishi. There was a certain status to it."



Keith Richards, 2007

"I've quit weak drugs."

Boris Johnson, 2008

"That's true [that he smoked cannabis before university], but the stuff you and I may have smoked is not the same as what the kids are having now. I think skunk is very dangerous."

Howard Marks, 2007

"If, as a result of smoking a lot of dope, one becomes schizophrenic, that's reason for concern. If being slightly schizophrenic makes you want to smoke some dope to ease you through the day, I don't think that's a cause for concern. To find out which of these is true will require research. One has to look into the action [of cannabis] on the brain and what happens."

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