No more Mr Nice guy: Howard Marks, poster boy for cannabis, doubts safety of drug

The man who made a career, in and out of prison, from cannabis has for the first time expressed concern about its links to mental illness in the light of reports in <i>The Independent on Sunday</i>. David Connett reports
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Howard Marks, the one-time "King of Dope", is a living icon for campaigners for the legalisation of cannabis. But yesterday he admitted for the first time that he is concerned about links between cannabis use and schizophrenia. Marks, better known as Mr Nice – one of 43 aliases he used when running his worldwide drug empire and the title of his best-selling autobiography – said more medical research into the issue is vital. Marks admitted he was uneasy over growing evidence which suggested that being "stoned and being off your head" may be connected. By that, he meant the temporary high from the drug and long-term mental health illness.

Marks, speaking in a TV interview, said: "I think it is difficult to establish whether these two states are similar. 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."

He said that the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C in 2004 followed The Independent on Sunday's campaign to legalise the drug. Earlier this year, the newspaper abandoned its stance following growing evidence that cannabis use could lead to greater incidence of psychosis, including schizophrenia.

Marks's comments coincided with Gordon Brown's call for celebrities to speak out against drugs. The Prime Minister emphasised the need for sportsmen, pop stars and other public figures to act as role models for young people and denounce illegal substances. He also criticised celebrities who took a "very casual attitude" to drugs. "Those who think that their standing in the community makes them above the law on these matters is another area where I think we've got to send a very clear message. Not only that we will not decriminalise drugs but at the same time this is unacceptable behaviour."

The Government is carrying out a consultation on cannabis classification. Many groups are calling for the drug to be returned to class B status.

Marks, who was jailed for 25 years for masterminding a worldwide cannabis smuggling operation, has long been an advocate of drug legalisation. But he admitted that claims that smoking cannabis increases an individual's chance of developing a psychotic illness by 40 per cent gave him "genuine concern". The psychosis threat was especially acute in smokers under the age of 16.

Further research was also needed to discover whether the brain itself used chemicals similar to those found in cannabis in order to counter pain, he said.

Further viewing: Watch Howard Marks's interview on