Deborah Orr: Drugs are the thing every wise parent should fear

There is no fail-safe procedure that can save a family from substance abuse
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The Independent Online

A long while back, maybe 20 years ago, a couple of boys in their mid-teens, high on glue, climbed on to the glass roof over the cavernous factory workshop of the old Smiths Industries building, in Wishaw, south Lanarkshire. They fell through it, and would almost certainly have died if they had not landed on the grow-bags full of cannabis plants that covered the concrete floor. The empty building was known locally ever after as Spliffs Industries, to widespread amusement.

But none of it was funny really. Abandoned factories weren't funny. Children abusing solvents, breaking into dangerous buildings, and falling though 30 feet of space weren't funny. Illegal cannabis farms weren't funny. But the bitter irony was hilarious. Smiths had been a big local employer. My mother and my aunt had both worked in the wages office, and the slow decline of the company had been a constant topic of anguished conversation at home all through the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The big idea then was that the collective pain suffered by the communities most adversely affected by the restructuring of the economy was "worth it", because a bright new age of entrepreneurism would emerge. The big, existential joke was that in that old building, where clocks, watches and aircraft instruments used to be made, a new and totally unregulated British industry had already been established.

The cannabis sector has since developed in leaps and bounds. Wayward children don't resort to crisp bags smeared with glue any longer. They buy – and sell – cheap home-grown skunk instead, stronger than the imported rocky, leb and black that dominated the market back then, stronger than the herbal cannabis that was probably being cultivated at Spliffs Industries.

A lot of people claim that the increased potency of skunk is not the big problem it is made out to be. They are irritated by hysterical media claims that it is 20, even 40 times stronger than the benign puff of yore. Certainly, that is errant nonsense. Most studies conclude that skunk has only double the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) of grass, and users say this isn't a problem because you merely use half as much. Crucially, however, skunk also has much less cannabidiol (CBD). This really is bad news, as CBD is an anti-psychotic substance that there is every reason to believe mitigates some undesirable effects of THC. It's not just the strength of skunk that is different, it is also the balance of ingredients. These ingredients, scientists have shown, cause permanent damage, particularly to the still-developing brain.

Discerning consumers, these days, go out of their way to purchase other, more expensive forms of cannabis. As for the less discerning consumers – teenagers – well, what caring parent would find it comforting that their child was smoking skunk, not inhaling butane? None.

That's the annoying thing about the Myersons. The now-notorious couple seem unaware that substance abuse has been a serious adolescent problem for nigh-on 40 years. The writer Julie Myerson has written a book, The Lost Boy, detailing her eldest son's use of skunk, seemingly under the illusion that her household would have been impervious to teenage sturm und drang were it not for this particular drug. Her husband backs her, insisting that their story had to be told to highlight "the emergency of skunk".

Yet it is already widely acknowledged that skunk is "an emergency". Further education colleges are packed with boys who crashed out of school, then signed up later to access courses, in order to catch up. Young Offenders Institutes are stowed with lads whose use of that drug and others fostered their criminality. The link between skunk use and the triggering of schizophrenia and psychosis get stronger by the month. The Home Secretary, only a few weeks ago, cited the emergence of skunk as the single most pertinent reason why the Government had decided to return cannabis to its class B status, having downgraded it to class C four years ago.

Of course, if this game of classification really had any pertinence, skunk only could have been made class B, or even A, while resin and grass could have been credited as more benign. But it's all academic really, since the police control class A drugs no better than they control class B drugs.

The advice of the Myersons is that the press and the public should reserve judgement on The Lost Boy until they have read the book, whose publication has been brought forward in anticipation of high demand. If it really does have a credible strategy for the combating of the emergency of skunk within its pages, then this is a strangely unexplored aspect of the pre-publicity, and a welcome contribution to the "debate".

My super-psychic hunch says it doesn't. It is already illegal to sell skunk and illegal to buy it, just as it is to sell or buy all drugs except alcohol and tobacco. Even though the latter are legal and controlled, they still fall easily into the hands of the under-age. There is theoretical sense in the idea that legalising drugs would at least allow their quality to be controlled, and would also persuade otherwise law-abiding citizens to disengage from the violence and exploitation of illegal supply. But the grim danger is that the illegal market is already there, and already largely without scruple. Such a move would isolate those citizens who could not possibly be included in a legal system – children.

The Myersons say that if only they had known earlier on that their son's problem was skunk, then they would have tackled things differently. (Their critics say that their mistake then was to write about their children back then, and that they are still oblivious to their own parental shortcomings.) Yet I know all about skunk, and its effects. I've supported a number of people as they tackle addictions to alcohol, drugs or both. But I'm not at all certain that I could necessarily protect my drug-using teen. All you can hope, really, is that you never find yourself in that situation, and that if you do, it doesn't escalate.

There is no magic bullet, no fail-safe procedure that can save a family from substance abuse, under-age or not. Yes, it is important that people should understand that skunk has particular problems and can have undesirable long-term effects. It was naive and stupid of the Myersons to tell their children that addiction to tobacco was more of a worry to them than cannabis use. It is imperative for parents these days to educate themselves about drugs, pass that knowledge on to their children, if and when the time is right, and hope that they will be receptive. Only fools believe that it could never happen to their family, like the Myersons did.

That, essentially, is why this case has caused such a sensation. It's all too clear that no outside agency is going to make skunk, or crack, or smack, go away. One can only hope that one's own family is solid enough to withstand the attractions of risky behaviour – and maybe mount a big witch-hunt when some other family admits that it was not.