Don't tell me that dope isn't dangerous

We've had two years in which I've spent as much time in and out of mental health units as at home
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The Independent Online

There were 10 of us, five mothers, one father, two sisters, a quiet young man called Joe and a psychiatrist. With the exception of Joe we had come to talk about our sons and brothers. Joe was there to tell us about his lover Christopher who had attacked him with a bread knife. In mental health jargon this was a relatives' support group held on the third Wednesday of every a month in the back room of a nondescript building opposite the hospital.

I am not, as a rule, a group person. Years ago, alongside 200 other hopefuls I participated in something called an EST course. One of those personal development and lifestyle programmes from California which put me off the group dynamic for ever. Or at least what I thought was for ever until the doctor reminded me of that old adage that a trouble shared is a trouble halved. "It might help you to know that there are other people out there with exactly the same problem as you," she said.

Our mutual problem, in a nutshell, was cannabis which, in four days' time, will be reclassified from a Class B to a Class C drug. The seven young men, one aged 19, the rest in their early 20s, whom we had come to discuss had all experienced what psychiatrists call a psychotic episode triggered by excessive use of cannabis and were now diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics.

At the psychiatrist's suggestion we introduced ourselves in the same way, I imagine, as people attending AA classes. "My name is Pauline and I'm here to talk about my brother Nick, who was a student until he was sectioned for six months, is now living in sheltered accommodation but as far as we know is back on dope."

Or: "My name is John. This is my wife Kate and we're both totally shattered and traumatised worrying about our 21-year-old son Dan who's smoked cannabis regularly since he was 15, has dropped out of college, moves in and out with various friends, refuses to take medication, doesn't eat properly, washes and changes his clothes only when we make him and comes home only when he needs money."

When it was the turn of the woman beside Pauline, she tried to speak but couldn't, covering her face with a handkerchief, her shoulders shuddering.

"Is it OK with you, Maria, if I outline your situation to these people?" asked the psychiatrist. Maria nodded, still clutching the handkerchief to her face. Maria's son Jerry is 23. He was sectioned and held in the medium secure unit of a mental health hospital after attacking a fellow student who Jerry thought had put a chip in his head which could read his thoughts.

Jerry knew he was being followed, that there were stories on the internet about him, and that his mother was plotting with the doctors to destroy him. When he left hospital Jerry returned home with anti-psychosis medication, but after two days he disappeared without his pills and Maria hasn't seen him since.

That was a year ago. Four months after he absconded, the police reported to the hospital that they had seen Jerry sleeping in the street. But when Maria asked the hospital to tell her exactly where, they refused because Jerry is over 21 and they would be in breach of the data protection laws if they revealed his whereabouts to his mother.

I won't go on. Some of the stories I heard that evening are too painful and too personal to pass on, including my own, though in comparison with Maria and Sarah and Pauline we have been lucky. We have had two years of cannabis-triggered trauma during which I've spent as much time in and out of mental health units, psychiatric meetings, counselling sessions and hospital waiting rooms as I have at home with the rest of the family. My son will probably be on medication for a long time but he is back at home, back at university and, with a bit of luck, will sit his finals this summer.

The problem as I see it with the Government's present muddled stance on cannabis - declassified as safer, re-advertised as dangerous and left as far as the law goes to the dubious discretion of the police - is that you cannot use cannabis as a blanket term. Just as alcohol varies in strength from a glass of dry sherry before luncheon to a bottle of meths, cannabis covers everything from the relatively harmless happy-clappy window-box weed to full-blown chemically enhanced skunk, lethal as crack cocaine. Reclassifying al-Qa'ida makes about as much sense.

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