Fuzzy, amiable and permanently stoned

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ONE GREAT gulf between the over-and under-thirties is the prevalence of 'recreational' or soft drugs in their lives, above all dope/grass/marijuana - call it what you will, but I mean cannabis. Surveys suggest that perhaps a quarter of young adults have tried it.

Those who grew up before the mid-Sixties would have been unusual if they had used cannabis, though it was not unknown. Opinions about it ranged from daring and Bohemian to wicked, to plain suicidal. Most people were ignorant, and few could have distinguished between cannabis and heroin. Both came under the fearful heading drugs.

But in the mid-Fifties a new culture had begun with the Beats in San Francisco . . . Jack Kerouac, On the Road, all that. It took about a decade to reach Britain but by the late Sixties, the effect of hippies and the impact of gurus such as R D Laing, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs had made the drug culture hip, exciting and acceptable as the badge of a newly liberated generation. We nudged one another knowingly when the Beatles sang 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'. There were marijuana joints and acid trips at parties, and plenty of people seemed to use both.

I never risked LSD, but I did smoke joints, enjoyably, occasionally, guiltlessly. When I became pregnant for the last time I stopped, and never really resumed.

Yet even in those days - the Seventies - one seldom heard of people who used cannabis all the time. Those who did were assumed to be hippies who, while tolerated (it wasn't long since we'd all aspired to hippiedom) were seen as having dropped out. They were laid-back, long-haired, non-competitive; producing little except scented candles and beaded jewellery. The climate of those times was less hostile and they managed to live on the fringes of society without begging in the Tube or sleeping rough in doorways. A few years later most of them dropped back in again.

Today, recreational use of dope remains at least as common. What has changed, it seems to me, is the number of young people who are permanently stoned. They don't just smoke at parties, or at weekends, or to relax with friends; they smoke like cigarette smokers, never letting the drug leave their bloodstream.

I am not being particularly judgemental. I accept that cannabis is non-addictive and much less damaging than alcohol or cigarettes. I even think it should be decriminalised. My point is different.

I want to know why so many young people opt for a state of unreality most of the time. Take university students. They are by any standards among the most privileged 5 per cent of people in the world. They are young, healthy, intelligent and receiving a good education. Most have never known real hunger or cold or poverty. (Though on today's student grant of less than pounds 2,000

a year they are, by European standards, pretty hard up.)

Their bodies will probably never be healthier, their minds sharper or more receptive, their memories so good. They will never have so much time to read, talk, argue, think and lay down a lifetime's mental furniture. It seems, to put it mildly, a shame to blur that mental acuity with a drug that, however enjoyable, renders them fuzzy, dozy, amiable but passive.

Despite all their privileges, it is my impression that a high proportion (I could not guess how high since my sample is drawn at random from those I meet) spend around pounds 15 most weekends to lull themselves into a state of

delightful semi-stupor. Why?

I had seven people under 25 to supper one night last week, which doesn't happen often, so I asked them that question.

'To get away from stress - to chill out,' said one.

'Because it's illegal]' said another.

'Because you can buy it more easily than beer if you're under 18.'

'All my mates do it.'

'Because it's nice.'

'It's cheaper than alcohol.'

'You don't wake up with a hangover.'

I drink for at least some of those reasons but here's the difference: I don't drink all the time and I can afford it. At this point I have to avoid becoming pompous ('I'm older so it's different for me') or goody-goody ('but I'd much rather not drink at all'). Yet something feels wrong, when the brightest and best people half my age never face the world with all their senses fully tuned.