Pubdate: Sat, 10 Feb 2001
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2001 The Irish Times
Contact:  11-15 D'Olier St, Dublin 2, Ireland
Fax: + 353 1 671 9407
Author: Eddie Holt


With leading scientific journals differing on the long-term effects of
regular cannabis use, it's little wonder that the subject of drugs still
drives many people apoplectic, writes EDDIE HOLT

'The smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health," said an
editorial in the British medical journal, The Lancet, in November, 1995.
Regular cannabis use can have "serious effects" on both mental and physical
health, said a report last week in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Right . . . so cannabis is not at all dangerous yet it's seriously
dangerous? Great! That clears up any possible confusion. Looks like the Bill
Clinton "puff away but don't inhale" strategy was simply ahead of its time.

You'd wonder why people bother with drugs when such contradictory scientific
hash is available to addle the brain. Then again, when it comes to drugs, I
suppose we're always likely to hear what we want to hear. Some, no doubt
fortified by wishful thinking, argue cannabis, if not utterly harmless, is
at least safer than alcohol and tobacco. Others, incited by media
delinquency in exploiting the emotional harmonics of the word "drugs",
scarcely distinguish cannabis from heroin or crack cocaine.

Whether it's the science or the spin that's more stoned, who can say? It
seems unlikely that regular use of any drug can entail no risks. Yet it
seems equally unlikely that cannabis is more dangerous than cigarettes or
drink, both of which are known killers. But that's mere speculation. Perhaps
it's more particular than that. Maybe, like penicillin or peanuts, cannabis
is harmless for some people and disastrous for others - different
constitutions and all that. Quantity, strength and frequency of use have
also got to be crucial factors.

But it's astonishing that medical views on the inherent dangers of cannabis,
the most popular illegal drug in the Western world for decades, should be so
far apart. It's not like the researchers are quibbling. Theirs is no dispute
over the 99th decimal point of pi. No, they are poles apart, so polarised
that their mutually-negating findings are pointless. What's the problem? Is
it because research is extremely difficult or is it because research can be
extremely political? Or both?

Whatever the reason or reasons, it's little wonder that even in minuscule
dosages, the subject of drugs can still drive many people apoplectic. Much
of the hit is in the terminology, of course. Like "Haughey" or "Blueshirts"
or "Ansbacher", the word "drugs" is itself so charged it can have wildly
different effects on different groups.

Typically, to older people and most middle-aged conservatives, drugs are
drugs. Once a person takes that initial drag on a joint of cannabis, smack
addiction and the gutter beckon. And it can happen. All adventuring brings
casualties. But it happens to only a tiny proportion and it's not just
accidental that the overwhelming majority of Irish hard drug users are from
the most deprived estates of Dublin.

Sure, kids from wealthier, middle-class homes, having first tried cannabis -
though usually after alcohol and that after nicotine and that after aspirin
and that after caffeine and that after Calpol - have ended up dead in a pool
of vomit after an overdose of heroin. But it happens far less often than the
mythology predicted.

Generally, teenagers hear the word "drugs" very differently from their
parents and only the unusually innocent or naive fail to distinguish between
"hard" and "soft" varieties. The more astute ones also distrust the media,
especially the sensationalist media, on the subject. But now that The Lancet
and the British Journal of Psychiatry - sober organs by any standards - have
so blatantly contradicted each other, scientific expertise offers nothing
more tangible than the most lurid propaganda.

It would make you wonder if the drug or the lies told about it - whether
deliberate or otherwise - do more harm. In the 1960s and 1970s heyday of the
counterculture, conspiracy theorists argued that rendering research
pointless was the point. Clearly, it was all an establishment tactic,
generally funded by vested interests, to prevent the enlightenment of the
weed producing a new Eden. Their opponents convincingly countered that such
madness was proof that cannabis produced paranoia.

Fair enough. The "straight" argument had, at least, the whiff of common
sense. Or it did until you saw Reefer Madness, which was hawked around
secondary schools a generation ago. This was an example of propaganda so
inept it could only backfire. As a result of seeing this cautionary classic,
thousands of kids invested in packets of cigarette papers and skinned up. A
few got into serious trouble, more became withdrawn and lost ambition, but
most just treated it all as a phase which faded away like a wisp of smoke.

ON the same day as the British Journal of Psychiatry published its latest
dope on dope, the Daily Mirror was leading with "I Am A Drug Addict, says
Naomi Campbell", while the Sun informed its readers: "Popstar Jessica
Admitted To Taking Cannabis". Presumably, the editors of these papers know
what sells. But it's extraordinary that, after all these years, such drug
stories can still be presented with maximum melodrama. It's as though public
attitudes were frozen since The Beatles were in their prime.

Certainly, the relationship between the media and "drugs" - and more
specifically, between the media and cannabis - has not always been as
responsible as it might have been. Alcohol, as it does, obliterated
clear-headedness on the issue. Being legal, historically rooted in Western
society, financially very significant and used by the majority of media
owners, controllers and contributors, it managed culturally - and still does
- - to have its own category, as in "drink and drugs".

Yes, yes, it was, well, technically, a drug . . . but that was a kind of
upstart, undergraduate piece of pedantic tripe. Drink wasn't a drug drug. It
was different. From plain pint men to fancy wine bores, alcohol's dangers
were known and accepted. But, in moderation - though itself a subjective
notion - it could be one of life's pleasures. And indeed it could. It was,
and remains, the drug of tradition and choice at Irish life's most momentous
rites of passage.

Even our most distinguishing sport, hurling, a hardcore part of what we are,
is sponsored by another part of what we are: beer. Sure, the Guinness
All-Ireland Hurling Championship sounds preferable to the Crack Cocaine
Camogie Championship, the Ecstasy Rugby Sevens or perhaps even the Colombian
Gold Ras na h=C9ireann, which would be too cool to be competitive. But the
inevitable result is alcohol becomes ever more accepted as a largely
innocuous mass-recreational drug and all other drugs are viewed as specially

It's not only hurling, of course. Distillers, brewers, cigarette
manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies target mostly young people with
promises of chemical aids to happiness. Mostly they flog an image because
the reality is often so bloody sad. Banned from mainstream channels, street
drugs can't compete, except that, being banned, they can maximise on the
incomparable cachet of the forbidden fruit - the ultimate image. It's an old
story. In fact, it's the oldest story but we never seem to learn.

Still, it's a long time since cannabis had avant-garde glamour. American
Beats, such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, prefigured the
1960s hippies and the counter-culture icons - Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, The
Beatles and the rest. But even the most greenhorn kids nowadays - the sort
who, a generation ago, might have expected to write Kubla Khan or compose
Sergeant Pepper after a few spliffs - do not view cannabis as part of any
such tradition. To them, it's forbidden fruit alright, but it soon becomes
little more than another consumer option.

By the mid-1990s, the BBC could screen a prime time drama serial, This Life,
in which a twenty-something lawyer, Warren, waking to a hangover, could say:
"That's it. I'm swearing off drink - just drugs from now on".

Although younger viewers knew that older viewers would experience a jolt at
this codicil to an age-old reaction to a hangover, it was true to its age.
Perhaps in the light of last week's revision of the dangers of cannabis,
Warren's codicil is now old hat. But it's unlikely. People will keep
smoking. Maybe they shouldn't. But they will.

"Just say No," said Nancy Reagan, 20 years ago. That simple? "Just say No"?
Right, Nancy. Given that science is providing no answers, "Just say No" has
a compelling logic and many young people simply do that. Good for them. But,
being realistic, huge numbers of other fine kids will simply say "No" to
"Just say No". It's been that way for decades now and will be at least for
decades to come. Meanwhile, we'll all pretend there's not hundred weights of
the stuff being smoked in Ireland every month.

Browbeaten by the ethic of "I am not worthy", thousands turned to drink in
this country. Anaesthetised against their own sense of unworthiness, people
could at least feel happy for a while. Now that consumerism has flipped the
ethic over to "because you're worth it" - which is almost an imperative to
pursue happiness - many people will seek whatever chemical help is
available. Ultimately, it's the same deal. But the least that might be done
this time is that reliable information, albeit contestable within narrow
limits, should be provided.

What, within reasonable parameters, are the dangers of cannabis? Anecdotal
evidence and poisonous ignorance are not good enough to give to the next
generation. If chemistry can't provide boundless happiness for the human
mind, neither can codswallop. Isn't it time - given the criminal disgrace of
our inner city hard drugs problem; the hypocrisy surrounding drink and the
ignorance surrounding cannabis - we had a realistic reappraisal of our
relationships to intoxicants and their relationships to just about
everything else?
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MAP posted-by: Andrew