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Comment: why a harmless spliff is not so harmless
Forget Tupperware or Ann Summers parties. Event organisers in the American state of Colorado have ditched their peep-hole bras and air-tight biscuit boxes in favour of handing round elegant silver cases containing carefully rolled marijuana joints.
A month after Colorado became the first US state to legalise recreational use of the drug, the new place to be seen is the "cannabis-friendly" party, where like-minded guests can eat, drink and smoke with impunity.
Last week, tickets costing the equivalent of £80 sold out for a drinks party organised by a "ganjapreneur" in an upmarket art gallery in Denver.
Guests ranged in age from 20-somethings, to professionals in their 30s and 40s and grandparents in their late sixties.
At this so-called "Edible Event" (suffice to say that the canapés weren’t the usual smoked salmon on blinis or prunes wrapped in bacon), fine wines and gourmet "munchies" were served to expensively dressed people as they admired the modernist paintings on the walls: what you might call cannabis for the chattering classes.
If you have just read the preceding paragraphs and think that I’m glamorising or condoning recreational drug use, then think again.
Actually, I’m appalled and depressed by it.
I never did smoke cannabis, partly because I preferred to be in with the out-crowd and mainly because all the "users" I knew (and in the late 70s and early 80s I knew plenty) were frankly, rather boring company.
When they were "sober" they were snappy, sulky and withdrawn and when they were "high" they either giggled uncontrollably at things the rest of us didn’t find remotely funny, or were so laid-back they couldn’t get up off the floor.
Admittedly, most of them emerged unscathed from the cannabis haze of their youth, but then the stuff they smoked was as baby food compared with the skunk available today.
But they were the lucky ones; chillingly, not everyone gets away with it.
Just as the well-heeled and glamorous citizens of Colorado started to give cocktail parties in order to "normalise cannabis", an inquest last week in Bournemouth heard that a young mother of three was killed by the level of cannabis in her blood, the first woman in Britain known to have died directly from cannabis poisoning.
In one report, a friend described the 31-year-old as "full of fun and a good mother to her children", but I wonder.
Addicts of all kind are notoriously difficult to live with, with their mood swings, anxiety attacks, outbursts of anger and foul language, so much so that family members can feel like strangers in their own home.
Most of all and least well documented are the on-going depression and mental health problems, including paranoia and psychosis, that prolonged use of cannabis can cause, says Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, founder and chief executive of the family support charity DrugFAM and a Family Member of the Government’s Recovery Committee.
"Use and abuse can cause all sorts of problems," she says.
"Week after week we see between 60 and 70 families in our support groups who are worried sick about the effects of cannabis and skunk on their families, the break-down of relationships and the denial of the addict as to the damage it’s causing them and their families."
And she should know; Mrs Burton-Phillips set up the family support charity DrugFAM in March 2004, following the death of her 27-year-old son from drug abuse. The charity now runs six weekly groups for families and carers of addicts in High Wycombe, Chesham, Slough, Reading and London.
"My son Nicholas was groomed from the age of 13 by drug dealers, [which marked] the beginning of a long journey from cannabis to heroin.
"People know nothing about the conditions in which drugs are made and their possible contamination.
"We could have an ageing nation of people with serious mental health issues through the long-term use of cannabis and skunk. We see it all the time," she says.
One man who knows all about cannabis addiction from the inside is former user Steve Byrne, 50, who now runs No Need 4 Weed, a support group for those who want to give up, which meets every Tuesday evening at Watford Fire Station.
"I started at 15 and at my worst, I spent about £100 per week on it. I did anything to get it - lie, cheat, steal," he recalls.
"I got angry, I wasted my time, my money and my relationships because I was having an affair with cannabis," he says.
Byrne finally kicked the habit last year when he was diagnosed with emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which he says have put half of his lungs beyond repair and means he cannot walk upstairs without huffing and puffing.
He believes the dangers of cannabis are under-rated by comparison with Class A drugs.
"Once you’re hooked, it’s just as bad as the others," he says.
Of course as a committed non-user, (some would say goody-goody), I’m biased against recreational drugs.
I fully acknowledge one joint doesn’t turn you into an addict, any more than one drink makes you an alcoholic, but that doesn’t mean there is room for complacency, not even if - in fact especially not if - you have been smoking the stuff for decades.
Drug growers and dealers are as imaginative and resourceful as the next guy with a product to sell and profit from.
Liberal parents should remember that today’s marijuana is up to four times stronger than it was in the 1980s - which in turn gave a far more powerful hit than it did in the 1960s.
Take note, all you broad-minded grannies out there who might be tempted to offer a "harmless spliff" to your teenage grandchildren.
For drug and alcohol treatment and support in Herts:
Tel 0800 652 3169 (out of hours)
Tel 01923 222889 (Mondays - Fridays and Saturday mornings)
No Need 4 Weed support group
Tel Steve Byrne on 07582 133431
For family support groups in Bucks, Berks and London:
Tel 0845 883853 (out of hours)
Tel 01494 442777 (office hours)
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