What are UK potheads really like? Are they all the same? Jake Lenton investigates
Portrayed by the media as scruffy, lazy, work-shy folk who will eventually succumb to a mental illness, there is no doubt that the cannabis consumer has been negatively stereotyped. Without even cursory reference to over a century’s worth of medical research, we are being brainwashed into believing that soft drugs inevitably lead to harder substances, even though it would never be assumed that the social drinker is a sure candidate for alcoholism, for example, reporting on the death of Amy Winehouse, it was written that cannabis is a gateway drug to heroin, cocaine and crack” (Amanda Platell, 26th July 2011) regardless of the fact that the US Drug Policy Research Centre concluded that over a twelve year period only 1% of users progressed onto harder drugs. But apparently Ms Platell did not see fit to cite such a report, one that would question the scaremongering of a media who is determined to demonise cannabis users regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Considering the cannabis users I know personally, it appears that none fit the media’s stereotype, but rather are hardworking individuals who just enjoy smoking a substance that happens to be illegal in the UK. For it is now true that we cannot use the term ‘illegal’ without reference to the country in which it has been made so, in light of the decriminalisation of cannabis in so many other countries and states, with Maryland being the 21st state of America to allow the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
So, in an effort to unearth the truth about cannabis users I decided to undertake a ‘virtual tour’ of the UK, connecting with as many people as possible. However despite being widely viewed and ‘liked’ on social media, only a handful of responses arrived from those willing to be included in this article. Out of fear of the draconian drug laws, many people are, understandably, unwilling to speak out about their cannabis use.
Before I go off ‘meeting’ people, I’ll tell you a bit about myself. I’m Jake, 27. I use cannabis mainly for recreational use, and rarely drink alcohol. I work full time, pay taxes and have no criminal record, other than a cannabis warning a few years ago.
I strongly believe that no drug can be illegal on the basis of protecting public health, when the Government sees fit to profit from alcohol and tobacco, both proven killers in much higher numbers than any illegal drug.
The first person I encountered on this virtual tour was Ben Nicholas, from the South East. He studies Law, Business, English, P.E and has a part time job as well. He uses cannabis in joints and bongs, but if they were more affordable would purchase a vapouriser. Ben smokes cannabis not just to get ‘high’ but to benefit from the clarity of mind that he experiences soon after. His thoughts on the best future of cannabis regulation in the UK is for total decriminalisation. When it comes to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin he says most cannabis users know these to be highly dangerous. He also makes a strong case for utilising the medicinal benefits of cannabis by making it available on prescription.
My next ‘stop off’ was Cambridge University where I met George who studies maths, smokes cannabis using a pipe or mixed with tobacco in joints, sometimes alone or with friends. We discussed if he had been unfortunate enough to come into contact with the police, and although he has not, he thinks that this could be in part down to the fact, he doesn’t fit the general stereotype of how a ‘pot head’ should act or where he should live. I asked for his opinions on the legalisation of cannabis and his ideal scenario would be one that allowed growing for personal use and to share with friends. His concern was that big corporations would become involved in the industry like the tobacco and alcohol giants. We both agreed that in any form, prohibition was unacceptable but that many of the people in positions of power are still fighting change that is based on ill-informed personal beliefs.
Now I was off to the coast to see Phil Shaw, 22, who lives and works in the seaside town of Worthing, a few miles west of Brighton. We chatted about his first experiences with cannabis in his late teens. Despite finding the feeling of being high a bit odd to begin with, he came to enjoy using it recreationally with friends and as a study aid. Cannabis became increasingly beneficial in Phil’s life when he was diagnosed with a lactic acid problem which caused him to feel pain after physical activity. In spite of a six week course of physiotherapy no improvement was felt. However Phil began to notice that after smoking cannabis the pain would relieve itself and found it “100 times easier” to sleep, or focus on the task at hand. A few years on, he no longer has any pain in his knees and the problem seems to have resolved itself. Now he smokes 1 – 2 grams a week, normally in a joint. If with friends he will sometimes use a bong and finds the high clearer and longer lasting. Like Ben, from earlier, he would like to use a vaporiser if they were less expensive. He has also eaten cannabis in cakes, brownies and even on a pizza and finds it has a different effect to smoking. Phil finds it good in a social gathering and would recommend it as a good way for non-smokers to enjoy cannabis. He also explained that he generally prefers cannabis over alcohol and has stopped drinking completely since last August, which he feels has had a positive effect on both his bank balance and life as a whole. As we chatted some more, I was told about Phil’s experience with the police. After being stopped on his way home one night an officer approached him and asked to search him as he matched the description of a vandal seen in the area. A familiar line, that I’m sure many will have heard if they’ve been unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of a police intervention. What happened to Phil next surprised me though. After finding a couple of grams of weed on him, the officer asked him if he understood that it was illegal, to which he agreed, then handed it back to him and told him not to get caught with it as it could land him in trouble. This goes to show that not all police are as draconian at implementing the law as the politicians who make it, although it goes against my own experiences with the police, albeit a few years ago.
Before saying our ‘goodbye’s’ we talked about the ideal scenario for legalisation. Although supporting complete legalisation, Phil stressed that in his opinion cannabis needs to be approved for medicinal use immediately as the healing properties can no longer be ignored.
Ideally, he sees two possible scenarios for the future. The first where each person is free to grow and smoke their own cannabis. The other option is to place it in the hands of Government and tax it in a similar way to alcohol so that the price can be set and that user, like many of his friends are not scammed out of amounts ranging from £10 up to £200 by unscrupulous ‘dealers’. He says that, in his opinion, the laws regarding cannabis directly create crime rather than deter it and almost, if not all of these scammers go unpunished.
I wished Phil well, and we went our separate ways. I was pleased to hear about the positive impact cannabis had on his pain, why should it be illegal to use cannabis in this way but perfectly fine to ingest a whole host of widely prescribed drugs which if not dangerous in themselves, always carry a worryingly long list of possible side effects?
My virtual tour, was now to become a reality, with a stop off at the annual 420 event in Hyde Park organised by Norml UK. You can read more about the day here . http://norml-uk.org/2014/04/hyde-park-420-2014-daily-mail-wont-tell/)
I had arranged to meet a few people on the day, but the heavy rain seemed to have scuppered many peoples plans. I still made at least a dozen new friends, as well as meeting many of the organisers from Norml UK and London Cannabis Club. Jo, Stuart, Greg and the many more whose names I have forgotten (Forgive me, it was a hazy day to say the least and the weather made taking notes almost impossible) certainly didn’t conform to a ‘pothead’ stereotype, and their knowledge and passion was inspirational.
Stuart Harper, political campaign officer NORML UK and UK CSC Hyde Park 420
I met many people wandering around and we discussed things from medical use to oils, strains and vaporisers. Everyone had their own thoughts about the way media represents cannabis users, and their ideal scenario regarding Drug Law Reform, The general consensus was that the media continue to print dubious interpretations of research, often devoid of any real facts and whereas drinkers are free to purchase and consume copious amounts of alcohol somebody choosing to relax at home or with friends and smoke a joint is a criminal.
One of the people I was lucky enough to meet at the Rally was Michelle X (her legal name), who also gave a speech.
Michelle told how, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis many years ago, she was taking many prescription drugs, and needed to use a wheelchair. The Doctors told her she would be dead by the age of 35. After ten years of no improvement, a doctor eventually recommended that she try cannabis as a treatment, which she did. Now, well past her predicted life expectancy Michelle no longer uses a wheelchair, and seemed to be full of energy on the day we met. However she also told me how she was raided by police, who found 28 plants and a fair quantity of cannabis she was using to treat her pain. She lost all the medicine, but accepted a police caution as punishment.
Her story even made The Sun newspaper, who reported how she had to buy cannabis from street dealers after the police confiscated her home grown cannabis, which was much safer. Michelle’s story inspired me even more to push for change. Although being a strong advocate of personal choice and full decriminilisation, the medical benefits need to be recognised by Government Now. As a humane society, nobody should be made to suffer in pain unnecessarily. A treatment is already being widely used with great success, yet those who choose to self-medicate with cannabis are criminalised. It’s worth knowing that GW Pharmaceuticals are licensed to grow tons of cannabis to produce the medicine sativex, which is then often denied to patients on the basis of cost. Sativex, is another story in itself, and well worth doing a bit of research on if you are interested. The hypocrisy is quite outstanding.
I wished Michelle well and the day continued. Michelle will be speaking at the NORML UK AGM weekend in Bristol on 31st May 2014. Further information from here http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/norml-uk-agm-ukcsc-agm-and-norml-uk-women-s-alliance-launch-tickets-11354005135
Another long time and passionate activist I had the pleasure to meet was Tim Summers. As it was raining heavily by now, it was a short chat but we shared the same beliefs regarding criminilisation of cannabis and Tim is currently busy organising a march to parliament on 19th September. I also spoke to one gentleman who said that while ‘normal’ weed was fine by him, he was concerned about ‘skunk’, as he had read that it was much more psychoactive and grown exclusively with chemicals. I explained to him that ‘Skunk’ was in fact simply a strain of cannabis originating from Holland in the 80’s. The media have simply seized the word ‘skunk’ and presented many inaccuracies around it.
Following the rally, people seemed inspired and I began to receive many more messages from people offering to share their story. However were I to include everyone I met, either online or in person, this article would never end. To those people, I’ve been unable to include I apologise.
We can all play our part in fighting the stereotypes, as well as the hypocrisy surrounding drug laws in general. If you see an article in the press with incorrect information, leave a comment or contact the editor. It may seem futile alone, but if we all think like that, we will never see real change. If you see or hear untrue conversations regarding cannabis, have the courage to present real facts and present a more balanced view. Join your local Cannabis Social Club to connect with like-minded people. Get involved with Norml UK, who are fighting on your behalf every day and interacting with people in positions of power. Events in Colorado and Washington have proved that together we can see real change, which will bring a huge benefit to the economy, creating jobs and releasing millions of otherwise law abiding, productive members of society, from the risk of a criminal record.
Jake Lenton is a writer and volunteer helper for NORML UK