The Times: Cannabis: Robert Crampton

The Times Newspaper, Robert Crampton January 22nd, 2014

“Cannabis is much more pernicious than Obama knows”

When President Obama says he thinks marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer”, I think he’s profoundly wrong. When he says smoking pot is no more dangerous than smoking cigarettes, I think he’s wrong about that too. When I see evidence of what seems to be a global trend in favour of decriminalising or legalising cannabis, I think that’s wrong too.

And I’m otherwise pretty liberal about banned drugs. Most problems associated with banned drugs, it seems to me, stem from the fact of their being illegal rather from the fact of their being taken. To place the supply of selected drugs in the hands of violent criminals seems to me a very bad idea. Yet I feel differently about cannabis. I think governments should be making it harder to acquire, not easier.

Barack Obama and the many other now middle-aged politicians who smoked a bit of dope in their youth and can’t quite see the harm in it need to understand the drug has fundamentally changed since they enjoyed their last toke. Genetically re-engineered, cannabis is now a very different product to the one puffed at parties in the Seventies. The days of a mild innocent high are gone — the prospect of grave mental instability have arrived.

A year ago, in order to write a feature for The Times Magazine, I spent three days at a rehab clinic in the Zurich suburb of Küsnacht. The Küsnacht Practice is reportedly, at close on £7,000 a day, the most expensive such clinic in the world. Patients have included Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheikhs, English aristocrats, German bankers and American film stars. Addictions range from alcohol to cocaine to morphine to food to sex, or various combinations of the above. Patients are quartered in luxury flats and must undertake to stay a minimum of four weeks.

Unsurprisingly, given the amount of care and attention 50 grand a week can buy, the success rates at Küsnacht are very high. High — yet not, however, total. His most signal failure, Lowell Monkhouse, the practice’s founder told me, was a young man in his twenties now confined to a secure psychiatric hospital, where he will probably have to remain for the rest of his life. “He had cannabis psychosis,” Monkhouse said sadly. “We couldn’t help him.”

Cannabis addiction, Monkhouse explained, is the hardest one to break — harder than heroin, harder than booze, harder than a compulsion to order up a couple of hookers and a big bag of coke. He added that cannabis (certain strains of it at least) was also the drug most capable of causing the most profound and least reversible neurological damage. And cannabis could inflict such damage quickly, in the brains of young and otherwise healthy people.

I’d never much liked cannabis, even before I heard what Monkhouse had to say. I’d dabbled in it perhaps a dozen times in my twenties and thirties, each experience less enjoyable than the last. Under its influence, I became, at best silly and sleepy, at worst paranoid, unstable, offensive. Cannabis seemed to me to be far more powerfully mood-altering than the received wisdom claimed. People I knew who smoked a lot of it were not just boring and a bit dozy, many seemed to be seriously mentally impaired. I haven’t touched the stuff for years. Good decision, one later confirmed during my trip to Zurich.

A big mistake is being made. The illegal drug regarded as the least harmful is the one most likely to send people round the bend.