26 March 2007
As a newspaper apologises for its 10-year campaign to decriminalise cannabis, Kate Summers asks why its about-turn took so long
As a child, Guy was the liveliest, most happy-go-lucky boy that a mother could wish for.
He was mischievous, charming and always on the go; if there was a tree to be climbed, he was there. He loved music, he loved life.
In 2003, at the age of 16, he started experimenting with cannabis.
I assumed it was just a phase he would grow out of and, to some extent, turned a blind eye. But within six months my ebullient boy was transformed into a quivering, paranoid wreck, who was bombarded by voices in his head and who rarely left the house. A year later he committed suicide.
Five months after he started using the drug, doctors diagnosed him as suffering from cannabis-induced psychosis. He stopped smoking it immediately, but the damage was done.
I was stunned to learn that cannabis could be so harmful – it bore no resemblance to the drug I had puffed once or twice at university. And although it has been around for years, I had never heard of skunk, the superstrength variety that is now increasingly available. It bears almost no relation to the resin sold 10 years ago, containing 25 times the amount of tetrahydrocannabidinol, the main psychoactive ingredient.
Had I known, I would have acted differently. I’m convinced that it was skunk that ultimately killed Guy.
Recent reports state that record numbers of teenagers now need treatment as a result of smoking skunk. Last year, more than 22,000 people were treated for cannabis addiction – almost half of them under 18. It’s a terrifying statistic, because behind every number there is a real person whose life is being destroyed.
With a dramatic front-page apology, the Independent on Sunday newspaper last week reversed its 10-year campaign to decriminalise cannabis. It cited new research published in the Lancet, showing that the drug is more dangerous than LSD and ecstasy, and confirmed that a link has been established between strong cannabis and psychosis.
I applaud that decision, but what took them so long? This highly potent cannabis isn’t new, nor are its terrible effects. In 1997, the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence warned that skunk could be responsible for some cases of psychosis.
I wasn’t anti-cannabis, and I still think that it has a therapeutic role in pain relief for sufferers of multiple sclerosis, but what I have learnt about this lethal form of the drug has made me rethink my views. You can’t tell who will be affected by skunk. I had no reason to think my lovely son would fall victim, but he did.
Guy was our middle child – my husband and I have an older son and younger daughter – and was invariably described as a lovable rogue, who would get into trouble at school but could melt the hardest heart with his cheeky grin.
His problems began when he was 16. He had left school and was waiting to start sixth-form college. He and his friends had lots of time on their hands and, some time in May, Guy started experimenting with cannabis.
He already smoked roll-up cigarettes, but I realised he’d progressed to soft drugs when I found large cigarette papers and little tubes rolled from cardboard in his room. I tackled him about it, in a low-key way, and told him it wasn’t good for him, but the last thing I wanted to do was to make it into a big deal. And besides, I had no concept of how dangerous it was or how bad things could get.
In a way, I was so relieved that he wasn’t out binge-drinking and being picked up by the police that I was happy for him to smoke quietly in his bedroom. He was a bright boy, and I thought he would know his limits.
But I didn’t realise how much he was smoking, nor how powerful it was. It was only much later, when his illness had taken hold, that his friends told me that the roll-up he would smoke first thing in the morning was a joint.
I have raked over the past again and again, wondering if things might have been different if I had known the facts about strong cannabis. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and there’s nothing I can do to change the terrible sequence of events that led me to discover my son’s body, hanging from the top bar of his bunk.
There was no sign of any problems until that October. It was coming up to his birthday and he wanted a party, so my husband and I went out for the evening.
When we came back, we expected the house to be a bit of a mess, the way it usually is after a teenage party, but the place was just as we left it. Guy, however, was sitting on the floor in the corner, shaking, with three of his friends sitting on the sofa looking shell-shocked.
Apparently some people had arrived whom Guy didn’t particularly like, and he had started screaming and yelling and telling everybody to go, which was completely out of character.
I sat down and talked to him all night: it was obvious then that he was extremely depressed and terribly paranoid. I took him to the GP, who put him on anti-depressants and referred him to a psychiatrist, who said Guy’s psychosis – the paranoia, mood swings, and loss of concentration – was caused by the cannabis.
The stronger the cannabis and the younger the person who smokes it, the greater the risk. Not everyone will be affected, but I believe that the drug acted as a trigger for his mental illness: had he not smoked cannabis he might never have become mentally ill.
Guy stopped smoking at that point, and was placed in the care of the Crisis Resolution Team – an NHS home-treatment service – which meant he was monitored through weekly home visits and daily phone calls. But despite that, he took an overdose of anti-depressants and, shortly afterwards, was sectioned briefly for his own safety.
By then, his personality had transformed. His behaviour was erratic and bizarre: some days he would become obsessive about cleanliness, have four or five baths and tidy every room in the house. On other occasions, he wouldn’t wash for weeks and just sit listlessly in his room.
He veered from wanting to be with me the whole time to shunning all contact with me and the rest of the family. He was frightened to go outside and never saw his friends; there were voices in his head and he was convinced that people were out to get him. It was pitiful to see the state he was in.
When he was going through a bad patch, he would wear a beanie hat, night and day. I grew to dread the sight of the thing, because it symbolised his pain.
However, by April 2004, the good days appeared to be outnumbering the bad and he got a job in the bar of a local hotel. He held it down for a couple of months and came off his anti-depressants because he felt he was better; in truth, it was the anti-depressants that were making him feel better.
He still heard the voices, but he said they were under control. Then, believing he was on the mend, he smoked a cannabis joint with friends – something I discovered only later.
It sent him spiralling into a deep depression. Days later, his paranoia increased and he started self-harming – cutting his body. We were all devastated and the strain was tearing us apart. I desperately wanted Guy back; he was unrecognisable, a shell, rather than my son.
In October, he was put back on anti-depressants, but, although our GP was brilliant, she couldn’t get the same rapid response from the other health agencies that Guy had received before. He was put on a waiting list for Crisis Resolution, which made him feel unsupported.
He was lower than ever before; there were no good days any more. His bedroom was festooned with notes saying “Leave me alone” and “Get out of my head”.
The voices drove him to burn his arms with a cigarette lighter yet, when the Crisis Resolution Team eventually came to see him in January, two days before he died, they said he wasn’t suicidal.
The day he died, I had taken him to the doctor for his anti-depressant prescription. I dropped him off at home and went across the road to the chemist. I was about to go straight to work, but for some reason I went back to the house: I was greeted by silence.
I called to Guy but there was no answer. I dashed upstairs and there he was, hanging from a scarf he’d made into a noose. He was just 17 years old.
I can’t begin to describe the feeling of seeing your own child dead. But I do remember a sense of relief that it was me who had discovered his body. If I’d gone to work, his younger sister would have found Guy when she got back from school, which I can’t bear to even imagine.
On the day he died, I felt bereaved, but in truth we’d lost Guy a long time ago. He wasn’t happy, and he was never going to be happy.
Cannabis had robbed him of his joy and his future. Again and again I think about how different things could have been, and I would urge all parents to be vigilant and to arm themselves with information about strong cannabis and its effects.
I hate to think of other families going through the nightmare we endured. We will never recover from this, any of us. Guy may have taken his own life, but it was cannabis that killed him.
- For advice on cannabis use, call the national drugs information service, FRANK, on 0800 77 66 00 or visittalktofrank.com