After seeing my most recent article on the topic of cannabis, and its status in the UK, a friend of mine put me in touch with a drugs worker in south Wales. We looked to arrange an interview as long as they could remain anonymous. I agreed to this and we met soon after.
Steven (not their real name) is a drugs worker based in a substance misuse clinic in south Wales. Unlike many other people I have spoken to about this topic, Steven has seen both sides of the story, having used cannabis recreationally in the past and now working to help those with drug use issues. Though the organisation Steven works for has certain beliefs and official opinions on drugs use, Steven himself is more liberal and open.
The large majority of Steven’s clients are cannabis users and Steven says this allows him to “get an insight into how and why cannabis has affected their lives.” The organisation he works for relies on the clients volunteering for help, they are under no obligation and no pressure to attend, and the clients must decide themselves if they want to be there.
Each new client goes through the same process where their substance use, both past and present, is noted and they are asked why they feel their cannabis use is a problem. As Steven describes the process to me I get a sense of the work he, and his organisation, participate in. It seems entirely open, and almost completely down to each of the clients. There is no hard sell from the organisation, nor is there a push from them to get the clients to act in a certain way.
From the opening questions it becomes clear to me that we are not discussing cannabis misusage. What we are in fact discussing are the reasons as to why cannabis misusage occurs. Though the interview, and my interest, is in cannabis, cannabis seems to be one of the effects, rather than the cause.
A point that we keep returning to throughout the interview is that of “emotional triggers for use.” Despite having an interview with a drugs worker, and despite writing an article on drugs, the problem is not with the drugs, but with what comes before. Steven says that as drugs misuse workers they do not concentrate on the cannabis, in this instance, but they look at “getting to the deeper meaning of why they are using cannabis.”
I think that is an incredibly important point to understand. The issue is not with the drugs themselves, but rather why the clients are deciding to take them. Understanding that point is essential when looking at the topic of drugs, because if you fail to understand it, you will always see drugs as the problem, whereas in fact, drugs are one of the effects.
Steven tells me that recently his number of clients has “increased a lot” and he puts this down to the fact that society is now more open about cannabis. Society is beginning to discuss cannabis usage, and therefore cannabis misusage, and this has led people to feeling that cannabis is now more “accepted as being a problem for individuals.” Though many cannabis users who do have problems do not feel like they need to be seeking help from drugs misuse workers such as Steven, he says that many clients don’t feel as “worthy as a class A drug addict would.”
I ask Steven what type of problems his clients have, and once again I am reminded that the problem is not the drug. Steven says that “99.9% of the time it is not [clients] cannabis use that is suddenly an issue”, he states that the issues that he deals with are those of accommodation, mental health and emotional trauma. He tells me that “very often [clients] have experienced some sort of trauma, usually within childhood, and cannabis, the use of cannabis, and its effects acts as a blocker for them, which enables them to cope.”
A blocker is a substance that prevents certain emotions or feelings. Steven says that through the analysis of drugs diaries – which each client has – it became clear that many clients were simply using cannabis as a blocker for stress and anxiety. Not wanting to deal with those emotions they instead turned to a joint. This scenario is no different to that of returning from a hard day at work and a friend or family member saying “you look like you need a drink”, before handing you a cold one from the fridge. The only difference here is the choice of drug. The actions themselves are identical.
It is clear from our early exchanges that Steven is not simply a drugs misuse worker, Steven is a therapist and a counsellor, and the drugs issue seems to be something to be dealt with once the underlying issues have been overcome. Treatment for heroin addicts can come in the form of prescribed drugs which can ease their dependence, but cannabis clients do not have this option. Even if they did I am not sure Steven would recommend it. Prescribing a drug to ease a dependence is helpful but it is not getting to the root of the problem, it is simply replacing one mask with another.
A typical example of a client Steven would deal with would be that of a person who uses cannabis when stressed or anxious. Every time they feel that way, they spark up a joint, and soon they forget how to cope with stress or anxiety without cannabis there helping them. They begin to rely on cannabis to prevent those feelings they don’t want, and in an ironic twist when they are not smoking cannabis they begin to feel stressed. Through this process the cannabis use begins “controlling them rather than the other way around.”
We went on to talk about what the future may hold, and whether or not the UK will change its legislation on cannabis any time soon. Though I was fairly upbeat about the chances, Steve was not. Cannabis itself neither of us appeared to have too much of an issue with, but the factor that I did not take into account, was the society in which the cannabis would be used.
This was an area which Steve was very pessimistic about, he believed that “we live in a society which drinks to excess, does things to excess, and doesn’t do things in moderation or treat things with respect.” It is because of this that he fears for the future if cannabis were ever to be legalised. He would expect a “massive increase in use” and an increased risk of more people becoming reliant upon it.
Though Steve did not know this at the time, he was giving a damning indictment of the UK and its society. A drugs worker that specialises in clients with cannabis misuse was saying that cannabis was not a problem, but the society in which it would be released would make it one. Society itself appears to be sick.
If we are to look at the wider picture for a moment, those politicians and those lobbyists who argue to keep cannabis illegal seem to be suggesting that the people cannot be trusted with it. Addiction would soar, NHS costs would rise, mental health problems would increase, and so the people should not be allowed it. But if we are to look at the issue from another angle, we see the problem not as the drug, but as the society. No longer is the drug the issue, the issue then turns to the society in which it will be introduced.
Whilst the politicians and lobbyists say, “this plant must be kept illegal because it is dangerous”, the real argument is that “society must be improved in order to accommodate it.” It speaks wonders for the society in which we live that certain substances have to be criminalised because of the damage they would do. I wonder, in societies that are more equal, more free, more loving and more open, do they have rules and laws criminalising such substances.
We are all products of our environment, and if our environment is sick, it will not be long until we too catch that illness. I don’t feel the solution to avoiding this sickness is by shutting ourselves away from the world, denying ourselves certain experiences, the solution is to improve the world in which we live.
I believe that a sick society will produce sick individuals, no matter what substances, or drugs are available. The interview with Steven showed me a new approach to the issue of cannabis, and drugs in general. His fear and pessimism for the future is entirely justified when you look at the way we currently live. As a society we abuse alcohol, we abuse food and we abuse one another, and you have to wonder if cannabis was to be legalised would we then abuse that? However, if the answer to this question is yes, it tells us far more about society than it does about cannabis.
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