Marijuana And Alcohol

Anthony Storr

In Britain today increasing anxiety over the use of drugs by young people is prevalent among parents, school-teachers, dons and Government officials. Some of their anxiety is justified; but much of it is based upon ignorance and fear, fanned by emotional articles in the daily Press which make extravagant statements, such as 'drug addiction is a venereal disease of the soul.' The fact is that we know relatively little about addiction, and until we know more from the sober results of controlled research, any new legislation will be premature and may defeat its own object...

Indian hemp, marijuana or hashish has been known and used for centuries, especially in Muslim countries where alcohol is forbidden. Although a few people may become dependent upon its use, marijuana is not a drug of addiction and is, medically speaking, far less harmful than cigarettes or alcohol. Yet the possession of marijuana is, in this country [Great Britain], illegal and in 1964 a Glasgow doctor was sent to prison for having it... The idea that the use of marijuana necessarily leads to addiction to other drugs springs from the fact that it is illegal and has thus become associated with black market activities ...

Marijuana is currently popular at Oxford and other universities. It is generally smoked in the company of others and its chief effect seems to be an enhanced appreciation of music and color together with a feeling of relaxation and peace. A mystical experience of being at one with the universe is common, which is why the drug has been highly valued in Eastern religions. Unlike alcohol, marijuana does not lead to aggressive behavior, nor is it aphrodisiac. There is no hangover, nor so far as is known, any deleterious effect. As with other drugs, there may be some danger that people turn to it as an habitual escape from life's problems.' Its supposed pleasures have at times been rather tediously over-sold.

The Oxford Scene And The Law

Stephen Abrams

Mr. Abrams is a post-graduate student at St Catherine's, Oxford, and is currently writing a book: 'Infinity on Trial: A Study of the Psychology of LSD and Related Drugs'.

The Problem Of Cannabis

The use of cannabis (marijuana and hashish) is increasing, and the rate of increase is accelerating. It is obvious that the police are no longer able to control the situation, though the possession of cannabis carries a penalty, in this country, of up to ten years in prison. The most enlightened approach to the problem would seem to lie in the enactment of a campaign of public information to warn young people of the dangers of smoking cannabis. This is what the Home Secretary proposes to do. But there are two reasons to believe that this campaign is likely to fail. Sensational mass publicity concerning the effects and availability of cannabis is probably the leading cause of the increase in illicit traffic. To have any chance of success a publicity campaign would have to be able to point to documentary evidence of the dangers of cannabis, and such evidence is apparently lacking. If people are informed of the pleasures of cannabis and not convinced of its dangers, the result will be disastrous for the purpose of law enforcement.

Dr Joel Fort, a consultant on drug addiction to the World Health Organization, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of California, and former staff member of the U.S. hospital for drug addicts in Lexington, Kentucky, has stated bluntly that 'cannabis is a valuable pleasure-giving drug, probably much safer than alcohol'.1 This view is shared by Guy's Hospital Gazette, where it has been argued that 'the available evidence shows that marijuana is not a drug of addiction and has no known harmful effects ... (the problem of marijuana has been) created by an ill-informed society rather than the drug itself'.2 The Lancet, having considered the evidence, has recently called for discussion of the possibility of repealing the laws prohibiting cannabis.3Unless statements such as these can be effectively answered and then suppressed, the Law will seem to be an ass, and civil disobedience will result, culminating in a protest movement along the lines of CND.

At present it is not known for certain whether cannabis is dangerous. But this does not justify the view that it is perfectly safe and should be made freely available to everyone. It is an established principle of pharmacology that a drug should not be made generally available until its safety has been established by means of controlled clinical trials. Here lies the great difficulty in the present situation. For various reasons it has not been possible to obtain the scientific information that is necessary to make a fair assessment of the social and medical problem of cannabis. There are few experimenters who .would be prepared to risk working in such a controversial field. Furthermore, the drug has been removed from the Pharmacopoeia, and is virtually unavailable for research purposes. To be in possession of cannabis or to import it, one must hold a license issued by the Home Secretary. Given such a license, one would find that international controls make the purchase of cannabis difficult. For such reasons, the average number of scientific papers published annually on the subject of cannabis has recently been about four or five, and these have been mainly chemical studies. Those who have a legitimate right and a scientific reason to possess cannabis find that they cannot obtain it, but their students have no difficulty in purchasing it for the purpose of 'getting stoned'. One could, of course, take the risk of performing research with illegally bought supplies; and I am informed by the editor of one of the British Psychological Society journals that his fellow editors would probably consider publishing research on cannabis on its scientific merit and without reference to the source of supply. But in such a case the investigator would risk prosecution and dismissal from his job. It is to be hoped that the Home Office will recognize that the present situation is intolerable, and that they will make cannabis seized at the customs available to legitimate research workers.

The best that can be done at the moment to shed some light on the problem of cannabis is to report on the casual observations that one has been able to make concerning the actual conditions of its use. To be meaningful, such observations should be confined to a normal and respectable community of cannabis smokers. That is, the group under observation should be, as far as possible, representative of the country as a whole in all respects other than its use of cannabis in preference to alcohol. The closest approximation to such a group is the subculture of cannabis users within a university community. The members of a university may not be strictly representative of the country as a whole, but they assume a special importance as future leaders of the country. The use of cannabis is widespread within the universities, and if this drug is damaging the minds of future members of parliament, captains of industry, scientists and teachers, drastic action is obviously called for. I live in Oxford where there are several hundred undergraduates and an increasing number of Dons on the 'pot scene'. The observations I have been able to make are probably biased in various ways, and I accept that their validity may be called into question. But I am obliged to report what I have seen and the conclusions I have drawn in the hope that they may, in a modest way, assist in the determination of public policy and the planning of properly controlled experimental research.

The Oxford Scene

Undergraduates introduced the large scale use of cannabis to Oxford in the autumn of 1963, about the time that pop music, pop art and pop culture became a country-wide intellectual fad. The standards set by the leading pop groups are not merely sartorial. This is an open secret, as should be obvious from the names of some of the groups, and the titles and words of many of their songs. Jazz is marijuana music, and has been ever since it began in New Orleans. Before 1963, there had been a small and very private 'scene' composed of people who had been introduced to cannabis in North Africa or America. At the end of the Long Vac a young poet brought fifteen kilos of 'kit from Morocco in a sleeping bag. CND was then in its death agony, and the undergraduates who had deserted it found a new and refreshingly different cause to support in 'pot'.

It is well to refer to 'pot-smoking' as a social cause, because it is an important part of the reaction that is now setting in against excessive materialism in our society. The 'tea-head', as he is called, does not merely proclaim his cause as a defensive reaction. The feeling seems to be that it was wrong to blame the Bomb, America, Russia and the Police for one's sense of frustration and inadequacy. A much more mature attitude upon which some hold the survival of society may depend is to recognize that one tends to project the worst part of one's character on to some external 'threat' which conveniently accepts the blame for the mess that lies inside. The attitude of undergraduates has become increasingly introverted. In part this has led to experiments with drugsā€”and in part it has been the result of these experiments. The view of the 'tea-heads' and of their hero, the American folk-rock singer Bob Dylan, is that CND and other social causes were a great hoax. They seem to believe that any excessive involvement in politics constitutes playing the other fellow's game and an acceptance of his rules.

It is very difficult to estimate the number of members of the University who make use of cannabis. At one time I kept a list which grew to 257 names before I decided that it would be prudent to destroy the list in fairness to my informants. I am continuously surprised by meeting someone for the first time at a party, a university society or a coffee house and learning that he smokes cannabis and does so with a group whose existence had previously been unknown to me. Without any claim to accuracy I should think that there are at least 500 junior members of the University who smoke cannabis when it is available. In addition, the drug is now being used by a few dozen of the younger Dons, though it has not yet been smoked in the Senior Common Rooms. Some of these Dons were undergraduates when cannabis was introduced to Oxford, but others have been 'turned on' by their students. Some of the older and more eminent Dons have also experimented with cannabis. Most of these Dons are people who have taken LSD, mescaline or other hallucinogens and regard cannabis as a comparatively innocuous drug to be taken out of curiosity or to find out whether it is safe for one's students.

If I were to say that the cannabis users tend to be the more 'switched-on' members of the University, I should be speaking redundantly. The smokers seem to be a fairly representative cross-section of junior members. They tend to be more adventurous and more extroverted than the average, but there are many exceptions. Surprisingly, the majority seem to have attended public schools, but all social classes and races appear to be represented in roughly the same proportion as within the university generally. The academic record of the smokers is difficult to judge, but it does not seem to be unsatisfactory, and I doubt that there are grounds for serious concern. The self-aggrandizing politicians from the Union and the athletes are two groups which are notably absent. On the other hand there are among the cannabis smokers a certain number of malcontents and weak or disturbed individuals of the kind who would be expected to join whatever protest movement was most popular at the moment.

It is interesting that many undergraduates seem to be congenitally unable to experience the effects of Cannabis,, however many times they try. Were this not so the proportion of smokers within the University would be considerably higher than it is. To my knowledge, no serious research has yet been done on susceptibility to cannabis, but I have reached the opinion that self-acceptance and relaxation, two of its principle rewards, must be present in some degree for the drug to produce its effects. It would therefore appear that 'tea-heads' must be fairly well balanced individuals, at least to begin with.

I have been able to interview a large number of individuals, at Oxford and elsewhere, who have been smoking cannabis for periods of up to nineteen years and I have been unable to find any obvious physical or mental deterioration associated with its use over a long period. These persons have satisfied me that they have been able to discontinue the use of the drug at will or when required by external circumstances and that they have not experienced withdrawal symptoms except of the most trivial kind. Several state that they found it much more difficult to give up cigarettes. I cannot therefore regard such persons as addicts to cannabis. I would compare them with people who have used alcohol for periods of up to nineteen years. On this topic I should add that there is no evidence that the dosage of cannabis increases over time, and it is not evident that the frequency of smoking increases once the individual has established his pattern of cannabis use. Furthermore, the great majority only smoke when they have easy access to cannabis. Thus they usually discontinue smoking during the vacs and when they 'go down'.

It has often been asserted that drug use of any kind is a form of escapism and should be strongly discouraged on that ground alone. To this one student has replied: 'Of course, anyone who rejects the Protestant Ethic or some other related set of social obligations, such as Marxism, can expect to be branded as an escapist for refusing to do someone else's dirty work'. But I have gained the impression that cannabis is a poor escape route. Alcohol may blot out reality, but cannabis tends to magnify it- If one 'turns on' when one is feeling bad, cannabis usually has the effect of making one feel miserable. The sort of person who wants to escape from reality may turn to heroin or they may turn to the Church, but they are unlikely to continue to smoke cannabis. On the other hand, if intelligently used, cannabis can provide the necessary relief that will enable a person to ride out a difficult period in his life. It is evidently a much safer agent for such purposes than barbiturates and amphetamines, both of which are dangerous drugs leading to addiction, mental illness and, for several thousand people each year, death.

Another criticism that is frequently made is that cannabis leads to violence and crime. Professor G. Joachimoglu has stated that 'the French word assassin for murderer is derived from hashish, because at the crisis, when these people are excited and experiencing the full effect of the hashish, they act criminally.'4 I find this extremely difficult to believe. During the so-called 'crisis' the most violent activity that is likely to occur is uninhibited dancing. I have observed hundreds of persons under the influence of cannabis and have never seen a single act of violence committed. I have known many people who have been arrested for possession of cannabis, but I know of no instance where a person has been arrested, in Oxford at least, for disorderly behavior under the influence of cannabis. Furthermore, I have had the opportunity of observing the same persons under the influence of both cannabis and alcohol and seen that the latter drug sometimes gives rise to viciousness of many kinds whereas the former leads to a sense of peace. Indeed one of the possible dangers of cannabis is that it may reduce aggressiveness to below the level that is socially acceptable.

Much has been made of the supposed aphrodisiacal quality of cannabis. Shaw once argued that the great majority of sexual encounters take place out of boredom because the individuals concerned cannot think of anything else to do. Under the influence of cannabis, when most things are pleasant, there is always something else to do and sex is unlikely to take place unless it is uppermost in the minds of both individuals.

Under the influence of cannabis, people tend to behave as if they had regressed to that time in one's life when innocence makes all things seem possible. It is this naive enthusiasm, more than anything else, which is the attraction of cannabis. It is a world in which pretentiousness is automatically and kindly deflated and prejudice ceases to exist. The pleasures of cannabis are innocent and simple.

The price of cannabis in Oxford tends to be about eight or nine pounds an ounce for hashish, which is more frequently used, and a pound or so less for marijuana. This works out at about the price of a pint of bitter for the evening's entertainment. Whatever the profits may be in retailing other drugs, the margin in selling cannabis is very slim, and no one in Oxford makes a living at it. 'Pushers' tend to be smokers who want to make a pound or two a week and get their smokes for free. They stay in business for a few months until they become well known and then quietly retire. The smokers take turns acting as pushers. Those who never push to make, a profit are usually willing to sell small quantities of cannabis at cost to friends who have temporarily exhausted their supplies, in return for similar favors in future. One point which is clear, and indeed admitted by the authorities, is that in this country there is no organized criminal conspiracy behind the sale of cannabis. Sometimes the drug is smuggled into the country on a one shot basis by students. The major supplies are brought into the ports by merchant seamen acting for themselves and are sold to anyone who is waiting around the docks. Smaller quantities are sometimes sent through the post.

One tends to be introduced to cannabis at Oxford in a casual way. Cigarettes are frequently and openly passed around at parties and small informal social gatherings. No one is urged to smoke, and it is rare to be overtly asked to join in. One tends to observe the behavior of friends under the influence of cannabis and to contrast this with one's own reactions under alcohol. An impressive point is that the cannabis smokers do not become ill or wake up with a hangover the next morning. One takes the odd puff until finally one night one becomes properly stoned. One then tends to be 'turned on' by friends and eventually introduced to the pusher of the day.

Cannabis is usually smoked in a small group in congenial surroundings in rooms in college or in digs. The atmosphere is rather like that of a sherry party. A gramophone is the most essential prop. As the drug begins to take effect, within a few minutes, there is usually an increase in physical activity, accompanied by great mirth. One may feel a compulsion to dance. Sensory experience of all kinds is enhanced and there is an air of conviviality. The usual 'high' is an innocuous evening spent listening to music, dancing, talking and eating. One may also venture out to a party, a color film, or even to a pub, and during the day it is pleasant to punt on the river or visit the Ashmolean art gallery. Many persons find they are able to do intellectual or artistic work under the influence of cannabis; and I know of a case of one young man successfully sitting an examination for a fellowship when he was 'high'.

The usual textbook account of cannabis intoxication suggests that hallucinations frequently occur and that the user falls into a stupor at the end of the cannabis experience. Neither observation is confirmed in Oxford. I have been told of just one case of an hallucination, by a girl who claims to have seen a castle at the end of Little Clarendon Street. What does happen is that spatial dimensions are distorted, and the surroundings take on a warm glow. The only reason that smokers often fall asleep is that the drug is usually taken at night. If it is taken during the day the effect wears off within about three hours. It is unusual to smoke every day. The average seems to be once or twice a week.

My observations tend to confirm the opinion of those authorities who find cannabis to be a relatively innocuous habit and probably less dangerous than alcohol. I find it hard to think of cannabis as a social menace. Yet a contradictory view is held by the legal authorities, and it must be based on evidence of some kind. There is more than prejudice to it. I think the answer is that the effects of cannabis have been confused with the people who make use of it. This can also be seen in connexion with the great variability in the effects of alcohol. Both drugs create states of increased suggestibility, and the nature of the experience depends on personal and social factors. The society of Oxford is probably a highly favorable environment for the use of cannabis, bringing out what is best in the experience. But it is not necessary to accept that in other environments cannabis produces harmful effects. Its use by criminals may be an example. It is true that some criminals smoke cannabis, but that is probably due to the fact that they have special access to illicit channels of supply. I should expect that the use of cannabis would have the effect of reducing the crime rate. This, of course, is an untested hypothesis.

One glaring inconsistency is that in the Middle East hospitals are filled with so-called hashish addicts whereas there is no evidence of mental deterioration among cannabis smokers in the West. However, in the Middle East cannabis is often mixed with opium; the opium content may be as high as 50%. In addition, in Egypt and other countries cannabis is often taken together with datura seeds which are known to produce progressive and fairly rapid mental deterioration. It may be that the addiction is to opium and that the major ill-effects are produced by datura. Malnutrition may be another factor.

It is important that the use of cannabis in this country be under governmental control. But there is, as Professor Macdonald of Manchester University remarked recently 'a big feeling in this country that prohibiting a drug is not really the way to solve the problem'.5

1 Fort, Joel, 'Social and Legal Response to Pleasure Giving Drugs', in Blum,-Richard (ed.) Utopiates, New York: Atherton Press, 1964.

2 'Drugs and Prejudice', Guy's Hospital Gazette, 79, 1965.

4 Joachimoglu, G., remark in discussion, in Wolstenhoime, G. E. W. and Knight, Julie (eds.) Hashish: its chemistry and pharmacology, London: J. &A. Churchill, 1965, p. 14.

5 Macdonald, A.D., Chairman's concluding remarks, in Wolstenhoime, G. E. W. and Knight, Julie (eds.) Hashish: its chemistry and pharmacology, London: J. & A. Churchill, 1965, p. 93.

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