Gerry Farrell: Far wiser to just legalise pot

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This column comes with a health warning. I’m about to stick my neck out and argue for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis.

But I’ll begin by expressing my reservations about it. Cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug in Britain. The biggest problem with it is that it messes with young minds. The under-18s whose brains are still developing and rewiring themselves are incredibly vulnerable simply because they don’t actually know the strength of what they are smoking. Regularly smoking strong cannabis like skunk triples the risk of a young person having a psychotic episode. In fact, the number of people taken to hospital with psychotic episodes has risen since cannabis was downgraded to a Class C drug.

Adolescents who are regular users are at risk of permanent damage to their intelligence, attention span and memory according to the biggest study in the world, carried out in New Zealand over four decades. I haven’t just been ransacking factoids from Google; I’ve seen this happen to teenagers in a number of families I know well.

So why on earth would I argue that it should be legalised? First of all, because then it could be regulated and purified. Users would know its strength and how regularly they could take it. And like cigarettes and alcohol, there could be properly enforced legislation to try and stop teenagers experimenting too soon.

My second and more powerful argument is that there is now little doubt that cannabis WILL be legalised in this country. It’s simply a matter of when. In the US, the world’s greatest enforcer of drugs prohibition, with its “War On Drugs” and “Just Say No” campaigning, the sale of medical marijuana is already legal in 23 states. In Colorado, there are already ads for chocolate spread containing “medical marijuana” and at some ski resorts you get a free joint when you buy a ski pass! At a recent conference on the business of marijuana in the Hilton Hotel in Chicago, there were sales stands offering $20 chocolate bars laced with marijuana’s active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and non-alcoholic drinks like The Cannabis Quencher, “a fruit juice that’s a potent, refreshing and fast-acting way to consume cannabis”. The marketing of this beverage goes on to say that “one bottle is the equivalent of smoking 6-7 joints, so it’s best to share it with friends”.

The momentum looks unstoppable. One White House insider said on the record that “even if a Republican were elected to replace Obama, they would think twice and twice again before cracking down on it again”.

They’re calling it the Green Rush and, just like the Gold Rush, businesses are falling over themselves to cash in. One company boss who sells the lighting systems for growing your own wacky baccy said: “I don’t need to sell the drug itself. During the Gold Rush the folks who sold the shovels got richer than the folks who did the digging.”

It is rather absurd to walk into Little Havana, the pipe and cigar specialist at the foot of Leith Walk, and find its display cases crammed with bongs and hash pipes as well as all the other pouches and tins branded with the famous leaf – but still be unable by law to purchase the herb to put in them.

In Victorian society, opium, cocaine and cannabis were available over the counter of your local chemist. Addicts, like alcoholics back then, were regarded as depraved and dissipated individuals who couldn’t control their appetites. But your average Victorian woman didn’t think twice about taking medical marijuana for period pains – even Queen Victoria’s personal physician recommended it to her for that very reason.

When you look at drug use through that lens, it makes you wonder whether Britain really is the socially progressive country it thinks it is. Or are we permanently stuck in a moral rut?

NOTHING BEATS IT

I just want to briefly share my latest hobby with you: doing nothing. Isn’t it brilliant? Last Saturday the sun finally shone. Friends and family arrived. We ate and drank, wandered along to the Old Chain Pier then just sat and looked out at the sea. I’d tell you a little more about my day if it weren’t for this dashed idleness.

Life at the chalk face is not so bad after all

I NEVER wanted to be a teacher. It looked like hard work. I was so convinced I didn’t ever want to teach that I took a teaching job in Rome when I was 20, just to prove to myself I wouldn’t like it.

I was employed as an English Language Assistant in a State Secondary School in EUR, a part of Rome built by Mussolini, with “heroic” architecture and a lot of wealthy kids. My classes were made up of spoilt teenagers whose Dads were politicians or corporate executives and they weren’t shy about telling you how boring they found the whole process of being educated.

I found being a young teacher really knackering. I had to prepare for every single lesson – I don’t think I ever used the same lesson twice. Talking for three hours at a stretch meant that by lunchtime I’d lost my voice. The pay was a pittance, around £20 a week which barely covered food and rent. The only flat I could find a room in was at the opposite side of the city. Every morning I had to get on three buses and a tube train so I was often late and got regularly scolded by the school staff.

Even worse was the fact that Rome back then was like Belfast during the Troubles in the Seventies. The Red Brigades seemed able to carry out stunning acts of terrorism at will, like the kidnap and eventual assassination of the Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro. There were armed riots in the universities too. My Italian flatmate told me about the day he was chased out of his campus by riot police summoned to break up a student sit-in. He fled through the gates into the street and saw a bunch of anarchist students waiting in ambush behind a parked car. He threw himself to the pavement as they opened fire. The policeman chasing him was shot in the mouth and died at the scene. It wasn’t a happy place to be and I was glad when I finally left my teaching post and came back to Edinburgh.

So it’s come as a quite a surprise to me that after three decades working in big ad agencies, I’ve actually started teaching part-time again just for fun. I welcomed my first class on “Communicating With Impact” at the Creative Exchange in Leith last Thursday evening and with a lot of help from my better half and creative partner, I discovered that teaching a small class of eight people on a subject you’re passionate about is a huge pleasure.

We had a really mixed group – marketing executives from big brands, people running small charities, graduates and design company executives. We talked and laughed for over two hours and we got as much out of the experience as our pupils did. Roll on the next class in June.