A SUNNY day during the summer holidays and a group of giggly teenagers squash together on a park bench. As they chat – about boys, teachers, fashion – one produces a cannabis joint and lights it, before offering it around.
Laughing, they all take turns having a puff. Just another rebellious rite of passage, like that first sip of alcohol or drag on a cigarette, given a slightly more delicious edge because it is illegal.
But for Nicole Carter, then 14 in the summer of 1989 and one of the teenagers in that park in West Linton, that first smoke was the beginning of a 20-year mental health nightmare from which she is only just emerging. Later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, characterised by violent mood swings and deep depression, she is in no doubt that cannabis is to blame.
"I can't emphasise enough the damaging effect that cannabis had on my life," says the 34-year-old, originally from Penicuik. "It was just so easily available when I was growing up.
"That first time when I tried it made me feel quite sick at first, but I persevered because being bad was an extreme sport for me. My dad was a policeman and my mum never touched anything like that."
Up until then, she'd had a happy childhood. Her father Harry served in The Royal Scots Greys under soldier and adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, before becoming a policeman. Her mother Rosina was a playground assistant at Mauricewood Primary, her first school, and a community centre volunteer.
"She was always around in the playground playing games like dodgeball and hockey, and after school she'd take me and my younger brothers, twins Iain and David, to the community centre so we always had loads of friends," she says.
But relations with her family went rapidly downhill after that first puff of cannabis. Nicole, by then a pupil at Beeslack High School, began smoking the drug every weekend. "I started to become aggressive and paranoid. I remember one time in third year when I thought there were sharks in the school swimming pool. I eventually managed to rationalise but I'll never forget the feeling of imminent fear I had in the pool.
"I started losing interest in school and when my mum found out she wasn't pleased to say the least.
"Things weren't going well at home and then my dad left, which didn't help matters but it wasn't the source of my problems. By that time I just didn't care any more."
She began to enter a murky world. "The cannabis also brought me into contact with a drug dealer. He was about 21 and he had a bit of a reputation as the kind of guy you don't mess around with. I passed him in the street one day and he asked if he could walk me home.
"I should have wondered why a 21-year-old guy wanted to walk a 15-year-old home, but I was flattered that he noticed me. He knew exactly what he was doing – and we kissed on the way home.
"About a week later I was at a party and there was only me and another girl and whole group of guys. He took me up to the bedroom and I have to admit I was a bit curious about sex because of all the things we had been taught about.
"I was a virgin at the time and while I was curious I didn't want to have sex, but when he got his hands on me he started ordering me around. He was very dictatorial and I was scared of him so I just did everything he told me to do."
At the time she didn't tell anyone what had happened. "I had to go to rape counselling and get pregnancy and HIV tests by myself, which is a lot to handle when you're 15. I stopped smoking cannabis after that."
Within a couple of years her mother remarried and her new stepfather, Bill Cargill, began to reintroduce some stability in her life. She retook some of her highers at college and got a steady job at Standard Life. However, life soon began to unravel again.
"I had already started smoking cannabis again in an effort to get my life into some kind of perspective. I began to feel angry at all of the things that happened in my teens, almost like delayed post-traumatic stress, so I quit my job and ran away to Amsterdam.
"Ironically, I smoked less in Amsterdam than I did in Scotland because I was holding down two jobs as a kitchen porter in an Irish bar and a cleaner at a hostel.
"I came back in 1997 but rather than return home to my parents I decided to become homeless. I checked into the Cranston Street hostel, which was . . . interesting.
"Most of the women in there had drug and alcohol problems, and had been abused or raped.
"It sickened me how prevalent rape seemed to be and how many men seemed to get away with it, so I finally reported my own rape, but the police said too much time had passed. They questioned the dealer but he denied it, so that was that."
Nicole got a job as a silver service waitress and ended up working as a waitress at the Queen's garden party at Holyrood House.
"I still laugh at the irony of this homeless waif handing out hors d'oeuvre to the guests."
By now she was using cannabis again. "I've rarely ever paid for cannabis because it's always been so readily available. There were always guys offering me joints and most of the time it was their way of making girls easy.
"I started getting paranoid again and I used to think people were either angels or demons, and that I was able to see it in their eyes.
"I got a job at the Edinburgh Rock cafe around this time too and I had to be restrained from throwing myself off the roof. I was just standing on the edge and I decided I would just let myself fall, but someone pulled me back. It was a suicide attempt and I put the blame solely on cannabis.
"I wasn't eating and I became seriously malnourished, so on top of my bipolar disorder I was suffering from hallucinations and I was admitted to hospital.
"When I got out I started a university degree in applied bio-sciences and I starting seeing a guy called Steven. We weren't really right for each other and shortly after we split up he died of complications related to his diabetes. He was only 21.
"Even though I'd only been seeing him for a week I began to get terrible feelings of guilt.
"I dropped out of the course and . . . " She stops mid-sentence and her face suddenly drops. She puts her hand to her face. What she's trying to say is that at the age of 23 she was sexually assaulted again and spent the rest of her 20s going from hospital to hostel.
She adds: "One thing I've noticed about every psychiatric hospital I've ever been to is that they seem to put the predatory men in the same ward as the vulnerable women, and the horrible women in with the vulnerable men.
"I've raised it with the staff and they all give me the same excuse – there's not enough beds. I just want to break out of this vicious cycle."
Now, though, she's hoping she's done just that. She's staying at the city council's Colinton Mains House, supported temporary accommodation.
"Some of my worst periods in life were brought by my desire to have children. One of the side-effects of my medication is the risk that it will give my child spina-bifida if I was ever to become pregnant, so I kept taking myself off the medication and then end up at square one.
"The staff at Colinton Mains House have been amazing. They've helped me realise that my medication is necessary and helped me cope with the side effects."
She is also writing poetry, with the inspiration drawn from some of her most troubled times and has just had some work published.
"Now I'm looking forward to the future. But anyone that says cannabis doesn't cause mental illness doesn't have a clue what they're talking about."
Poems By Nicole Carter: Volume One is available from Colinton Mains House on 0131 441 2719.
CANNABIS – also known as dope, grass, marijuana, hash or pot – is the most widely used illegal Class-B drug in Britain, either as parts of the herb, or as the resin, hashish. It is harvested from the plant cannabis sativa, and the main active compound is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Researchers estimate there were about 321,352 recreational drug users smoking or ingesting cannabis in Scotland in 2006, and the number continues to rise. In recent years drugs hauls worth millions have been discovered in the Capital. About 100 cannabis farms have been closed across the country in the past 12 months.
Some of those who use the drug, which has a strong and distinctive smell, can become anxious, panicky, suspicious or paranoid.
It also affects coordination, which is one of the reasons why driving under its influence is just as illegal as drink driving.
As it is usually smoked, often mixed with unfiltered tobacco– and is frequently adulterated with other chemicals – it can cause lung disease, and cancer in the case of long-term or heavy use.
Cannabis itself affects many different systems in the body. It increases the heart rate and can affect blood pressure.
Those with a history of mental health problems are especially advised not to smoke cannabis. It can cause paranoia in the short term and spark a relapse for those with psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia.
It is also thought that frequent use of cannabis can cut a man's sperm count, reduce sperm motility, and can suppress ovulation in women.