Friday 4 March 2011


It is hardly surprising that drugs which dramatically affect the mind - in particular alcohol and other recreational drugs including cannabis, cocaine, and heroin - might "tip over" vulnerable people into mental illness for the first time or, if they have previous experience, into relapse. The research published this week (see our report with links here) certainly indicates this in relation to cannabis. Equally, the research indicates very clearly that the vast majority of cannabis users are not affected in this way; put another way you are very unlikely indeed to get a mental illness by using cannabis but it does appear to carry a very low but statistically validated risk.

So how should we respond? I suggest that there is a powerful argument for people with experience of mental illness (especially psychosis) to steer clear of mind-altering drugs, including alcohol in other than very moderate quantities, not so much because of this and other research but on the commonsense grounds that you want to give yourself the maximum chance to get well and stay well and there is bound to be some risk attached to taking drugs which artificially and unnaturally bend, alter, expand (call it what you will) your mind.

For those who have no significant experience of mental illness I don't think the new research changes anything much either. Anybody who thinks that taking recreational drugs, including alcohol, carries no risk of mental illness is a fool and they were before this and similar research was published. Most people won't be affected but of course some will and nobody knows in advance if they are one of the vulnerable people who will be affected, possibly in a devastating way. I've just given a quote to Wales on Sunday about that twit Charlie Sheen who has defiantly celebrated his addictions: now there is an example of somebody who has found out the hard way how these drugs can hurt you.

Is that an argument for total abstention? Of course not, any more than the significant and mortal risks of driving a car are a decisive reason not to drive cars. But you have to add up the risk and make an informed choice which may be a different choice from (for example) your choice to take the risk of driving cars around.

I don't think my choices about this are any more valid than yours but I'm happy to share my views which I suspect are very conventional. I don't think the possible rewards of taking cocaine or heroin are worth the risks so I won't be sampling those. I think alcohol remains obviously more risky than cannabis both for one's physical and mental health but, based on habit and the conventions of our society, I will remain one of the 90% plus of us who use this powerful drug.

I probably won't be taking cannabis much though, not because of the real but low risks but because its illegal status makes it inconvenient and undignified to source and I don't like the idea of enriching the nasty and often violent people who control supply. Also my own experience of using it is that, though it all seems very clever at the time, actually the drug tends to turn the user, while under its affect, into a crashing bore and it leaves no lasting memories of interest; by contrast alcohol, edgier, more unpredictable and potentially more dangerous in its affect, can stimulate interesting thought and interaction (as well as boring and circular nonsense of course!).

I would add though that as I get older it looks rather sad that we culturally depend so much on drugs - conventionally alcohol - as a necessary component of having a good time. I discussed this with a conservative, abstaining Muslim. He was very reluctant to pass any judgement, wanting to respect people's choice, but following a bit of pressure he admitted to wide-eyed disbelief and great sadness as he observes what most of us would see as the conventional recreational habits of our society especially at the weekend. To him it just looks like thoughtless mass hysteria. It does make you think...

...but, enough from me, have a good weekend whether you choose to do that "conventionally" or in your own way.