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Skin Up, Dad

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How do you tell your kids not to smoke dope when you do? Patrick Matthews,
who has written a book on cannabis, tries hard not to make a hash of it .

The smell is unmistakable as I go up the stairs, but if I was in any doubt,
the 16-year-old is holding a spliff.

A group of my son's friends are standing around and sitting on the sofa.
They hadn't expected me back so soon, but they are unfazed by my presence.

The boy holds out the joint to me with a courteous nod. It's a classic
liberal parent's dilemma, perhaps complicated further by the coming
liberalisation of the law. Do you make a row, express silent disapproval,
or take a friendly toke? I'm one of a minority who could consider the last

Like most of my generation, I pretty much gave up in my 20s. However, I
came back into contact with dope through writing a book on the subject in
the late 90s. Even now I rarely smoke (though recently I taught myself to
make hashish - a soothing pastime for wet afternoons). But am I really
qualified to dispense Nancy Reagan's advice to my three teenaged children
and ask them to "just say no"?

There are parents I know who tell their children that all drugs are evil -
and feel all the freer to indulge themselves without guilt.

This seems to me like saying that Santa Claus exists: the shocking truth is
bound to come out eventually. Of course, the children may respect the
effort to keep up appearances. A 16-year-old girl I know talks about her
mother's "pathetic" attempts to hide a stash of homegrown weed; but she may
also be grateful not to have to play Saffy to her mum's Edina.

Then there are adults who happily skin up with teenage children.

This seems to me an area that takes in every tone of grey, shading off into
outright child abuse. I know of someone who encouraged a child of 11 to
smoke a joint, surely deserving a spell behind bars, or at least some kind
of compulsory treatment. Yet I can't find a simple explanation as to how
this case differs from my mother's approach with wine. She was rather
self-consciously European, and gave us diluted house red on French holidays
from an early age. Why shouldn't this be equally condemned - given that
alcohol is, on balance, more harmful than weed? I suspect it is ultimately
about sex: illegal drugs have an associated taboo, and we feel that adults
who are too cavalier with the barriers between children and adults are on
their way to a home life resembling that of Fred and Rosemary West.

There are also those who believe that it is positively virtuous to teach
older teenagers about drugs by example.

I respect this approach, but don't feel quite comfortable about imitating
it. For one thing, home life is often a series of emergencies: stolen
mobile phones, unexplained absences, inaccessible textbooks for crucial

To cope, I think I need a clear, or clearish, head. It is also a question
of taste.

Cannabis promotes reflection and introspection and is, therefore, well
suited to the evening of life. But in our culture it is overwhelmingly used
by those in their teens and early 20s. My second-hand taste for Buffy and
Missy Elliott strikes me as shameful enough; to skin up with teenagers can
feel like a creepy bid for popularity. The cannabis laws that parliament
voted to reform - downgrading the drug from class B to C - are an obvious
nonsense with their arbitrary terms of enforcement and their savage maximum
terms of imprisonment. But dope is now a handy symbol of a new British culture.

Just as wine in the 50s and 60s represented an alternative to drabness and
puritanism, weed is a badge of a friendlier, less class-bound and more
inclusive society than the one I grew up in. The catch is that this brave
new world draws in virtually all male teenagers - including on occasions my
own. It is equally disingenuous to be shocked by this as it is to ignore a
potential danger.

When I was at school I found the drug culture of the period was quite good
to me. With the help of Red Leb, Thai sticks and the occasional alarming
microdot of acid, I was able finally to knuckle down to academic work
without feeling too much of a wuss. But we all know regular cannabis users
who are alternately inert and paranoaically aware that they should have
done something with their lives.

What is more, it does seem likely that too much weed really is dangerous.

There has been plenty of bad science funded by prohibitionists in the US.
But last year a special issue of the British Medical Journal published
studies making a convincing case that cannabis use in adolescence is linked
with the development of psychosis.

The more cannabis you use and the earlier you start, it seems, the more
likely it is that you will later become mentally ill. It may be that the
best way to protect your children is with threats and scare stories. This
seems to work in Sweden, which has repressive policies and the lowest rates
of cannabis use by young people in Europe. But even if I wanted to take
this approach I have left it a little late.

My daughter has no apparent wish ever to smoke weed. My two sons and their
friends live 10 minutes away from Camden Town in London and its flourishing
street drugs trade, and they have access to any class A drug they want,
including crack cocaine and heroin.

I have tried to pass on my belief that the problems of drugs relate mainly
to their misuse rather than their innate harmfulness.

In practice, the boys seem to see almost everything apart from weed as
beyond the pale, and cannabis as a mild vice. And although alcohol is this
country's preferred recreational drug they can be quite dumb about drink.

I have returned to my flat to find the after-effects of a session where a
14-year-old thought it was a good idea to try to make himself sick, while
already drunk, so he could go on and drink some more.

But I do not find it any more impossible to lay down the law about cannabis
than about binge-drinking. Children thrive on clarity and consistency, but
rules do not have to be simplistic. I do not find it acceptable to come
home and find a group of teenaged stoners camped in the living room. I
would be especially outraged if it was at a time when they should be doing
their homework. Three years ago, a deputy head-teacher had to deal with my
younger son, who had been found with a friend lighting up on the school
premises soon after arriving at the start of the school day. He suspended
him briefly, with the threat of instant expulsion for a repeat offence. "At
a party, at a weekend, when you're 16, fair enough," he said. "At the age
of 13, at 9.30 on a Monday morning in the red corridor - you have to be
kidding." I couldn't have put it better myself.

Patrick Matthews is the author of Cannabis Culture (Bloomsbury, UKP
7.99). A new edition is published this week.

Pubdate: Wed, 05 Nov 2003
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2003 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Contact: letters@guardian.co.uk
Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian/