Not the groovy '60s: Today's cannabis is harder and meaner

By MARGARET WENTE, 6/26/07, Page A17, The Globe and Mail
For Don Smyth, it was the kind of encounter he has had too often. A Filipino family had invited him to their little townhouse in Toronto to see whether he could help rescue their 18-year-old son, who was about to be expelled from school for dru,g trafficking. Mr. Smyth, a therapist, specializes in drug prevention and addiction among young adults.

When the kid was roused from bed, Mr. Smyth saw he was severely addicted. "He showed all the physical signs - agitation, restlessness, aggression - that I used to see in people withdrawing from cocaine." But the drug wasn't cocaine. It was marijuana.

Last week, people reacted with outrage over the story of Kieran King, the15-year-old Saskatchewan student whose school came down on him like a sledgehammer because he dared to argue that marijuana is relatively benign. The school was wrong in its reaction but right on its facts. The vast majority of the marijuana inhaled today is not the mellow weed you and I remember from our youth. It is many times more powerful. In fact, the United Nations now classifies Canadian-grown marijuana as a hard drug whose destructive power puts it in the same league as cocaine.

Today's harder, meaner cannabis is a scourge in many of Canada's poorer neighbourhoods. It is a spreading affliction on native reserves and, in the cities, is intimately linked with the deadly duo of guns and gangs. It has an especially devastating effect among certain ethnic minorities. "These kids get outcomes from today's stimulant marijuana that are very hard to describe to someone who's only familiar with pot," Mr. Smyth says.

How did such a nice drug turn so nasty? Blame a revolution in greenhouse technology, along with genetic engineering and the cross-breeding of seed stock from Asia and the Middle East. This potent stuff now dominates the market. The UN says it is "distinct enough in appearance and potency to be considered a separate drug." The evidence shows that it can be highly addictive, especially for kids who suffer from depression, behavioural problems or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It causes paranoia, aggressiveness and psychosis, and it sharply elevates the risk of schizophrenia. It is very bad, indeed, for people with asthma or multiple sclerosis.

A decade ago, The Independent, a major British daily, led the campaign to decriminalize marijuana. In March, it ran a front-page editorial under the headline "Cannabis: An Apology." It changed its stand "because of the growing weight of evidence that cannabis contributes to mental illness."

Griffith Edwards, founder of Britain's National Addiction Centre, has also done an about-face. "Thirty or forty years ago, I was writing that cannabis was a drug without harm and dependence, but I've had to eat my hat." This month, the BBC has been running a series of confessional stories about mental-health problems and soaring addiction rates caused by today's cannabis. Meantime, in the Netherlands, the formerly tolerant Dutch are closing dozens of "coffee houses" where you could once toke up to your heart's content.

Unfortunately, you won't learn any of this if you live in Canada, where the people who run the media and make drug policy are stuck back in the groovy 1960s. In fact, we're rather proud of our enlightened cannabis policies - so different from those of the backward Americans - and our world-class B.C. bud. We treat pot activists such as Marc Emery as folk heroes. Even our
health authorities - the ones who are demanding zero tolerance for cigarettes and trans fats - continue to promote the view that cannabis is harmless. Health Canada has decreed that it's medically "effective" for people with various chronic conditions, a position that could come back to haunt the government when the lawsuits begin to fly.

"In the real world, marijuana today is no longer about the children of our elites headed for higher education," Mr. Smyth says. "It is very much about future hope and opportunities for non-academic kids." He's haunted by the young lives he's seen destroyed. And he's waiting for the day when our enlightened leaders will start to smarten up.

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