Q: When did you quit cannabis yourself?
A: I get asked that fairly often. I had my last smoke on March 31st 2002
Q: Was it a significant moment?
A: Of course, but I don’t remember that evening specifically, just the date. The next day April 1st I’d booked on for quite a long meditation retreat. I suppose I was a bit more worried about that than anything else.
Q: The next question you must get asked a lot is: do you miss it?
A: Not now; but if you had asked me during the first year or two I would have had to have said yes; I definitely had some difficult days especially at the beginning.
Q: What’s changed? Does the craving just go away over time?
A: Partly, but I also understand much more that when I get cravings it’s not cannabis I miss but something else.
Q: Can you explain?
A: Well like anybody I have days that leave me full of negative emotion, but the idea of smoking weed to make me feel better… I don’t know. It’s been such a long time now I just don’t think that smoking a joint would work anymore. Partly because I think it would just fug up my mind and I’m used to thinking quite clearly at the moment. And then there are the long-term consequences. I suppose doing this work I’ve seen so many people struggle to regain control after even a short lapse and that’s scary.
Q: But what is it that you actually feel you are missing if it’s not cannabis?
A: I don’t know, but I think it’s something quite universal connected with unprocessed physical or emotional energy, which can manifest in a variety of ways. When I’m feeling empty or emotional I just want to fill myself up, or maybe push something down. In my case I used cannabis, for others it might be any other sort of behaviour or substance from overwork to overeating from hard drugs to self-harm. Ultimately it tends to come from the same place. I suppose for me it’s usually about anger and fear of the future, but for others it can be loneliness, boredom, frustration, rage, or just the need to lose yourself for a while. At least I recognise now when I’m in an emotional state, which for a long time just wasn’t possible.
Q: So what do you do to help yourself feel better after a bad day?
A: It depends; more often than not it’s about acceptance. Acceptance of my mood allows me to process the feelings fairly rapidly. I’m really lucky I don’t suffer, and have never suffered, from serious long-term depression like some of my friends. With me I know that usually I’ll be feeling better in a few days or when the weather changes, or when my football team wins; I’m just lucky to be in a position where I’ve been able to reduce the amount of stress in my life; that helps.
Q: Do you still go to 12 step meetings?
A: Not really, sometimes I’ll go with someone who I feel would really benefit from a meeting and who might be a bit shy or reluctant to go on their own. I maintained three meetings a week in my first thirty months of recovery, and having that sort of support from others was incredibly helpful. But when I set about building the Clearhead website I thought it was perfectly right and natural to make a break at that point.
Q: So why did you set up Clearhead? Couldn’t you have just continued within Marijuana Anonymous? www.marijuana-anonymous.org
A: There were a few reasons, the main one being that when I got involved with the MA help line it really pained me that there were people calling who wanted support to help them with cannabis addiction who were really isolated, Mums with young children for example, or people living in isolated communities. Here in the UK MA has never been able to expand much out of London. The thing that I got most out of attending MA meetings was learning that there were others just like me going through the same issues with a drug that most of us thought of as not habit-forming.
I wanted to create a website that reflected that identification. Also the more I learnt about my own addictive relationship with weed the more frustrated I got that so little seemed to be understood about the whole process of withdrawal. The sleep thing, the emotional release, and here in Europe the way that weed is smoked mainly in tobacco joints. I wanted to offer practical advice on those issues.
Q: Millions of people use cannabis in Britain. Do you think that there are a lot of people who want to quit smoking dope?
A: I’m really not sure; I think there are a lot of people who are curious as to whether they have a problem. Certainly there are people who definitely want to quit and don’t know where to go to get help. Almost everybody who attended our workshops reached the point where they recognised they were dependent on weed to function and wanted to change that. However I think that many more people would settle for a healthier relationship with cannabis if they could have one. Research apparently shows that 10% of people that use cannabis become addicted, and my feeling is that at any one time perhaps 5% of those 10% are motivated to do anything about it.
Q: Do you mean ready to quit?
A: Changing any addictive relationship is a process, I think all dependent cannabis users go through the stage of hoping to gain some control over the drug, and it can take a lot of experimentation to find out whether this is possible. Cannabis users in particular have this ambivalence about their habit. Most dope smokers don’t want to quit, many just want to find a way to smoke dope with control, and without negative consequences. For some I think this is possible, but for others unfortunately not.
Q: Why do some people make it and others not?
A: It’s not helpful to think in terms of success or failure. The people who find total abstinence works for them tend to be those who have made the effort to find other ways of really enjoying life. Finding pleasure in small things, looking at new ways to get healthy highs. Perhaps a more mature take on life. An acceptance of their addictive relationship with weed.
Q: And what about those that keep trying to stop but keep going back to it.
A: Let’s put it this way: I’m interested in abstinence as a concept and for those with an addictive personality perhaps the only option is to be abstinent from all drugs and alcohol. But as a society, and as individuals, we have to recognise that in practice for many people abstinence is not always an immediately realistic goal. Sometimes we have to experiment with abuse, and abstinence before we finally understand the difference between the two life choices and accept our lack of control.
Q: You put a lot of emphasis on the withdrawal or adjustment process. Is it really that hard to simply stop smoking dope?
A: Many people are able to stop just like that and never go back to it. It’s different for different people at different times of their lives. Some achieve a euphoric release when they quit, but they have to be careful not to become over-confident. Others are really quite profoundly affected by the physical and emotional changes that can occur. Reality can be an uncomfortable place to find oneself, but not being controlled by dependency or addiction is in my opinion always worth striving for.
Q: What is the difference between addiction and dependency?
A: In very simple terms addiction is a psychological condition whilst dependence has a physical element. With cannabis the physical dependence is to do with the chemical balance in the brain as well as our internal energy systems.
Q: Do you think young people because of the dangers to their mental health should avoid cannabis?
A: Yes if possible, there are serious risks, not only in terms of mental health but also about long-term prospects. Decisions about physical well-being and attitudes to study that as a teenager you are probably not qualified to make. As someone who started smoking myself at a young age I can’t judge others but I am interested in why dope is so attractive to teenagers. Many young people live with significant amounts of stress and often deep uncertainty in their lives, and cannabis is perceived as a quick and relatively safe way to chill out.
Q: But it’s not safe?
A: No I don’t think it is for young children, smoking strong skunk for example at a young age can only be storing up problems for later life. The problem is that if you and your mates smoke weed and the negative effects are not dramatic; it’s very easy to be caught up in thinking that being stoned just because you haven’t got anything else to do is normal. This is where dependence can creep up very quickly, and when you start smoking dope on a regular basis; daily or even weekly whilst still at school then there is a danger it becomes too important, at that age you should have loads of interests, most of which should be healthier than weed, tobacco and alcohol.
Q: Is cannabis more harmful than booze?
A: I don’t think either is necessarily harmful if used by adults, or young adults in moderation, although both offer unique and specific dangers to certain individuals. But again you need to go back to school age drinking and drugging to understand how many of us get caught up in an inebriation culture at a ridiculously early age.
Q: Do you think early age cannabis use leads to harder drugs?
A: It can do, but I would think nicotine is a better indicator. There are many people who when they are ready to make adult choices are simply content to have cannabis as their drug of choice, without necessarily moving on to harder drugs or even alcohol. My observation would be that young people who regularly enjoy using cannabis and alcohol together have the potential to gravitate toward damaging lifestyle choices, as they get older.
Q: What about the law?
A: I’m more interested in health education specifically encompassing all drugs and alcohol together rather than criminalizing one over the other. But I accept the law as it stands; I’m not a politician.
Q: What do you want to achieve with Clearhead?
A: I’m interested in helping people make positive choices in their lives. Up to now we have kept everything very low key whilst trying to understand more about the reality of cannabis dependency. I hope I have been able to express some of that in No Need For Weed. I do think more than ever that some young people start to smoke dope and get in to drinking from a very early age, and we owe it to them and our communities to encourage healthy choices, whenever they are ready to consider positive change, hopefully before the problems become too deeply entrenched. So far we have been working using short weekend workshops for adults, but I would like to develop a more comprehensive programme, possibly offering the opportunity for people to experiment with sobriety for a fixed period of time so that they can compare what it feels like to live a healthier lifestyle for a significant period without necessarily thinking this is forever. Meanwhile we are working toward enhancing our website to include self-monitoring and peer support.
Q What about yourself, what sort of a person are you?
A: A big part of doing this work is to keep myself on the wagon. Like many people with addictive tendencies I am aware that I have a self-destructive element but hopefully that becomes less pronounced as you get older. I’m also aware that I have a bit of a puritan streak, which is not something that everybody shares, so I try to keep a sense of perspective. I really enjoy the process of writing and would like to try my hand at some fiction in the near future.