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Highs and lows of a cannabis campaign

How many of you teachers smoked joints in your youth? You did but didn't inhale? Oh, you did inhale but you didn't enjoy it? Well, at least you won't have suffered any damage from the weed because we're now told that the stuff was cool and safe, and it's only the new forms of concentrated cannabis, skunk, which do the harm.

It's true. Two weeks ago, the Independent on Sunday declared an end to its campaign to legalise pot, begun 10 years ago, on the grounds that "pot ain't what it used to be". Last week, the paper's virtue reached new heights with its publication of an article by the director of the United Nations office on drugs and crime, who wrote that the IoS "deserves great credit for having the courage to change its mind on cannabis on the cases of mounting evidence of just how dangerous the world's most popular illicit drug has become".

Rosie Boycott, editor of the paper 10 years ago, is the toast of the town, initially for her enlightened liberalism, and now for her enlightened willingness to eat humble pie. Am I alone in finding all this rather stomach-churning? It seems to me to ignore some crucial parts of the story.

The volte-face would have been acceptable had there been sincere remorse and an apology to the many thousands of people, and their families, who felt emboldened to start or continue taking cannabis as a result of the campaign (and that of fellow "liberals"). What about all the schoolchildren whose lives have been wrecked because they have developed psychoses or been unable to cope? What about those who have died or reside in mental hospitals? Or the teachers who have had to endure apathetic or aggressive pupils high on dope? A study published in the current issue of the journal Addiction argues that the use of cannabis grew 18-fold among under-18s in the last years of the 20th century and early years of this one. It predicts an epidemic of schizophrenia. Some of these people will recover. Others never will. And these are young people who were not smoking skunk, but good old-fashioned pot. Heaven only knows how much greater the damage will be among skunk-users in future.

Young people are infinitely impressionable. If a climate is created in which it becomes acceptable and indeed "safe" to take a drug that is still frowned on and considered illicit, young people will "roll that spliff". A clear message that drugs - in any form - are dangerous and could muck you up for life needs to be given. One needs also to advocate clearly that our young people can derive real and enduring "buzzes" without recourse to chemicals.

Schools must put greater emphasis on education for healthy living from the earliest stages. Respect for oneself and others lie at the heart of this.

It is a pity Gordon Brown has cut money in real terms for schools: the need for school sport, music, dance, trips and so on has never been greater.

Children can also be "taught" how to be happy, without artificial stimulants.

Wellingon College is holding a conference next month on young people and drugs. For details see

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire

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