Four years ago in 2005 I first heard of James Langton and his “Clearhead” organisation. It was in Liverpool actually, at a conference organised by HIT. Over the next few years James popped up in what can only be described as all the “wrong” places, giving out just the sort of messages the cannabis using community had heard too much of. He cropped up in the RETHINK cannabis and mental health campaign, associating himself rather too closely with people making all those exaggerated claims about cannabis being 25 times more potent than it used to be and so forth. Perhaps the most annoying however, was when he turned up in an adviser capacity on the “Talking About Cannabis” website. Most recently he appeared on BBC Breakfast apparently supporting the reclassification back to B. From this side of the fence he has not come across as a friend of cannabis users as he seemed to be cashing in on the cannabis scare, almost preaching a message of salvation from a succession of prohibitionists websites.
In 2007 James published his book and all his effort was getting him a lot of coverage in the press perhaps, but it wasn’t doing anything to endure him to cannabis users. This book is called “No need for weed”; understanding and breaking cannabis dependency” and has a supporting website also run by James called “Clearhead“. What follows is a review of the book and the advice James gives, which on the whole isn’t bad advice which needs to be presented in a far more accessible form.
James has launched his book into a highly polarised situation as over the years the “debate” about cannabis has become less of a debate and more of a shouting match between opposing camps. On the one hand is the “Cannabis the harmless herb” brigade and on the other the prohibitionist camp most recently defined here in the UK by “Reefer madness V2.0″. This shouting match has been a very depressing experience for those of us who support a informed harm reduction and regulation approach and who accept that for some people cannabis can cause problems. People who don’t man the barricades for either side simply get shouted down by both sides – after all, how can you reduce the harm of something that’s harmless or alternatively harm reduction is no more than a trojan horse for drug liberalisation. Add to this the message from those offering religious salvation in the form of the American based organisation called “Marijuana Anonymous”. Having grown out of Alcoholics Anonymous, MA has a set of 12 steps for “marijuana addicts” to follow:
1. We admitted that we were powerless over marijuana and that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood, God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to marijuana addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs
So there you have it, surrender to God and be saved, then go out there and tell the world about it. This sort of thing makes my skin creep to be honest, indeed this sort of approach is easy to see as being close to exploitation of vulnerable people. At a time when we are perhaps rightly worried about religious extremism and the influencing of vulnerable minorities this is the sort of thing we should be especially wary of. It may work for some but at the risk (deliberate or otherwise) of creating an army of brainwashed people.
Enter James Langton into this morass presenting what he claims is a reasoned approach to dealing with the problem. James was a self employed businessman and heavy cannabis user who joined MA and through their methods, quit first tobacco and then cannabis. It’s tempting to suggest that Jame’s zeal for promoting his programme is a result of the MA evangelism, but actually James gives a pretty level headed overview of the cannabis culture and offers his advice less to promote total long term abstinence than for people to get control over their habit and perhaps above all to realise when they do have a problem. Essentially a lot of what James writes needs to be mainstream in the cannabis culture.
If you read Jame’s book you’ll discover the MA connection although he doesn’t really talk about it directly too much until the end section. He does mention manning the helpline and attending their programme which he recommends. Neither does the book mention God to any great extent apart from near the end in section 5 where he writes
When I first quit smoking and was attending 12-step meetings, prayer was discussed. Though I personally did not find this difficult, I am aware that many people struggle with the concept of God and prayer.
On the whole the book stays clear of the idea of salvation from drug addiction through God. “No Need for weed” is all about finding the motivation from within yourself for getting control of your life back from an addiction, rather than surrendering to a higher force. The fact he stays well away from the American salvation message makes the book far more suitable for the British market.
So does James have a constituency? Are there a mass of people out there addicted to cannabis? “Addiction” is an emotive word with many associations up to and including needles in the eyeballs, but for the sake of this discussion we’ll agree to use the word in its widest sense to include all forms of dependency – psychological and physical.
It’s true that cannabis has a well deserved reputation for being pretty safe for the vast majority of people; If we take the claim that 10% of users will develop an addition as fact then clearly 90% will not do so. That’s not bad to be honest, few things in life have that kind of reputation for being non-problematic. So there seems little point in trying to convince cannabis users that most of them have a problem, they don’t. We’re talking about a small minority who are going to be finding it hard to convince other cannabis users of their situation.
That said and accepted, if we assume there are 4 million cannabis users then 10% of 4 million is around 400,000 people who might slip into some problematic use. Now even if only 1% really lose it there will still be 40,000 people out there who’s life is dominated by a need – perceived or otherwise – to get stoned. So whatever the figure of “Cannabis addicts” is, there are a probably a lot of people out there who would welcome help to knock it on the head. For those people the message James is offering would be of great interest to them if it was put across in a way they could relate to. Add to this the whole new constituency of really young people we now have involved in the cannabis culture. These are perhaps the greatest concern, certainly the group the government cries it’s crocodile tears over.
It’s also worth pointing out in passing of course that this 10% figure is what happens under prohibition, when for all sorts of reasons cannabis use is made as dangerous as possible. Problematic users and the vulnerable will, of course, be the first to suffer under an illegal regime.
The point to make is that the “no need for weed” message is a good one at its core, but it’s one that needs to be presented right – in such a way as cannabis users can relate to it and not feel threatened or alienated by it – even if they themselves are not experiencing any problems. This is why the criticism of the way James has presented his message is important, by associating himself and his book with the prohibitionist camp he hasn’t appealed to cannabis users. People who have a problem with drugs more often than not don’t want to accept it and will simply close their ears to messages they see as coming from the prohibition supporting side of the “debate”. This is understandable, cannabis users are criminals, officially regarded as “low life”, why should a message from people who think of you as low life be taken with any more than a pinch of salt?
Thing is I’ve been there myself with the born again message. Not, I should say anywhere near the 12 step method, no involvement with God or anything like that and I’ve never had a cannabis problem. But some years ago – around 1994 – I did “see the light” regarding a drug addiction that had got out of control. For me it wasn’t cannabis but that truly evil weed tobacco. Suffice it to say I quit tobacco and then set about trying to convince loads of joint smoking cannabis users to do the same. The “bull at the gate” “I feel so healthy” “born again non-smoker” approach didn’t work and only served to alienate the very people I wanted to get the message over to. So when James appeared on the scene doing his thing my feeling was simple; “oh no, not again”. Even the values the name “Clearhead” embodies alienates the very people the message needs to be aimed at and that’s a pity, it’s a real pity.
An important point James does mention in his book but only in passing is that he was also a heavy tobacco addict, having taken that up from an early age. He used cannabis alongside tobacco for years. From what I’ve been able to discover James first quit tobacco before he quit cannabis but this isn’t mentioned in the book as being his route to recovery which is odd, indeed the whole tobacco issue is clearly something James is struggling with and fudges badly. He does write this, which I would almost endorse:
Smoking tobacco joints is a huge problem here in the UK, as in many other countries. The cocktail of the two drugs is deadly; not only because of the way we smoke it, holding the smoke deep in our lungs to extract the maximum value from every unfiltered toke, but also the way that, for a tobacco joint smoker, the cravings for nicotine and cannabis become confused and make nicotine addiction a much harder habit to break than for the average cigarette smoker who has never smoked dope.
Strange he puts it like that without at least accepting the reverse is also true – if not far more true: Cannabis users who also smoke tobacco are going to far bigger problems quitting than pure tokers. They are also going to associate the addictive nature of tobacco with the cannabis experience.
At the present time, because of legal issues, I can’t really see the likelihood of a government campaign advising cannabis users to smoke dope without tobacco. However the truth is that significant numbers of school-age children have bypassed cigarettes, and are simply addicted to tobacco joints. We really need to cut through the hypocrisy and get a high profile information campaign out on this point right now, but for the authorities the political implications would possibly be a step too far.
The implications to all this are that James accepts that – at least for some people – the tobacco use is a major part of the problem the person is facing with their cannabis use and he realises the need to encourage cannabis users to smoke without the killer weed, but really this is as far as he goes and it’s is a major failing of the book. Why he feels he can’t give the advice that quitting tobacco is really good advice for someone which a tobacco-cannabis problem isn’t clear, after all he clearly understands the issue and apparently took the route of addressing the tobacco issue first himself. There is no reason why this book should be restricted in discussing the pure cannabis use issue and he isn’t bound himself by the political agenda. After all this book is supposed to be about sound advice written from his own personal experience, not promoting government agendas. Worse, even though James recognises this very real issue, he refuses to be drawn on the legal status of cannabis, an approach he sees as “being neutral”, but which cannabis users would see as being prohibition supporting. He returns to the tobacco issue:
Before you start to monitor your dope smoking, if you smoke tobacco with your cannabis it’s important to realize that your desire for a joint may simply be masking an urgent need for a nicotine fix. The sad truth is that tobacco joints are a highly addictive cocktail. Our craving for cannabis essentially feels like a strong desire to turn off our minds from everyday reality. Our craving for nicotine, on the other hand, feels like a deep physical hunger in the pit of our stomach.
Not the way I would describe it, especially having never experienced a cannabis craving. The nicotine addiction however is a very real physical one as well as a strongly psychological one. Without a regular fix of nicotine the brain soon loses it’s balance, the smoker becomes agitated and a very real craving develops. Whether or not cannabis can do this tobacco certainly does and it does it regularly at short intervals.
As you start the process of quitting, it’s crucial to begin to recognize and separate the two cravings. If you are committed to quitting cannabis then it’s a safe bet that you do not want to exchange cannabis addiction with nicotine addiction. But if you have been smoking tobacco joints regularly for any length of time, I’m afraid you are almost certainly a hardened nicotine addict, even if you have never smoked a cigarette in your life.
Good advice, except that it doesn’t go that one step further and advise the person the actually smoke cannabis without the tobacco. It’s only by doing this of course that the “pull” of the two drugs can be compared. The first step then is surely to separate the two – smoke only cannabis or smoke only tobacco at any one time.
People who don’t understand how addictive cannabis is will tell you that it’s much easier to give up dope than it is nicotine. I wish it was as simple as that, but it’s not.
Well it’s a bit “chalk and cheese” but certainly cannabis is easier to quit than tobacco, if only because tobacco is so hard. If James is claiming cannabis is more addictive than tobacco he is being less than frank with his reader. Of course, both may be difficult but for most people tobacco is a difficult nut to crack. It’s probably fairer to claim that cannabis addition is very different to tobacco addiction and to accept that simplistic comparisons aren’t really helpful.
Over the years I have been doing this work, I have met some people who have been able to quit both tobacco and cannabis at the same time, but I’ve known just as many who when attempting to quit both together have found themselves back at square one in a moment of weakness. There is much more information on this subject in the next section of the book, which focuses on helping you through the adjustment period, but for now I just want you to practise separating the two cravings as you begin to monitor your dope smoking.
So the advice needs to be given – separate the use of both drugs. This is surely the most important first step, but he doesn’t say it. Thing is any mess of problems is easier to solve if we do one at a time. James has recognised there are two issues here – two distinct problems that need to be separated but falls short of giving that little bit of oh so essential advice.
Thing is, apart from anything giving the pure cannabis use message – even if it were as a part of a total eventual cessation message – would appeal to cannabis users, this wider audience Jame’s really needs to reach out to. He is, after all, trying to talk to people who think of themselves primarily as cannabis users rather than tobacco smokers.
Worse, at one point he gives tobacco addicted people advice not to worry if you find yourself smoking lots more of the stuff as you try to quit cannabis. Not sure that’s really good advice to be honest, indeed he writes:
My advice is not to quit cigarettes earlier than you originally planned. I suggest you need to think in terms of a year before attempting to quit tobacco. By then, if you’ve managed to quit weed, you will have the confidence and willpower to take advantage of the mainstream support there is out there to help you become the clean-lunged total non-smoker that you’ve aspired to be all of those years.
That just seems wrong – to advise someone with a drug addiction problem not to address the most seriously addictive drug first. Also, as noted already, it’s not the way James went about things himself.
James offers a little questionnaire:
Is cannabis your primary, or only way of relaxing?
Are you using cannabis to suppress uncomfortable feelings and emotions?
Are you consistently trying and failing to cut down or stop smoking cannabis?
Do you mainly smoke by yourself?
Do you often feel disconnected from life?
Are you smoking cannabis to avoid dealing with problems?
Are you smoking cannabis to avoid dealing with life?
Do you still enjoy smoking cannabis?
Some of these questions are a little odd when applied to cannabis, for the simple reason that whatever cannabis is, it’s not an escapist drug in the sense that it can be used to “suppress uncomfortable feelings and emotions”. Indeed, it’s more likely it will do quite the opposite if you tried to use it like that. Likewise if you are “smoking cannabis to avoid dealing with problems” you’re going to get into a huge paranoid mess. People who smoke a lot spend hours thinking about things, which can be a good feature if used constructively but otherwise it can feed on itself and make problems seem much worse.
He also repeats as fact the claim that
Today there is a greater understanding that smoking cannabis at a young age, for those genetically vulnerable, seriously increases the likelihood of mental health problems either immediately, or down the line. There is growing research evidence that early and regular cannabis smoking can increase the potential for the onset of lifelong psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder; furthermore, there is also an increased risk of developing persistent symptoms of depression and anxiety.
We’ve discussed that often enough on this blog. There are good reasons for keeping kids away form all drugs to do with the developing and learning mind, there really isn’t any need to over egg the pudding or even to promote theories as fact. Indeed this isn’t something he only mentions once, later in the book he says
It’s now impossible to refute the evidence that for some genetically pre-disposed individuals, the dangers to their mental health from cannabis are immense.
It is possible to do just that of course by quoting proper, recent, scientific research (required free registration). Having claimed cannabis can be used to hide from problems he then seems to take a bit too much from the claims of THC-linked paranoia
The side-effect of cannabis is undoubtedly anxiety, which I’ve observed impacts the ability to trust. Some heavy smokers tend to find it hard to take life at face value, and don’t trust others, or situations easily. This naturally has the effect of not allowing them to trust themselves and, in the wider sense, to trust life itself, thus robbing them of their potential to make the most of opportunities that come their way.
That’s a bit overboard to be honest. The few really heavy cannabis users I’ve met have been quite confident in their views , indeed arguably inflexibly so in some cases. If anything heavy and habitual users trust themselves a bit too much and have a confidence in their opinions which verges on a faith. As regards not trusting others however, a degree of cynicism and caution in life is sadly essential and if you don’t have it you’ll soon get burned.
As for this advice:
Change requires risk, and risk entails effort. Change, risk and effort – three words that some dedicated dope smokers are rather uncomfortable with. Better to stick with what we know, even if it keeps us trapped and makes us unhappy.
This is hardly something limited to dedicated dope smokers, it probably applies to most people. This sort of thing is perhaps another example of the “born again” message James offers. It’s a pity because overstating a case undermine the message.
So what of the “how to quit” advice? On the whole it’s not a bad programme of action, but the regime wouldn’t have worked for me. Most critically he suggests making a date for the quitting and having one last session t say goodbye to the problem drug. Then we are advised to keep a little stash for a ceremonial throw away after the final session. Now I can only speak from experience but I couldn’t go about kicking an addiction like that. When I quit tobacco I did so after several failed attempts which included making a date, throwing some away and all the rest of it. The only way I could do it was to pounce – to suddenly decide “this is it”. An important part of managing the temptation was to constantly face it, so I carried a a packet of tobacco, Rizlas and a lighter around with me for months, if I hadn’t done so I’d probably have cracked the first time anyone offered me a smoke.
Other advice he gives is quite interesting – such as writing your thoughts down before you take the dive and then to keep a diary. He suggests taking a photo of yourself as a user and comparing it to you as a non-user. I’m glad I didn’t as I put on a lot of weight when I stopped smoking.
I would probably advise people to accept that they will face a life change though. Quitting an addictive habit usually involves a change in social life and the friends that go with it, this is as true for cannabis as it is with tobacco or booze, it’s true because the way to break a psychological addiction is simply to stop doing the things you did whilst you were using the drug. So sure, as James suggests take up a new hobby, although I would suggest just letting yourself find one, rather than trying to get interested in something. This brings us back to this fear thing James mentioned, which isn’t really so much a feature of cannabis use, but something that applies to anyone wanting to quit an addictive habit. You will lose things you enjoy, at least in the short term. Likewise you will lose contact with friends because you won’t be socialising with them for the time being, if ever again to be honest.
Learning not to be scared of that is an important thing to learn. Groups like MA (or perhaps more likely Narcotics anonymous) can certainly help, but quitting comes down to really wanting deep down wanting – to do it. If you don’t have that driving motivation, you won’t stand much of a chance. I also found an understanding of what addiction is helped a lot.
So on balance Jame’s book is quite good, but does have a problem with the tobacco issue in particular. He does have a PR problem as well, he needs to learn how to sell his message to the cannabis culture and to reach out to the huge number of people who could benefit from some of the advice he has to offer. His message is badly compromised by his refusal to get involved in the law reform debate as well, never mind his involvement with the prohibition side of the debate. He claims to want to be neutral in a debate where there really isn’t a neutral position if you want the respect of the majority of your target group.