James Langton tells Sarah O'Meara how one final, stupid, stoned mistake made him realise he had to quit his drug habit
For James Langton, drugs are about all or nothing. "You cross a line when you have your first joint in the morning," he explains. Growing up in a comfortable, supportive, middle-class, suburban home did not stop him developing a cannabis habit which lasted for 30 years. Neither depressed, lonely nor a thrill seeker, the young teenager smoked because he wanted to try something different. But his adolescent habit became an addiction.
Now, at 51, he wants to add his voice and experience to help others from falling into the same trap that left him unable to function in "normal" life.
At present there is no hard evidence to demonstrate that cannabis use causes severe mental health problems. According to Martin Barnes, chief executive of drug information and policy charity DrugScope, while the amount of people smoking cannabis has risen over the last 30 years, available evidence shows the number of incidences of schizophrenia have not increased.
But a spokesman for mental health charity Rethink says: "We think for those with a predisposition to mental illness, statistics show you're more likely to develop psychotic illness. We use the peanut allergy — some eat them every day and are fine, others have an allergic reaction.
"We don't think it's addictive, but we do think people can become dependent."
Whatever the argument, in a recent report for the Government, the drugs advisory panel concluded that cannabis did pose a "real threat to health " and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced her intention to reclassify cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug.
James Langton is in no doubt that cannabis poses huge risks to young minds. The author of self-help book No Need For Weed explains how addiction to this so-called "soft drug" took over his life. "I did it in the park after school, in my room, wherever I thought I could get away with it," he admits.
After leaving school at 17, James says that his life began to revolve around cannabis. "When you start smoking as soon as you wake up, it takes on a different perspective in your life. I'd have around 12 joints a day on my own. I'd go for walks in the park or nip home at lunchtime. A lot of people do that."
James eventually kicked the habit aged 45, and set up Clearhead.org , an organisation dedicated to helping those who want to leave the drug behind. After struggling to quit for five years, he doesn't agree that it's not addictive.
"Being stoned felt normal. If I couldn't get hold of cannabis, I'd feel a deep emptiness. When I realised I had a problem, I was too embarrassed to talk about it with friends, so I went to the doctor and was told that cannabis wasn't addictive, that I didn't have a drug problem."
Lacking support, James struggled to find a way to live his life without cannabis.
"It was just me and the drug. There wasn't a lot of balance in my life. All my friends smoked or were dealers. I ran a picture shop in London because I was quite entrepreneurial, but it was always a terrible struggle.
"If you're smoking that much then everything takes longer. Your decision making is not good and you settle for second best. I had difficulty managing the accounts, paying bills, being on time for appointments and finding ways to hide my addiction. I tried quitting, just smoking on weekends, leaving my cannabis with someone else so I wouldn't be tempted, and not buying any. But for five years the longest I went without was a few days. I couldn't do it alone."
From the outside, it can be difficult to understand how a drug which prompted James to feel acutely lonely and confused could come to control his life.
He explains: "At the start it felt really pleasurable. During the first five years, even before the addiction really took hold, it's unlikely that any amount of nagging would have stopped me.
"Cannabis has a subtle way of raising your senses, offering you a slightly altered perspective on life and the everyday nine to five routine. Music sounds better and colours are more vivid. You can see beauty in an ugly city; things which other people are immune to.
"That perspective becomes a big part of your identity. It's hard to give that up, and re-learn to live normally."
But James explains that the drug can also magnify other feelings. "Weed can reflect the personality or mood of the user. I was a shy child and became isolated and withdrawn. Those with a tendency toward anxiety might become paranoid and if you're fairly relaxed and easy going, it could make you less motivated."
Like other mood-altering substances such as alcohol or nicotine, regular use of cannabis can lead to emotional dependency.
"One of the big myths is that this is a hippy peace drug," James says. "All it does is dampen down feelings. If you start smoking at a young age you end up putting a lid on normal, human feelings like anger, fear and sadness That means you never work through them. People who stop smoking weed have to risk those feelings bubbling up which can be very uncomfortable."
Finally James reached breaking point.
Driving to Berlin, to deliver a van full of furniture, he made a potentially catastrophic error: "I was really in debt and needed to fulfil this contract. Having smuggled my weed with me I set off to drive the last leg from Hamburg to Berlin. But when I stopped at a petrol station, I accidentally filled up with unleaded instead of diesel petrol. That was the last straw for me.
"It was a stupid, stoned mistake which might have cost me my business. In the end, I was lucky and they sent someone out with a replacement vehicle. But I made a promise to myself then and there, that nothing like that would ever happen again."
Throwing away his cannabis, James looked for help. With the support of Marijuana Anonymous ( www.marijuana-anonymous.org ) who organise meetings in London, he got his life back on track. But he was shocked to discover there wasn't more help available.
"We would get referrals from the drugs helpline Frank, from people all over the country, and it was frustrating because there was only a limited amount we could suggest."
Two years ago James started writing his self-help book, No Need for Weed. His book and website (www.clearhead.org) offer ways to deal with cannabis addiction. These include considering how each joint affects you and if you still get real pleasure from cannabis, visualising how you think your life could be better after not smoking for 12 months and distracting yourself with a new habit.
He advocates choosing a quitting day and sticking to it and finding the support of at least one person you trust to speak honestly about what you are doing and why. Then take it one day at a time, and acknowledge yourself for taking this positive step.
No Need For Weed by James Langton, Hindsight Press, £9.95