John McLellan: I took LSD once...but I’m no hypocrite

Minor drugs abuse should be treated with commonsense, then idiots like Mr Gove and me can learn for ourselves, writes John McLellan.

A friend stock-piled drugs for the Grateful Deads 1982 tour
A friend stock-piled drugs for the Grateful Deads 1982 tour

It was about 6am and although I’d been up all night I was wide awake so went out for a walk. Even in the early morning light the trees and grass banks were spectacularly green, a vivid emerald I’d never really appreciated before. Back in my room, walls I knew to be white were now the same colour as the grass. I’d taken LSD.

I thought I’d been sold a dud, £2 for a bit of blotting paper, nothing much doing, but the green walls told me it was no fake. And I had an exam in the afternoon; no surprise I failed.

After last week’s Conservative leadership confessionals, another 50-something Tory owning up to drug-taking in student days seems a bit passe, but if there is a lesson for aspiring Michael Goves, if there are such people, is it’s not the drug-taking which gets you but the hypocrisy.

In condemning the illegal habits of middle class professionals at the same time as making regular contributions to Colombia’s black economy, perhaps the then Times journalist Mr Gove was exorcising personal demons, but the fall-out for him was more damaging than for other penitents like Jeremy Hunt, Andrea Leadsom and Rory Stewart.

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Then again, charges of hypocrisy and untrustworthiness and a strange story about sneezing on white powder have made no difference to the virtually unstoppable Boris Johnson campaign.

As far as I’m aware the public views of the papers I edited were in line with my past actions and private opinions, and at least those who have indulged can speak on the subject with some knowledge.

Growing up in the unprepossessing King’s Park district of Glasgow in the 70s, drugs were what rock stars like the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix did and by the time we were about 14 they were still relatively unknown.

Only when friends’ older brothers went to university did things change and a few of us had the odd dabble by the time we left school. Acquaintances in the Glasgow music scene kept increasingly dangerous company and accessed stronger stuff.

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Most kept this at arms’ length but as a student, and teamed up with like-minded people at Stirling University’s legendary Allangrange Club where the supply was as plentiful as the Stella, my sense of restraint was gone.

That night on acid at the end of first year was my only brush with Class A drugs, knowingly at least, but I was a regular cannabis smoker at university, as were most of our circle. I was a drummer in a band so wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?

The band folded by the end of second year, by which time I was waking up to the sheer idiocy of it all, scraping through courses, not taking advantages of the university’s legal attractions, and going nowhere.

Cutting back the booze and dope, I took work more seriously and started writing a weekly column in the Stirling Observer which gave me this career.

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Leaving after three years to study journalism at the old Preston Polytechnic, I made one of the best decisions of my life. The hash went, I trained all summer, dug out the old boots and joined the rugby club, something I’d dismissed at Stirling. A year later the fags went too, but the rugby stayed and the boots were only hung up seven years ago.

Since the Gove admission created a flurry of tales about cocaine-fuelled excess amongst media folk, my experience now seems very much at the soft end of the scale, but it has raised the debate about drug legalisation and the continued criminalisation of law-abiding but desperately ill people who use cannabis for medicinal purposes.

The main argument against cannabis legalisation remains that it’s a gateway drug, but the question is a gateway to what? There is no evidence of an automatic, irreversible pathway to addiction and in my case cannabis was a brief gateway to harder drugs which I closed immediately.

The majority of soft drug users do not go on to anything harder, but plenty do and the jails are full of people who started somewhere, hundreds of them permanently parked on legal methadone.

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More than once I was offered heroin and cocaine and one of the guys in the band whose friends were involved in hard drugs (stock-piling for the Grateful Dead’s 1982 tour) was suspected of drug dealing, which was why his distinctive yellow car was regularly pulled over by the police, twice with me in the back.

A quiet lad from Perth in my year did time for dealing.

Using illegal drugs is not a gateway to criminality only in that by obtaining them the user has already gone through and the choice is whether to continue on the path into a criminal world where there are no demarcation lines and where the trade in hard and soft drugs mixes with people-trafficking and tobacco smuggling, but camouflaged by legitimate cash-based operations like mini-cabs, tanning studios and Christmas trees.

The widely-held view that possession of small amounts of cannabis has effectively been decriminalised is partly substantiated by the data, which shows there were 14,500 cannabis possession crimes recorded in Scotland in 2017-18, averaging just 6g each, but the total number of all drug prosecutions was just 6,233.

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Although not broken down, it’s fair to assume a majority will be for Class A drugs and therefore about 10,000 of those cannabis possession incidents have not resulted in prosecution.

Campaigners still argue that full legalisation will wrest control from gangsters and open a new tax source, but with smoking continuing to fall and abstinence from alcohol increasing, is it really the direction the law should take? With 16,346 cannabis plants taken in 648 seizures in Scotland in 2017-18, Police Scotland doesn’t think so.

But medical uses are here to stay, which with Methadone freely available surely makes sense and from last October limited prescription of medicinal cannabis products is permitted from hospital specialists, not GPs, and further treatment recommendations are expected this Autumn.

Slowly, some sense is coming into drug laws; it’s plainly ridiculous to ban legitimate clinical use for some substances but not others, but as for full decriminalisation, there is no case for effectively giving criminals more cover and if the authorities apply common-sense to minor abuses then idiots like Michael Gove and I can learn for ourselves.