Thursday, 6 January 2022

So I'm back to writing again after taking a break due to my crappy health and Christmas and having a six month old baby and just generally being exhausted, and on my return, I want to write about drugs. Yes, drugs. This is because during my time away, both main political parties spoke out against the decriminalisation of drugs. The leader of the Labour Party mumbled some nonsense about how decriminalisation would contribute to organised crime, failing to consider the many ways you could safeguard against this, or the successes of Portugal with decriminalisation. It seems we are back to 1980s socially-conservative talking points.

I want to write about drugs, not because I'm a huge fan of them or a user, but simply because I suspect we have abandoned the approach of having an honest conversation. Politicians want to return to vilification and that approach leads nowhere good, not least because it actually seems to increase drug use and certainly increases prison populations.

Coming up are my experiences with drugs, the good and the bad. Everything you are about to read is 100% true, or at least as best as my memory serves me, but obviously if I mention real people, I will be changing their names. I don't want to embarrass anyone or land them in trouble!

As a child, I occasionally witnessed people high on drugs because drug use was pretty common on our council estate. I witnessed a guy from our local boxing gym visit my next door neighbour and loudly ask if she had any speed, in front of about twenty kids. I witnessed a man who was clearly off his nut, push an old lady aside in a parked car to steal her radio. I witnessed one of the local dads proudly smoking a joint as he walked his kids back from school and I witnessed the row when his wife spotted him!

Drugs were normal where we lived and yet I never had a positive view of them, partly because I was sternly warned away by my mother. I saw drugs as dark, dirty and unsettling, and always promised I would never touch them. 

I genuinely believed I would honour this promise, but then my teenage years arrived, along with peer pressure. And me and my mates were already regular binge-drinkers before we'd reached our teens, so the transition to drugs was inevitable.

My friend group involved Gaz, Carl and Brian. All three of them were idiots. I was the smart, sensible one, relatively speaking, and I hated being the smart, sensible one.

By the time we were fourteen, some of my peers were already sneaking off to a local rave on weekends and taking ecstasy. And even though I was not involved and still had a negative view of drugs, that darkness and dirtiness was slowly giving way to intrigue. Gaz was the first among my friend group to sneak off to the AfterDark and I remember vividly the reaction of his mother (who was like an aunty to me) when he returned home after being out all night. He could barely speak as they met at the front door and she was yelling, but then stayed at his bedside as he slept, in case he choked on his vomit and didn't wake up.

Gaz was the first among us to drink alcohol, the first among us to hang around with older kids and do drugs and everything he wasn't supposed to do, and as a result, his mother was always a nervous wreck. And, of course, the rest of us eventually followed in his footsteps because we did not want to feel left out. We wanted to be in the in-crowd. And in our town, the in-crowd was, let's say, a bit dodgy...

I was well into my rebellious stage when my mates scraped some money together one Saturday and excitedly suggested we visit a nearby drug dealer and buy a "tenner deal". Next thing, I was being dragged along, more nervous than excited, and I found myself squeezing into a caravan on the drug dealer's drive so he could smoke bush with a bunch of children. Nice guy.

Now I've no idea if bush was so-called because there was any difference to other types of weed or if it was just an alternative name. I never bothered asking. But I do remember nervously taking the joint and thinking how unpleasant it tasted as the smoke rushed down my throat. I never even smoked cigarettes, apart from when my friends in the smokers' corner at school left me a couple off their cigarette. But now I'd found myself smoking weed. Drugs. Exactly what I'd promised I'd never do and genuinely believed it.

Suddenly, here I was, breathing in that smoke and being mocked for not inhaling properly and feeling like I'd transitioned into a much darker place. Our council estate was pretty rough, but I'd always been encouraged to stay on the nicer side of it, away from the bad influences, and finally here I was in their world. It was daunting and while I can't say I particularly enjoyed the initial experience, it certainly felt compelling, like I had to be there. I got the sense I did not quite belong but also the sense I was becoming someone else. 

My memory of that day is a little vague, but the next thing I remember is sitting on Carl's flee-ridden bed, laughing at the Animaniacs toys on top of his TV. The earlier touch of paranoia had worn off and I was in fits of giggling until the pair of us fell asleep on his bed and woke up sometime later, dry-mouthed and hungry. Those are the effects cannabis - paranoia, giggling, sleepiness, dry mouth and hunger, so if you've never smoked it, that's what you can expect, aside from a brief and overwhelming burst of creativity, which some of the world's greatest artists have taken advantage of.

Cannabis use in moderation is actually perfectly fine for most people - it's safe, relaxing and not particularly damaging to your long-term health, but what you certainly don't want to do is overdo it. Cannabis in excess can mess you up - which leads me onto my next experience. Buckets.

Now buckets are more elaborate than a simple spliff and a nightmare to construct when you're a clueless teen with only a vague understanding of how they work, but a bucket is essentially this:

A three-litre bottle with the top cut off, filled with water, and a two-litre bottle with a bit of gauze and cannabis sitting on top. You place the little bottle into the big bottle and light the cannabis as you pull the big bottle up. The vacuum sucks cannabis smoke into the top bottle and then you remove the gauze and suck all the smoke out in one go.

If you are an inexperienced cannabis user, do not do this! In fact, just don't do this, full stop. It's not good.

One night, we were sitting in the council house of Caroline, a twenty-three year old mother of three, listening to our hardcore rave music, and yes, we were all still fourteen, so God knows why Caroline was hanging around with us. Anyways, my mates decided it would be a fantastic idea to have buckets in her bathroom. I did not want to do this, but I wanted to say "no" even less, so I waited in a bedroom as everyone took turns going into the bathroom. I felt pretty sick as it came to my turn and Gaz said he was going to pull me a pea soup - that's basically a really strong, bright green bucket.

I watched wide-eyed as bright green smoke filled that bucket and Bri insisted I suck it up all in one go. "Just suck really hard," he said. And I did. Too hard.

I knelt over the bath to grab the bottle and the smoke rushed down my throat, then a couple of seconds later, the pain hit my chest. It was like a fireball had consumed my lungs and burnt them to a crisp. I was in agony. My eyes were streaming and I genuinely thought I'd done myself serious damage, even fatal damage.

Next thing I remember is sitting on a bed with my shoulders pressed into the walls as everyone laughed at me. Why were they laughing at me? Clearly, they were going to do something. They were plotting, I could sense it. What was I going to do? I was helpless. I just curled up into a ball as they laughed and I prayed for the experience to end. But it didn't end. Not for hours. Or possibly a few minutes.

Next thing I remember, I was sitting downstairs, listening to the rave music again, feeling the words Disco Land pulse over my skin. And then the pulses became tiny, fluctuating space invaders, like from the videogame. And then the space invaders were tiny grinning monsters. And the music was getting loud and quiet in rhythm. But I wasn't hearing the sound, I was feeling it. Synaesthesia. That's the crossing of senses. And I'm not sure that's a typical symptom of excess cannabis, but it was certainly what I was experiencing. That period really wasn't too unpleasant, but then I was back to the sleepiness again.

And I guess that is why cannabis never really got a hold of me like it did my friends. Many of them became regular smokers, but I was too prone to the paranoia and sleepiness, and felt crappy during the come down, so I was never more than an occasional user. But I must say, I did have some pleasant experiences on cannabis, and some people, probably most, have more positive experiences than me.

Fast forward a few years, and I was a jobless young adult, staying on a mate's couch and I had absolutely no social life, apart from those occasions Bri would take me out. We used to go to the Tuxedo Princess in Gateshead on a Thursday night. It was a tenner to get inside and then all your drinks were free, so we'd wait until 11 o'clock before calling a taxi because we couldn't afford to do a pub crawl first, and we'd go straight to the boat. Yes, the Tuxedo Princess was a boat. A cramped, stinking boat, and one of the few places riff-raff like me could go in my shitty old clothes and not look out of place.

It was inside the Tuxedo Princess that Bri first introduced me to ecstasy. I remember him approaching the drug dealer on the dancefloor and I've no idea how he knew he was a drug dealer, he just did. The drug dealer told him to come to the toilet in a few minutes, but not to walk inside with him, because he did not want to be clocked by the bouncers.

A few minutes later, Bri returned and placed a couple of colourful pills that looked like sweets into my hand. Now I was always nervous about the idea of taking pills, because unlike cannabis, which is just a plant, pills could contain absolutely anything. This didn't stop me though and I felt like I was playing Russian roulette as I placed the pills in my mouth and washed them down with blue WKD with absolutely no idea what to expect.

Now I can't remember how long the drugs took to come into effect, I just know the moment they did was electrifying. Suddenly, I was moving at one hundred miles an hour, dancing in the clouds, talking to every hot and not-so-hot girl. I could not stop talking, and in that moment, the shyness which came from being a jobless lowlife was gone. My confidence was infinite, as was my energy, and my jaw felt really tight but was rocking all over the place for some reason.

I have never felt anything like I felt during my first experience of ecstasy. The sensation flooding my every nerve ending was indescribable and the closest thing to magic I can possibly imagine. Everybody deserves to experience that feeling. But the night was not all good. Far from it.

The thing is, at about 2.00am, the DJ at the Tuxedo Princess would turn the music off for about thirty minutes to grab a random person onto the stage and play a pointless game. This was incredibly boring at the best of times, but when I was off my head on ecstasy? Well, the paranoia that I'd experienced on cannabis came back one thousand-fold. And those thirty minutes felt like lightyears. And yes, I know lightyears are units of distance, not time, but honestly, those thirty minutes lasted so long, I could probably have crawled several lightyears.

The paranoia was hideous and I just remember sitting in a booth, gawking at a couple of girls I'd happily been chatting up, suddenly terrified to move, and just asking myself over and over again why had they turned the music off? When was this torment going to end? 

And then the music came back on and I was electrified again, like nothing had happened. It was the strangest thing, almost like someone had pressed a switch. The paranoia became, well, ecstasy.

And I was partying the night away, becoming best mates with some bloke I'd just met called Toolsey and chatting up the girl Bri had already pulled. I remember walking along to the taxi pickup and being told to shut up, over and over again because I literally could not stop myself from talking. I also remember Bri walking along the railing of the bridge, then jumping down and thinking it would be a hilarious joke to grab his new girl by the waist and dangle her over the railing.

For about five minutes, she was kicking her legs as I pleaded with him to pull her over because the state he was in, a horrible accident seemed inevitable. But thankfully poor Sarah survived this ordeal and immediately forgave Bri. She must have been just as fucked in the head as he was.

We crashed at Sarah's house - it was the temporary accommodation that the council put parents into when they become homeless. Single lads like me weren't so lucky. Well, I say lucky. This was hardly the kind of place you'd want to live. It was barren and felt like a glorified prison cell, but we partied there until the morning, and because we were off our heads on drugs, literally anywhere would have seemed nice. 

I guess that's one thing privileged people so often fail to understand about working class drug users. Those drugs take us away from the hell-holes they've never had to experience. Drugs are our way of experiencing the pleasant side of life which they don't need to reach through artificial means.

It's just unfortunate drugs are very much a double-edged sword. I remember jerking up in bed in the morning with my heart racing, with the most intense feeling of terror and an incredibly dry mouth, following a horrendous nightmare. This wasn't a one-off either. The nightmares went on for weeks and this happened to me each of the five or six times I took ecstasy.

Maybe it's just the way I'm wired that makes me prone to negative side-effects from drugs, but I never tried any drug that didn't give me some side-effect like this. Perhaps in a weird way, this was a good thing because it was certainly enough to stop me getting hooked. But drugs certainly did get some of my friends hooked, case in point being Carl who was totally addicted to cannabis. Now cannabis isn't too addictive to most people. I never felt an intense craving, even during a six-week period when I stayed with Carl, smoking his weed regularly.

But Carl was hooked by his own admission and his addiction was psychological, more than physical. He'd had an even more fucked up life than me and explained cannabis is the one thing that could take away his suicidal thoughts. 

For so many, cannabis is an anti-depressant. And it was just that for me during the weeks we were staying in the most filthy flat imaginable, but I don't really want to discuss cannabis again, because I want to touch upon a much more interesting experience: MDMA.

Carl took me to his sister's house one day and we were playing Mario Kart on the GameCube. His sister went into the kitchen and he whispered that he had some MDMA, then quickly gave me a line before she returned. Now I'd always thought MDMA was just the stuff found in ecstasy, but the experience was nothing at all like ecstasy so I'm not sure what it was. I just know this was without question the most mind-bending thing that ever happened to me.

First came a touch of paranoia and everything seemed a bit grey: I was numb and already regretting my choice, just wanting the effects of this stuff to wear off. Why the hell did I agree to take it?

Next thing, Carl asked: "Ricky, what are you doing?"

I was pecking at his Berghaus coat with my finger and thumb, over and over again. I'd suddenly become convinced he was made out of cardboard, kind of like Paper Mario, and I was expecting him to tear. I couldn't understand why he was not tearing. And today I can't understand why I kept trying to tear him! But that's what I did and he was just laughing at me.

Carl took me outside for a walk, probably because he didn't want his sister to discover that we were high inside her house. As we walked through the streets of New Biggin Hall, I kept stumbling because I was tilting my body sideways. This was to adjust to the world which was rotating like a passageway in the Legend of Zelda and determined to make me fall over. Everything got a bit sparkly at that point and the experience was surreal but not enjoyable. I never got the high that I did off ecstasy and it makes me wonder if I really did take MDMA or something entirely different. It really could have been anything.

MDMA (or whatever it was) was one thing I was never going to touch again. 

When it comes to snorting drugs though, there was a drug that I definitely preferred and that was cocaine, which was introduced to me by Gaz.

We'd been staying at a medical facility in Edinburgh, being a guinea pig as the company tested drugs on us. And what was cool about being a guinea pig like this was that we were being paid to hang out with hot girls. So when we finally got out of that place and got our money, we all hit the town.

Edinburgh is a nice place to hang out with all its historical buildings and the striking castle on the hill in the city centre. It's just a shame the sun never shines! The city is beautiful and very chilled and basically the opposite of Glasgow (not that I'm knocking that place, they're just very different). 

We were all sitting in a bar, I think it was a Wetherspoons (don't cancel me) and somebody suggested we buy cocaine. That was going to be a first for me and so I expressed my reservations.

"You're worried about cocaine after what you've had put into your body for the last two weeks?" a girl asked and it was a fair point.

So a couple of hours later, I found myself squeezed into a toilet cubicle with Gaz as we took turns snorting cocaine through a rolled up tenner like a pair of sleazy Westminster journalists and I'm not going to lie, it felt really cool. It wasn't like when I tried some other drugs and it felt daunting and dirty. No, for some reason, hanging out in some minging toilet cubicle felt like the height of privilege. Figure that one out.

Now the thing about cocaine is it makes you become hyper-alert and energetic. Not in the different planet way that ecstasy does, but enough to make you highly confident and also a bit of a dick. There was another lad out with us who liked the same girl I did so I took the piss out of him the whole night. It wasn't even in my character to behave like this, but cocaine made me become a different person. And because it was my first time taking it, the effect was much stronger than it was on the others. I was being a total idiot, but this seemed to impress the girl who preferred me over the other lad. Who said good guys come first?

I stayed in touch with that girl for a while, but alas, nothing serious became of it. I did, however, learn that cocaine was my pathway to women, it's just that unfortunately it's an expensive habit. Well, I've no idea what it costs today, but back then, we were paying £40 a gram, and another problem is your body quickly builds up tolerance so you need to take larger quantities to have the same effect. This means that even though the drug is not necessarily super-addictive, people can still be pulled in and this is how celebrities end up losing bits of their nose. Thankfully though, I was too poor to make cocaine a regular habit.

But on those occasions when I tried it, usually to impress a girl, I did experience draw backs which seem to be unique to me. For example, I would have nightmares for weeks afterwards, similar to how I did on ecstasy. I think it messed with the chemical balance of my brain. And the other problem is that I would sneeze for weeks, and my nose, and even my whole body, would itch terribly. Clearly, this was some kind of allergic reaction and I'm not sure if this was to the cocaine itself or to the washing powder it was probably cut with, but either way, it was not pleasant.

My experiences with cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana represent my main encounters with drugs, but my mates got involved much deeper than I did. Particularly Gaz.

One day, when we were in our late twenties, Gaz led me into his loft which was like a dazzling ultra-violet sauna filled with heat lamps and cannabis plants, with tin foil covering every surface. It stunk.

The place was a fire hazard and hardly the type of thing to have over the heads of small children. And the best thing about it was the plants weren't even his. He was doing this as a favour for a drug dealer friend who didn't have the room in his flat. Talk about stupid.

Now the thing about cannabis plantations in your loft is they are so very easily detectable by infra-red cameras. Plus, your roof will be the only roof in the street that snow doesn't settle on, but thankfully Gaz never got caught. Because as dumb as he was being, I didn't want him going back to jail. Yes, he'd been to jail recently. Not for drugs though, for fighting. Everybody always seems to be fighting where we're from.

Throughout our mid-to-late twenties, me, Gaz, Carl and Brian never actually saw each other that often. We'd more or less grown apart, but that started to change when I had my own place for the first time and suddenly, the three of us were hanging out again. Now when we were sober, we got along like a house on fire, but when we were drunk, it was another story, and of course, the lads started insisting on buying cocaine. This was something I hadn't done in quite a while, but suddenly we were partying weekly.

Sometimes it was just us, playing Fifa or watching the boxing, other times, we'd persuade some girls to join us, and when it was good, it was great. But when we were drunk or high, things often got rowdy and sometimes rows would break out. My neighbours soon reported me to the landlord, meaning there was a risk of eviction, but it gets even worse.

One day, someone rang my bell and a neighbour I didn't know existed told me that my mates had been arguing with him. He then went on to explain how he was a big time drug dealer who'd just been released from a ten year stretch in prison and was best mates with another big time drug dealer. He told me to Google his name, like I should be impressed.

Anyways, I did and he was telling the truth.

He then pointed around the car park and told me that ten cars were his. He explained that if anything happened to his cars, he would hold me personally responsible. He explained that his drug dealer mate actually wanted to slash me, but he was going to give me a chance. 

Bearing in mind, I had a girl I'd only recently met standing at my side the whole time, I had to keep my cool. I was torn between telling him to fuck off, which wouldn't have been a smart move, and using diplomacy to calm the situation. I opted to apologise for the behaviour of my mates because I was sure they would have been behaving like idiots, and from that point on, I was reluctant to have them around.

One time a few weeks later, Bri decided to start a fight with me in my living room because he was high as a kite and wanted to impress his girlfriend. What is it with cocaine and being a total dick to impress women? Anyways, it wasn't much of a fight. I got him into a headlock without throwing a punch and agreed to release him if he would stop. However, when I released him, he attacked again and I got him into a headlock again, this time dragging him outside and locking the door on him. Needless to say, his girlfriend was not impressed.

And this, if I'm honest, is definitely one of the biggest drawbacks of recreational drugs. Some, but not all, can make men more aggressive and much more prone to falling out. My friends and I got along great when we were sober, but always got a little bored, and if we were tempted into consuming drugs or alcohol, there was always a risk of us falling out.

Alcohol is a drug of course and in my personal experience, every bit as problematic as the other drugs I've encountered. Alcohol killed my grandfather. It helped turn other men I knew into women-beating bastards. It destroyed the lives of so many people who couldn't enjoy it in moderation. And that's the thing with many drugs really. If you can enjoy them in moderation, they really aren't too harmful to most people and can be quite nice, but like alcohol, they are devastating in excess, make idiots behave terribly, and some people just don't process them well.

I personally don't drink, let alone take drugs now, because my body does not process any of this stuff well. Therefore, I would not recommend drugs to anyone, certainly not my kids. But at the same time, I could hardly be judgmental if they did dabble and I think it's absurd to criminalise people for this.

Now this piece probably made my mates sound like the worst friends in the world, but I must say we did have great times together - I've just highlighted some of the bad parts. But their foolhardiness, which was certainly exacerbated by drugs, was the key reason we finally grew apart. By the age of thirty, I was a dad and could not have that recklessness and unpredictability in my life so I had to steer clear. Now you might think that if I could grow out of this, they could too, but I was never quite as volatile as them and they never did grow up.

In 2017, I received a message on Facebook from my mother, explaining Gaz had passed away. Turns out he'd got involved in hard drugs in the years since I'd seen him and one night he went to sleep and never woke up. He left behind three children. Worst thing is I never even got to go to the funeral.

It's funny because in the years since I'd seen him, I would more often than not picture the negative, but now he was gone, suddenly every positive memory we shared flooded my mind - from the day the new kid walked into class at five years old and instantly became my best friend, to the first time he played at my house, to the first sleep over, the first trip to the fun fair, the swimming pool, the cinema, and the time his parents took me on my first holiday to Menorca and we had the most incredible time. All the innocent stuff...

I remember playing in the den we'd built when we were eleven and he asked me what age I would like to be, if I could be any age? 

"I don't know, what age would you be?" I asked. 

"Twenty-five," he replied, "because then I would be in my prime." 

I paused and said: "Nah, I'd want to stay this age forever because things will never get better than they are now."

I was right, of course. It was only months later that alcohol entered our lives and in the coming years, drugs, and everything went downhill at that point. Were drugs and alcohol the sole cause of this? No, absolutely not. The problems were driven mainly by lack of opportunity and the inevitable sub-culture that emerges to help people cope with fucked up situations, but whichever way you look at it, drugs left three small kids without a dad. Kids who are just like we were during that innocent stage and who I'd rather not see go down the same path.

We all get one life and part of me thinks we should enjoy the full range of human experience within that time. Drugs open up pathways in your brain that take you to realities you never thought possible and offer experiences you otherwise could not comprehend. But it's important to understand, anything stronger than weed should not be taken by anyone, and really, even weed and other soft drugs, and yes, even alcohol, should be treated with caution.

I must say as a final thought, that the criminalisation of drugs is idiotic and if we want to save people like Gaz, we should do so through rehabilitation, not imprisonment. You don't save a life by destroying a life.