The Cannabis Experiment at The Drugs Café – Harmless or Reckless?

Channel 4 has long been known for commissioning programmes that break boundaries. Programmes that entertain and shock and innovate are familiar territory for the broadcaster. Since their inception in 1982, Channel 4 have differentiated their television content by pioneering new formats and tackling controversial subjects. The Drugs Café is no exception – production company Tuesday’s Child are now recruiting participants to smoke cannabis in an Amsterdam café. The stated aim of The Drugs Café is to test whether cannabis improves people’s relationships or solves disputes. Is this all just harmless entertainment? Or does this format go way too far?

The Drugs Café as Harmless Entertainment

Channel 4 has no obligation to be morally conservative or politically correct with the programmes they commission and broadcast. They have long sought to represent marginalised or under-represented groups and confront topics that are taboo, sidelined or difficult to talk about openly. Cannabis use is controversial – but there are some strong advocates of marijuana, including people who say they use cannabis moderately without suffering any ill effects.

It’s legal – or more specifically, it’s tolerated, under Dutch law. The Drugs Café will be filmed in an Amsterdam coffee shop, where cannabis use is allowed under strict conditions. Although drugs are illegal in the Netherlands – including producing, possessing, importing and exporting drugs – Dutch drug policy tolerates cannabis use that complies with very specific restrictions.

All participants of The Drugs Café will be aged 18 or over. Adults will make their own decision to participate in the programme. They will no doubt sign a very specific consent form, acknowledging they accept the potential risks associated with smoking cannabis. UK citizens are free to make their own decision to smoke cannabis in Amsterdam, whether or not it ends up being misguided.

Commissioning editor Lee McMurray says The Drugs Café will explore taboos around cannabis and contribute to the global debate around attitudes to the drug. When The Drugs Café airs, it is likely to generate discussion in the mainstream media, as well as via blogs and social media. People who are considering trying cannabis for the first time, or those who smoke cannabis already, may gain new insights from the series or the associated press. They might see people experiencing bad effects from smoking cannabis or doing embarrassing things. This could alter some viewers’ perceptions about cannabis or even change the way they use the drug. Perhaps some people won’t try cannabis at all, based on what they see.

The makers of The Drugs Café say they want to test “the theory that cannabis could bring about more harmonious human relationships.” They are looking for participants who have a “clear and heartfelt motivation for trying the high, whether they are looking for a peaceful way to settle a dispute, hoping to take the sting out of a surprising revelation or simply looking to strengthen an existing bond.” Perhaps some participants will achieve this goal, whether or not that’s actually to do with smoking cannabis.

Ultimately, it’s up to the viewers of The Drugs Café to watch the series or switch off.

The Drugs Café as Reckless Experimentation

The premise for The Drugs Café can be seen as very cynical. You can’t test whether cannabis improves one conversation or exchange between friends – because you would have to know what that exact conversation or exchange was like without cannabis, to assess it objectively. In a scientific study, you’d have a control group and/or a longer-term analysis of contributors. It’s unclear at this stage whether the programme-makers intend to follow up with participants after their experience at The Drugs Café – but the findings are unlikely to be an accurate measure of their theory about cannabis and relationships.

The Drugs Café experiment could easily backfire. Cannabis is sometimes presented as a soft or harmless drug – but in fact, the effects can be overwhelming and distressing. Participants might have very bad experiences smoking cannabis. Conversations might turn into arguments. Anxiety or paranoia could affect people’s discussions and lead to misunderstandings. With cannabis, there is no way to predict the effect in advance or how long it will last. For people trying the drug for the first time, they could have a bad reaction. Channel 4 news presenter, Jon Snow, once famously tried cannabis with a negative outcome – he halted filming because of an adverse reaction to cannabis, which he described afterwards as “aggressive filth” that robbed him of his persona and soul. Snow said he never wanted to experience that feeling again. Even with people who use cannabis frequently, the effects can vary greatly depending on the type of cannabis they smoke and the circumstances they’re in. So The Drugs Café is a gamble with people’s health, as well as their most important relationships and conversations.

The Drugs Café is likely to show a range of different experiences and some will be presented as very positive. Perhaps people will really enjoy the experience of getting stoned, laugh a lot or be very entertaining to watch. For most viewers, this will have no impact at all on whether they smoke cannabis or not – but possibly for younger people, it will be an advert to trying cannabis for the first time. Teenagers who then go on to smoke cannabis regularly are particularly susceptible to common and severe mental health conditions, including depression and schizophrenia. Will there be enough information and warnings about the risks of cannabis?

In the end, most people who watch The Drugs Café will do so because they find it entertaining. Most people won’t be influenced in terms of how they do or don’t use cannabis. However, just as addiction affects a proportion of people who try drugs, there are likely to be some viewers who are influenced to try cannabis through watching the show.

Cannabis – the Facts

Whatever side of the argument you’re on about The Drugs Café – or whether you’re undecided or ambivalent – it’s important to be educated about the facts of cannabis.

One of the biggest myths perpetuated about cannabis is that it is not addictive. It is by far the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. Many people will use cannabis and not suffer considerable negative impacts. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, however, one in nine cannabis users will develop an addiction. This figure rises to one in six amongst teens who regularly use cannabis. Increasing amounts of high potency cannabis strains including varieties of skunk are now available widely – so once people start, they can easily become exposed to very strong drugs. The higher the strength, the more likely people are to experience negative effects or get addicted. Addiction treatment services are dealing with increasing numbers of clients with cannabis addiction, either as their primary addiction or alongside other addictions to drugs, alcohol or behaviours. Cannabis use in the long term does significantly impact and alter the quality of life.

To read more of the facts about cannabis, the long-term health effects and the signs of addiction, visit the UKAT cannabis addiction page.