21 Jan Jack’s Story – Reefer Madness from UTurn of Swindon

Uturn logo

At the end of last year a little known ‘substance misuse service’ from Swindon in the south west of England produced a short film about cannabis aimed at young people. The organisation in question is “Uturn“, based at Clarence House in Euclid Street, Swindon. Uturn’s Facebook page

This film is a terrible example of a prohibition era film dressed up as caring, sensible advice aimed at preventing vulnerable young people getting into trouble with their cannabis use. It does what prohibition campaigns always do, it promotes fear and makes extreme claims of harm.

For adults already scared of the idea their kids might be using cannabis it will probably have the effect of re-enforcing their fears, but for those kids with an interest in cannabis and who have spent any time watching youtube it will just be another scare story of the sort they’ve all seen and heard before.

This short animation tells the story of ‘Jack’. Jack is like most young people and spends his time chilling and hanging out with his friends but he also likes to smoke weed. Jack’s life takes a turn for the worst as his anxieties become heightened. This is his story and the story of others where smoking Cannabis at an early age can have serious adverse effects on the adolescent brain.

Uturn, Swindon, Published on 2 Dec 2015

Jack’s Story

The release of Jack’s story  was reported by ITV in a refreshingly honest way:

A film’s been made to try to stop people from Swindon taking drugs. ‘Jack’s Story’ will be shown at local cinemas to raise awareness about the dangers of substance abuse.

The ITV report is accurate, Jack’s Story is a good old fashioned anti cannabis fear-film. Uturn claim the film offers good advice to young people about not smoking cannabis too often, an aim CLEAR can support wholeheartedly. Indeed a “use responsibly” education campaign is one that is urgently needed. Unfortunately Jack’s Story doesn’t come close to giving that message, instead it resorts to the worst kind of reefer madness scare tactics.

The story starts by introducing Jack: At age 24 Jack is a wreck, a shell of a person, but at age 14 he was a “regular kid”, except we are told

before the smoke he had problems deep down

So Jack had problems before his cannabis use. The narration explains how he used to cover them up and act the clown, he hid his issues and sometimes cried before sleep. But then it says

He wasn’t mental or anything, but he just stopped believing that anything but smoking could help him

So at some point this story has slipped from telling how Jack had problems which were already making him withdrawn to how Jack had problems due to his smoking of cannabis.

Perhaps the true story at this point is Jack was suffering from depression and no-one noticed. Because he had been introduced to cannabis socially, he found it helped his condition and so he started using rather too much. Despite the fact that Jack was showing signs of depression, the film lays the blame for what happened on his cannabis use.

We are told that because he covered his problems up, no-one noticed he was fading away as we see Jack laying on his bed getting stoned. In truth, no-one was paying much attention to Jack. Not only his school friends, but his parents didn’t seem too interested either.

The imagery gets very quite bizarre, real ‘cannabis makes you mad stuff, straight out of “Reefer madness”.

The skunk kept an eye on Jack and started getting real close

We hear animal growls (do skunks growl?) and we see the bared teeth of the skunk as it leers through his bedroom window. This is all a bit strange and in all honesty they take the skunk metaphor far to literally.

The Skunk leers through the window

What are they thinking with this skunk? Do young kids in Swindon really still use the word “skunk” to mean cannabis? There are a large number of street terms for cannabis, “skunk” is so last century.

Something interesting is hinted at when the film tells us

The skunk knew he could make him feel better if every day he would smoke

Jack is suffering from depression and comorbid (happening at the same time) problem drug use is quite common for people with this condition. This hints at cannabis perhaps providing some relief from the symptoms; self medication perhaps?

As Jack slips into his problematic cannabis use his parents are nowhere to be seen. He stays in his room all day at weekend (it seems he still went to school) getting stoned and no-one noticed.

Five months later we see Jack standing near the edge of a big black hole with a skunk standing next to him about to be kicked out of his life.

Jack standing near the edge with skunkJack stands on the edge with his skunk

As time passes he becomes paranoid and to pay for his expensive cannabis habit he becomes a dealer. Again, his parents don’t notice. Of course this illustrates the workings of prohibition, Jack can only get a constant supply  and set up as a dealer because of the illegality of cannabis.

Cut to the present day and real life actors. We’re told that Jack never really recovers but has help from his support worker to make the most of his life

But he’s lost something, a little bit of his mind. He’s always been trying to be let back in so he can catch up and begin but something’s changed.

We’re told that his young brain was trying to make the connections

But when the weed became infectious memories got lost, emotions got mixed, decisions went from right to wrong, now Jack’s brain has forever changed, the good bits … have gone

No-one can help Jack now, he sits alone with his thoughts. Cannabis, apparently, has caused permanent brain damage.

People like Jack certainly do exist. A large part of the problem is that psychological problems like depression simply aren’t picked up, they do often become recluses who slip quietly into isolation and they are at risk of seeking escape in drug use. Often the comorbid nature of the drug use means its more a symptom than a cause of the problems.

This sort of experience is not something you can simply “learn the facts”, or “make the right decisions” about as Uturn suggest. What goes through the mind of someone like Jack as he hides away in his bedroom just isn’t open to that kind of advice. The people who really need help with this sort of problem need guidance and support, not scary anti-drug videos.

It is clearly a good idea to keep kids away from drugs – all drugs including cannabis, alcohol, tobacco and probably caffeine – and for far less serious and scary reasons than severe mental illness. But you won’t do it like this by trying to scare young people.

The real aim of the film is to instill the claims that cannabis causes mental illness and permanent brain damage, therefore promoting the government policy of prohibition as a means of “protecting” young people. It isn’t really aimed at people like Jack, it’s aimed at the rest of us, it’s pure propaganda.

If Uturn really, honestly wants to protect young people then it should be campaigning for a properly regulated and controlled commercial trade in cannabis and its information films should put that message across. Jack can only buy large amounts because he gets it from dealers and he can only become a dealer because of prohibition. He really only gets away with using so much because it’s hidden as it has to be under prohibition.

If the skunk hype is true then the sale of high THC cannabis should be restricted, which would be an easy thing to do if cannabis were legal, but is totally impossible under prohibition. 

Uturn won’t even discuss law reform though, much less could it give the impression that Jack’s extreme habit was in some way not a “normal” pattern of cannabis use, or that the present regime is the root of many of the problems it warns about. It won’t do that, it’s not allowed to.

UTurn isn’t an independent organisation, it’s a part of the government drugs strategy overseen by the local “Drug and Alcohol Action Team” (DAAT).

Derek Williams