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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 16:53 GMT


Smoking dope restored my sight

Journalist Sue Arnold says smoking Skunk made her see again

Journalist Sue Arnold wrote in The Observer in September 1997 of how smoking Skunk temporarily restored her vision. The article was a landmark in the campaign for the medicinal use of cannabis. BBC News Online reproduces it here, with the kind permission of The Observer.

"Dinner with friends in Battersea interesting food, interesting people, until someone mentions riding and it turns out they're all horse mad. I'm not. I listened politely for half an hour to a review of hay prices, farriers' fees and the current facilities at Hickstead, and then made my break.

Sue Arnold calls for more research into cannabis
It was a darkish room, candelit only, and I vaguely remembered steps on the way to the kitchen. I'd better explain. I have an eye condition called RP retinitus pigmentosa and am officially registered blind. I can't read any more and I can't see anything in much detail, but I'm pretty mobile. The trick was to get to the kitchen without anyone offering to help. Fortunately, a guest was giving a jump-by-jump account of her last visit to Badminton and no-one noticed my escape.

Someone had beaten me to it.

I could just make out a silhouette topped with dreadlocks and something glinting, probably an earring, by the window. I could definitely smell hash. The voice was rich, friendly and unmistakably Caribbean. 'Join the party', he said and handed me the remains of a roll-up.

I'm not a regular cannabis user. I learnt to smoke it when I was sent by this paper to Amsterdam to cover the first international conference to debate the legalisation of pot some 20 years ago. My student children occasionally bring it home and I sometimes share a joint to be sociable, but it has marginally less effect on me than a large malt whisky.

The Battersea roll-up was something else. Even before I exhaled, I could feel something was happening. I took another drag. The silhouette by the window was no longer a blur. It was wearing a pale blue denim jacket with metal studs arranged in a diamond pattern on the sleeve.

I took another drag and counted the studs. There were 16. The next inhalation revealed an Arran sweater under the jacket with alternate rows of cable stitch and blackberry stitch. I know about knitting. My Dublin landlady knitted all the time, but I haven't seen a stitch, plain, purl or blackberry, in detail for decades.

This was incredible and I wanted to tell my companions so, but somehow I couldn't seem to get my tongue around the words. I knew I was smiling, a silly loose-lipped smile, and he was smiling too, showing shiny white teeth...eight, to be exact, with a gap on the left.

I couldn't stop counting things. I counted the mugs on the dresser, which were very red, and the flowers on the sides of the mugs, which were very green with white centres, and the number of tiles on the floor. For someone who can no longer read Tube station signs and once went to lunch at the Savoy wearing odd shoes - same style, different colours. This was a whole new world. Only trouble was, I couldn't stand up. Sightless or legless, it's a tough choice.

The next time I saw my consultant, Professor Bird at Moorfields, I told him about it. He didn't seem surprised. He remembered a letter in Nature magazine six years ago about Jamaican fishermen smoking ganja to improve their night vision. Apparently, an opthalmic research fellow from the University of the West Indies had gone out one night with a boatload of stoned fishermen, and confirmed that, in pitch darkness, they had piloted their flimsy craft through treacherously rough, rock-ridden seas.

In America, continued Professor Bird, it is not unusual for opthalmic consultants to prescribe cannabis for glaucoma. There was a case recently of an American student being stopped at Heathrow with a pouchful of hash. 'But it's on prescription from my doctor,' he protested. Pull the other one, said Heathrow Customs.

Professor Bird offered the services of a colleague, Dr Fred Fitzke, over at the Institute of Opthamology, who would test my vision before and after a joint to see precisely what improvement there was. I would have to bring my own dope.

Clearly, it wasn't just any old weed I had had in my friends' Battersea kitchen.

'It must have been Skunk, mum,' advised the youngest daughter. 'Ordinary Thai doesn't have that effect. Was it very green with sort of sparkly bits in it?' I couldn't remember. All I remembered about that evening in Battersea was the sudden clarity with which I could see everything, as if someone had switched on a 150-watt light bulb in a candlelit room.

I've done some research into Skunk. The best stuff comes from Amsterdam and was originally called Fourways because it was developed from four different kinds of cannabis: Sinsemilla, Hindikush and two common varieties of Thai.

It isn't grown in earth like ordinary hash. It's grown hydroponically with regular liquid feeds. They're so keen on Skunk in Amsterdam, they now have an annual Growers' Cup to find the best variety. Best, in Dutch terms, means potent but still allowing you to work. You don't fall over or smile silly, lopsided smiles. That's obviously the kind I need.

This year's Growers' Cup winner was called Khali Mist, beating Snow White, winner for the past two years. There's also Super Skunk, Blue Grass, AK47, Bubblegum and many more. The English brand of Snow White is generally agreed to be the most potent. The only problem is the price. Skunk costs twice as much as ordinary weed, £25 for an eighth of an ounce instead of the usual tenner. But then you get what you pay for. It contains five times as much of the buzz-giving substance THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that you smoke it for.

Whether it will ever be prescribed here on the National Health Service depends very much on what the new drugs law reform commission comes up with, I suppose. Certainly, there are hospices which allow patients to smoke dope to relieve those parts which even the strongest morphine doses cannot reach.

For my birthday, my daughter sent me a box containing, according to the label, three months' supply of those new disposable contact lenses. Some kind of joke. I haven't worn contacts for years. Wrap-around glasses with dark red milk-bottle lenses to keep out the light are my trademark.

It was a long box. Inside, carefully wrapped in silver foil, was a joint the size of a Monte Cristo cigar. It didn't say Khali Mist, but I expect that's what it is.

Unfortunately, Dr Fitzke was in Cambridge last week attending an opthalmic conference, so I couldn't make an appointment for my Skunk test. But, at least I've got the business to take with me when he returns. It promises to be an interesting session. I'll let you know how it goes."

Copyright The Guardian ©, 14 September 1997.

Sue Arnold says that the test could not go ahead because of the law on possession of cannabis. She now says Skunk does help her to see, but it also destroys her concentration.

"If I could concentrate, I could use the benefits," she told the BBC's One O'Clock News.

She wants more research into the particular cannabinoid which helps sight without making her "legless".

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