Objections anticipated: alcohol, ‘skunk’ and ‘millions of smokers’

The first claim from the pro cannabis lobby will be that many of the stories I have listed also involve alcohol. This is not so. Of the 200 articles I cite, 49 mention alcohol, and 12 mention alcohol and other drugs. Moreover, the extent to which alcohol was involved in these 61 cases varies enormously. For example, while it’s true that 23-year-old Charles King drank a bottle of vodka before hanging himself one day in 2003, he also wrote in his suicide note, ‘Cannabis has ruined my life’.

Regarding those cases where alcohol was a long-term habit, and in which the attacker was high on both drink and cannabis, perhaps an in-depth professional inquiry would establish, as seems probable, that cannabis and alcohol do not mix well (in one of the cases, a judge named Peter Armstrong remarked, almost, as it were, drily, “Time and again we are getting cases where alcohol and cannabis seem to have resulted in violence. They just don’t seem to mix.”). This, though, is hardly a strong argument for legalisation of the former. Moreover, perhaps an inquiry could also examine whether heavy drinkers who have never consumed cannabis have committed hundreds of similarly savage, random and unprovoked violent crimes. Again, even if this were the case (which I doubt), it would say nothing about the wisdom of legalising a different drug that has different side effects.

The next claim will be that most of the cannabis involved is ‘skunk’, a slang term for strong marijuana. This also is untrue. Only 12 of the articles specify that the perpetrator smoked ‘skunk’. A total of 106 articles, more than half, mention only cannabis. Nevertheless, the issue of ‘skunk’ requires some analysis.

Cannabis is dangerous because it contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that makes the user ‘high’. Exactly how much more THC a batch of cannabis must contain to qualify as ‘skunk’ is debatable, and exactly how much more the average batch does contain is impossible to establish, with some reports saying two or three times as much, others ten, and some 25. The mother of one violent criminal said nurses at Wotton Lawn Hospital told her it could be up to 400 times more potent.

More importantly, how does anyone know the THC content of the cannabis smoked by the violent criminals in this catalogue, or anywhere? Perhaps in the cases that mention ‘skunk’ the THC content was high, perhaps it wasn’t, and perhaps the extreme nature of many of the crimes makes people reach for an extreme explanation, one with a trendy yet ugly name, rather than consider that a banal pleasure drug beloved of rock stars and Hollywood glamour is not as harmless as it seems. It’s certainly good for tabloids: ‘super strength skunk’, alliterative and exotic, grabs a reader’s attention much more than mere ‘cannabis’.

Ultimately, the ‘skunk’ argument fails because it is incoherent: the pro cannabis lobby claims that hapless smokers nowadays “don’t know what they’re smoking”, yet often confidently asserts that certain psychopathic violent criminals have been twisted by ‘skunk’. That is, they, unlike the smokers themselves, know the THC levels of the cannabis involved. They don’t know, but they would like it very much if behind every case of mental illness and violent criminality there were only this poorly defined form of cannabis called ‘skunk’, an evil mutation which will, they promise, miraculously disappear with ‘regulation’, leaving only cannabis that is, they imply (but would never dare declare), safe.

The next response will be to point out that these 200 cases are insignificant given that millions of people in the UK and Ireland smoke cannabis without becoming violent criminals. I would first point out that many of the cases above involve more than one drug-addled criminal. Second, and more significantly, I would once more point to the rudimentary nature of my research. I am one person who did nothing more than search online; I had to stop somewhere, so I stopped at 200, a large round number. Furthermore, as I will presently show, in the last ten years or so a number of national papers have deliberately eschewed stories of cannabis-induced violence in favour of ever more articles on alleged medicinal benefits. How many additional tales of cannabis smokers committing violence might a professional inquiry uncover? And what of the countless thousands of non-violent people, such as Henry Cockburn, who have merely lost their minds from smoking cannabis? Should they not be included? I think they should, and I think that would take the total well over 2,000, which is the approximate number of babies born in the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s with birth defects due to the mother’s consumption of thalidomide during pregnancy. Licensed in 1958, thalidomide was withdrawn in 1961, but, controversially, no inquiry has ever taken place.