In the wake of Monday’s tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, there have been many attempts to get to the bottom of how and why someone could ever stoop so low as to take the lives of innocent children. The varied explanations have been complex and nuanced, and encompass everything from the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East to the complex psychology that makes some more susceptible and vulnerable to extremist ideology than others. But one ‘explanation’ has elicited anger and derision from many. It came, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the Daily Mail.
Writing for the Mail, Dr Max Pemberton – who has previously advocated using religion to treat schizophrenia, as well as forcing Muslim women to speak English – claimed that the real reason Salman Abedi committed his appalling act of terror was, in fact, cannabis.
He is not the first to make this argument. Peter Hitchens (who else?) has long claimed that “The real mind-blowing terror threat in our midst is cannabis.” But while both Hitchens and Pemberton argue passionately, and I’m sure for some, convincingly, their belief that cannabis is at the root of every terrorist atrocity from Copenhagen to Boston is really quite absurd.
The crux of their argument is that a large number of perpetrators of terrorist attacks in recent years have been cannabis smokers. Therefore, they say, cannabis must be at least partly responsible for their acts. It must also be strictly prohibited – and indeed be clamped down on far more heavily than it currently is – because of the likelihood that it will lead to more attacks in the future.
What their arguments lack is any real evidence. Pemberton points to studies that suggest that regular, heavy use of cannabis is linked to a doubled risk of psychosis and/or schizophrenia, but what he fails to mention is that firstly, the baseline risk of psychosis and schizophrenia is incredibly low, so even when doubled, it’s still an extremely small risk. It’s similar to saying that exercise can double the risk of heart attack. It can, for a short period of time after the exercise, but that doesn’t mean that exercise is suddenly bad for you.
Both Pemberton and Hitchens also fail to recognise that despite rising levels of cannabis use over the last few decades, rates of schizophrenia have remained stable or slightly declined. If cannabis were sending everyone who smoked it into a psychotic, murderous rage, it would show up in the data. But it doesn’t.
Even if we accept that cannabis can induce transient psychosis in some users – and the evidence is that it probably can – Pemberton and Hitchens’ assumption that legalisation would therefore be a disaster is not based on sound logic or science. The fact is that the prohibition of cannabis and subsequent black market has not stopped anyone from using the drug who really wants to, but has made it far more likely that someone with a predisposition to psychotic episodes – who may well be attempting to self-medicate with cannabis – is only able to purchase high-THC, low-CBD varieties.
The prevalence of these strains is a direct result of prohibition; a legal, regulated market would supply a range of less potent strains not currently available to most consumers, whilst at the same time providing safeguards and professional help for users who feel they are having problems. Simply slapping those vulnerable users with a criminal record and throwing them in jail doesn’t help anyone.
The really sad thing about attempts from axe-grinding journalists to pin the blame for terrorism on cannabis is that, in many cases, it is merely deflecting attention away from the role played by their own publications. The Daily Mail have consistently printed stories which dehumanise refugees and muslims, branding human beings fleeing wars as a ‘swarm,’ and printing cartoons depicting them as rats.
Pemberton is right to point out that would-be terrorists “tend to feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised” and that “There is also a strong sense of victimhood and that they are fighting for a social injustice” and “have a poor sense of identity and tend to be ‘adolescent’ and petulant.”
But the truth is that cannabis isn’t the cause of their anger, or their disenfranchisement. They feel that way because newspapers like the Daily Mail prey on the prejudices of many of their readers, and promote division in society that only leads to more hatred, and more violence. If they are driven to cannabis use at all it is more likely a source of relief from the alienation and otherness imposed on them by papers more interested in sales figures than the consequences of their actions.
Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He is a regular columnist for Volteface, writes on drug policy for politics.co.uk, London Real and many others, and is the Policy & Communications officer at LEAP UK. Tweets @sullivandeej