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Tuesday, April 03, 2007 

The building of a moral panic.

Following on from coverage last month of the conviction of Tom Palmer for murder, today's Daily Mail appears to be attempting to raise the stakes in the growing hysteria about the ill-effects of "skunk" cannabis.

This latest case concerns 17-year-old Ezekiel Maxwell, a paranoid schizophrenic who stabbed grandmother Carmelita Tulloch 7 times in an unprovoked and motiveless attack. The Daily Mail claims that he had been smoking cannabis
and skunk since he was 14, as well as taking cocaine.

As is nearly always universal in these supposed cases however, the evidence is by no means clear cut. Maxwell himself claims that he started to hear voices after smoking the drug. It's quite possible that smoking skunk could have triggered or exacerbated his apparent descent into schizophrenia, but we have to take into consideration what else was happening in his life at the time, as well as whether the illness would have developed if he hadn't been smoking cannabis. The Daily Mail article provides few details about his family life, other than the fact that he was additionally "obsessed" with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. We also don't know just how "heavy" his use of skunk/cannabis was; a Torygraph report mentions that the psychiatric reports simply say that they believe his condition was exacerbated by heavy use of skunk.

Somewhat buried in the Mail article is a fact that is probably far more of an explanation for the murder. Last June he had been referred by his GP to his local mental health team, who had prescribed anti-psychotic drugs. His case had been reviewed four times, and was due to be considered again the day after he stabbed Tulloch to death. Maxwell had not taken his medicine for two weeks. Countless previous cases of paranoid schizophrenics committing violent acts have documented the dangers of sudden stopping in the taking of medication, often being found to be the trigger or the explanation for changes in behaviour. It was only after handing himself in that he was definitively diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, something that had been missed in his previous sessions with the psychiatric team.

Also worthy of mention is his "addiction" to Grand Theft Auto. The Mail mentions that Carl Johnson, who you play as in GTA:SA carries a knife, which is true. You can also carry an AK-47, a chainsaw, a pool cue, a samurai sword, grenades and countless other guns as well. As the game progresses you can also pilot a US fighter jet and shoot down other planes on exercises, but that doesn't really enter into what Maxwell did quite as well. The prosecution also states that Maxwell had been playing the game almost exclusively in the months before the murder. This doesn't necessarily suggest that he was obsessed with it: GTA:SA is a lengthy, time-consuming game. It took me around a month to "complete" the in-game missions, and then afterwards you're given free-reign to roam a vast area modeled on Los Angeles in the early 90s, where much of the repeat playing fun comes from.

There's no denying that the GTA series of games are violent, but it's up to you how you play it: hacking down/shooting everyone on the streets not only draws the attention of the police, but also rival gangs. The character you play as only tends to kill in the game as revenge; it's not a bloodthirsty gore fest, however the media would like to paint it. The game also has an 18 certificate for a reason: Maxwell, being 17 at the time of the murder, shouldn't have been playing it.

The whole highlighting of GTA is reminiscent of how violent horror films were often blamed or linked to murders during the 80s and early 90s. The Sun in one case reported of how "mad Michael", the killer in the Halloween series of films had "talked" to a paranoid schizophrenic and told him to kill. That Michael Myers in the films is a mute escapee from a psychiatric ward didn't enter into it. How Maxwell's own lawyer described it is thus:

"The game allows the player to take on the role of a criminal in a big city. This persuaded him to stab someone. He was powerless to resist."

Just how much Maxwell was genuinely influenced by playing GTA is again unclear. The reports by his psychiatrists have not been properly presented in their write-ups by either the Mail or the Telegraph, so we have to rely on what was produced in court by both his own lawyers and the prosecution. The prosecution says that he believed he was Carl Johnson, and his own lawyer that he "powerless" to resist the voices in his head. One has to wonder whether if he'd been taking his medication these thoughts would have become so overwhelming and irresistible.

While the Telegraph focuses more on GTA, the Mail goes overboard with the references to skunk. It says this case highlights the dangers of skunk: it rather highlights the danger of smoking cannabis while not taking prescribed anti-psychotic medicines poses. You have to wonder whether the mental health charities commenting on the case are also doing more harm than good -- the more cannabis gets the blame the more "normally" developing mental illness gets swept under the carpet. Statistics may well be useless, but it ought to remembered that 1 in 4 will suffer from some form of mental ill-health during their lifetime. We also have to remember just how the Mail and others are building a wave of hysteria over cannabis when the evidence for the massively increased potency of cannabis is itself simply a myth, as the ever-excellent Ben Goldacre set out in a recent Bad Science column. It was also only a couple of weeks ago that the Lancet presented its own detailed investigation into the actual harm posed by various drugs: it unsurprisingly found that heroin and cocaine (especially crack) are by far the most dangerous, while ecstasy and cannabis were less relatively harmful than both alcohol and tobacco, findings which are examined here by Transform.

As with the Tom Palmer case, skunk may indeed have exacerbated Maxwell's descent into schizophrenia. This however shouldn't be used to build a wave of panic over brain-meltingly strong weed that's inflicting mental illness on our teenagers when there is absolutely no evidence to support such a thing. Instead, the apparent failings both in the treatment of Maxwell, and his own failure to take his prescribed medicine are buried while his quite possibly incidental "addictions" to both skunk and GTA are over-hyped. The threats from all drugs are relative: we only have to see town centres at the weekend, another favourite of the Daily Mail, to see that binge drinking is far more destructive than cannabis is. Instead, perspective is thrown out in the window in the rush to scare middle England into yet more worry about just what their children are doing.

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quite right, i'm one of these marauding teenager types and all skunk ever leaves me capable of is eating toast and watching the simpsons...

--end flippant response to rather good article--

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