Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lazy Journalism or Poltical Opportunism?

Last Monday’s London Evening Standard (Oct 15) carried a small article on the death of Carmelita Tulloch in Kennington, South London in September 2006 written by Anna Davis. For those of you not acquainted with the case, Mrs Tulloch a 51 year old mother of two was brutally attacked and stabbed to death as she walked to work on September 04 2006. On September 06 a teenager, Ezekiel Maxwell walked into a police station and handed himself over. He was subsequently charged and convicted with the manslaughter of Mrs Tulloch.

The article in the Standard is headlined, ‘Teenage killer’s mental illness caused by drug’.
If you read the article you will find that Ezekiel Maxwell, now 18 years old, had, prior to the killing been diagnosed Paranoid Schizophrenic. Also that before he committed the crime he had stopped taking his medication and smoked large amounts of skunk cannabis. Mr Maxwell’s psychiatrist is on record as saying he believed Maxwell suffered a rapid deterioration in his condition brought on by his use of skunk cannabis. All well and good. Except these facts appear to contradict the headline.

Re-read the headline. Where are we shown any evidence that demonstrates Ezekiel Maxwell was not suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia prior to his use of skunk cannabis? Or that it was only after using skunk cannabis that Mr Maxwell began to show symptoms of Paranoid Schizophrenia. No! Ezekiel Maxwell was already a sufferer of a serious mental condition, that then, in the opinion of his psychiatrist was exacerbated by his use of an illegal drug. Therefore how can Anna Davis honestly say the use of a drug caused the teenager’s mental illness. I would suggest that Paranoid Schizophrenia, when added to the disorientation of suddenly ceasing to use his prescribed medication and then the effects of skunk cannabis were the lethal mix that caused the tragic death of Mrs Tulloch. The jury in the court case seemed to think so. They returned a verdict of manslaughter of the grounds of diminished responsibility. In other words Ezekiel Maxwell’s mental condition was a prime factor in his defence. Had he bought the skunk cannabis, smoked it, and then carried out his frenzied attack on Mrs Tulloch claiming afterwards he was Paranoid Schizophrenic it is likely any Prosecuting Council would have driven a horse and cart through his defence.

Perhaps it is churlish to argue over words when a woman, (and by all accounts a highly regarded woman in her community) has her life taken from her and a young man faces possibly the rest of his life in a Secure Unit living with the stigma of an horrific crime and prolonged mental illness. But the above article appears of page 10 of the Standard together with two other articles on the effects of skunk cannabis and one at least making passing mention to the government’s review of the drug’s status. I wonder is this not the point.

All the above links cannabis, serious mental illness and ultimately a tragic loss of life into one suggestive weave. Anyone who knows anything about cannabis will tell you the normal stuff put in the average person’s spliff differs greatly from skunk, - a hybrid version of the drug that can vary in its intensity but is generally considered much stronger and certainly contains higher levels of THC (the psychoactive ingredient) than normal cannabis. Linking skunk to commonly used cannabis is perhaps similar to linking illegal high alcohol moonshine to the nice pint or two of lager enjoyed down the local pub. And surely this is the argument for some form of legalising. Instead of reclassifying the drug (presumably back to a B) and so increasing the number of minor arrests for possession and taking up court time would it not be wiser to control what is allowed for use and increase the penalty for anything found to be outside those controls; in other words make cannabis available under controlled circumstances and with the necessary health provisos. This is after all what we do with another drug also in widespread use in our society; namely alcohol.

This is not a new argument. But then again Anna Davis’ headline with its innuendo of drugs, madness, criminality and death does drag us back almost to the 1950s. And before you ask, it is not high up on my list of important liberties as to whether people are allowed use cannabis legally or not. (Though I suspect whether legal or not its widespread use will continue regardless). But I do hope Anna Davis was just having a bad day when she came up with her headline. Because it would be quite disturbing to think that those in power could use journalists to muddy the waters of debate in order to sneak politically convenient legislation onto the statute books.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Oct 2007