On April 14, 2014, Richard Kirk — crazed, after having consumed part of a tootsie roll-sized piece of cannabis candy — murdered his wife in cold blood while the couple’s three young sons were in the home. Or, that’s what Kirk’s defense attorneys would like to convince you happened that night — that a tiny portion of marijuana candy fueled an insanity and rage so intense, the low level of THC coursing through his blood caused him to slay his wife, Kristine.
Absurd as that is, it isn’t the worst aspect of this case. In response to the allegation cannabis candy caused Richard to, essentially, experience a psychotic break, Kristine’s surviving sons have now brought a wrongful death lawsuit against two marijuana businesses — the first of its kind against the billion-dollar legal pot industry. They claim the cannabis edible “should have carried a warning label that included dosage instructions and side effects — including hallucination, paranoia, and psychosis,” as CBS News explained.
Unsurprisingly, the case has created a firestorm of controversy — and fresh accusations the legal marijuana industry has been scapegoated to excuse an individual responsible for murder.
“Edible marijuana is coming upon you slower and slower so you take something the size of a Tootsie Roll — which he did — you take a bite, you don’t get high, so you keep eating and you were supposed to only have that one little bite,” CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman claimed on CBS This Morning in an attempt to explain Kirk’s alleged cannabis-induced paranoia.
In the latter part of 2015, Kirk’s attorneys filed a not guilty by reason of temporary insanity plea on his behalf — switching his previous not guilty plea.
But, as Denver attorney and legal analyst Christopher Decker explained, “You just don’t see the correlation between marijuana and homicide that you do with the strong correlation between alcohol and homicide, the strong correlation between amphetamines, cocaine and homicide.”
Psychiatric and other mental health experts have evaluated the case to explain why Richard Kirk had been described in Kristine’s emergency phone calls as “totally hallucinating” in the minutes before he killed her. One evaluation by Associate Professor in the Johns Hopkins Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit, Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., acknowledged cannabis could induce a hallucinatory or paranoid response in individuals with underlying “risk factors for psychosis” or infrequent users. However, in his 15 years experience, he stated, “With regards to the specific type of behavior exhibited in the case of Mr. Kirk, I have not witnessed individuals in a dissociative state following cannabis administration in my laboratory.”
Another report from University of Colorado medical toxicologist and emergency physician, Dr. Andrew Monte, cited by the Denver Post, claimed outright the THC caused “delirium and psychotic-like symptoms.”
Neither Vandrey nor Monte spoke with Kirk pursuant to their evaluations. But clinical psychologist Katherine Bellon did, and she found that underlying mental conditions could mean the man has a vulnerability for “serious distortions in thinking.”
Intoxication of any kind, on its own, doesn’t provide a sufficient legal basis for the claim of temporary insanity, but now that cannabis has entered the picture, it can be considered a factor.
“What we’re seeing is that it is more complicated than simply this defendant consumed marijuana and killed his wife as a result,” explained Sam Kamin, Vicente Sederberg professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver. “The assertion of the insanity defense is an indication that the defense team is asserting there was a deeper problem going on.”
Toxicological tests of Kirk’s blood at the time indicated low levels of THC and no other substances — no alcohol, nor any other illicit drugs. As a defense motion states, Kirk’s blood contained 2.3 nanograms of THC per milliliter — less than half the state’s legal ‘stoned’ driving limit of 5 nanograms — though such tests have recently been found scientifically unfounded.
According to the Denver Post, he had consumed an unspecified, “nibbled on” portion of the Tootsie Roll-sized “Karma Kandy Orange Ginger” edible — which consisted of 10 servings with 10 milligrams of THC each — hours before murdering his wife. An untouched joint was recovered from the home with the remaining portion of the edible by police.
As Klieman, the CBS analyst, explained, the possible route of defense for the cannabis industry in this controversial case could be a comparison to the impunity of the alcohol industry — that Kirk, alone, is responsible for murdering his wife.
“This is a bad guy who committed a homicide and that defense goes along with a criminal prosecution because the criminal prosecution of Mr. Kirk is that there may have been marital problems or financial difficulties and this is intention, this is not about negligence” on the part of the cannabis industry, Klieman said.
Critics following the case have been quick to jump on legal cannabis as a dangerous policy — employing decades-old, and wholly baseless drug war propaganda in doing so. Perhaps the most laughable of these detractions came from attorney cum talk show host Nancy Grace — whose indignant disgust about pot would be humorous were the industry’s integrity not potentially at stake.
Grace invited attorney and NORML board vice-chair, Norm Kent, to speak about the Kirk case, introducing him by condescendingly saying, “Norm Kent, you want this legalized, and this formerly loving husband eats edible pot in candy form, whips out a gun, threatens to kill himself and ends up murdering his wife — as the two children are right there — and you want to legalize that?!”
After Kent analogizes her absurd — and repeated, on multiple occasions — attempts to vilify the cannabis industry with making pig farming illegal because bacon is unhealthy, Grace exploded.
“Are you high right now? Did you eat edible pot on the way to the studio?” she facetiously queried, talking over Kent.
This wasn’t Grace’s only interview seeking to outright demonize cannabis as a dangerous substance in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary. In another segment, Kent told her, “You take isolated instances of aberrant behavior and try to make them standardized for all marijuana users.” Celebrity doctor Drew Pinsky, who apparently normally sides with Grace across the board, also pointed to the fallaciously strict association she makes between cannabis and psychosis.
And that remains the heart of this important case — both Richard Kirk’s defense and his children’s wrongful death suit have opportunistically seized on the profitable cannabis industry to take the fall for an abhorrent crime. Should his defense be successful — or, more gravely — should the wrongful death suit against the cannabis businesses pan out, cannabis legalization will face an even steeper road in other states.
Though whether the repercussions of an insanity-by-pot defense were thoroughly considered — or if, perhaps, negative consequences were a partial motive to employ that plea — remains purely a matter of conjecture. No matter what, murder of Kristine Kirk and possible trial of Richard need to be closely monitored by cannabis advocates everywhere.