Anti-Cannabis Stigma Thrives in Hate Crime Trials
The horrific case of an elderly Jewish woman in Paris killed in a clear anti-Semitic attack is being painted as an incidence of “cannabis delirium.” Despite all the progress since the days of Reefer Madness in the 1930s, cannabis is still blamed for violent crime by law enforcement and media alike. Such irrational ugliness has also been repeatedly seen in the cases that have inspired the Black Lives Matter movement.
It made headlines around the world late last month when 85-year-old Mireille Knoll was found dead in her Paris apartment.
As a child in 1942, she had narrowly escaped the round-up of French Jews for deportation to the Nazi death camps. Now, she had been stabbed to death, and her body partially burned when the attackers apparently tried to set her apartment aflame. The Paris prosecutor’s office said on March 26 that Knoll had been killed because of the “membership, real or supposed, of the victim [in] a particular religion.” The New York Times calls this “a roundabout way of saying she was killed because she was Jewish.”
This isn’t the first such case in Paris in recent months. In February, the judge hearing the case of the murder of an elderly Orthodox Jewish woman, allowing that more serious charge to move ahead. Sarah Halimi, 65, was killed last April when her neighbor Kobili Traore threw her from the window of her third-story apartment. Traore, a Malian immigrant, was heard using anti-Semitic slurs against Halimi.
These cases are of course contributing to the current controversies in France about immigration and the resurgence of anti-Semitism. But the Halimi case also touches on public perception of cannabis, even if few have commented on this aspect.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency informs us that Traore is pleading temporary insanity — despite the fact that he has no history of mental illness. The psychiatric report, issued in September, concluded that on the night of the murder Traore suffered an “acute delirium” after heavy cannabis use.
This supposed disorder did not exclude his criminal responsibility, the report found, and was “not incompatible with an anti-Semitic dimension,” according to the French language Le Parisien newspaper. Yet Traore is still using it as a defense.
This is a clear illustration of how persistent the irrational stigma against cannabis is. It’s almost comical how this utterly spurious link between cannabis and violence can be invoked either to try to acquit (as in this case) on the basis that the “evil cannabis” made the accused do it, or to impugn the defendant on that same basis.
For example, cannabis stigma was used to posthumously tar the reputation of Trayvon Martin — and numerous other African Americans slain by police or vigilantes in the United States in recent years.
The Trayvon Martin case of course ended with the acquittal of his admitted killer, George Zimmerman, on the basis of self-defense — widely seen as implausible. Zimmerman’s defense team attempted to introduce as evidence that the youth’s autopsy had shown trace amounts of THC in his bloodstream. The lawyers won approval from the judge to admit this as evidence, and the lead attorney actually told the media that even a small level of THC in the bloodstream could increase violent behavior. The toxicology report indicating cannabis use was ultimately not submitted to jurors — probably because the lawyers judged that it wouldn’t fly, a small victory for common sense, at least.
This tactic was used again after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. A copy of Brown’s autopsy was leaked to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, which ran the following headline: “Official autopsy shows Michael Brown had close-range wound to his hand, marijuana in system.”
Then in 2015, Freddie Gray was killed by police in Baltimore. The conservative Daily Caller gloated in a headline: “Freddie Gray Had A Long Rap Sheet.” But beyond the headline, the actual list of charges of Gray highlighted that he’d been in possession of marijuana and possession of narcotics with an intent to distribute. The accuracy watchdogs at Snopes, examining the veracity of the claim, quoted the Associated Press: “Court records indicate that Gray’s arrests were mostly for drug possession/distribution charges and various minor crimes, many of which were not prosecuted.”
Later in 2015, Sandra Bland was found hung to death in her Texas jail-cell after a traffic stop. Authorities made much of the fact that her autopsy showed she’d been using cannabis.
And in 2016, Philando Castile was killed by a cop in a traffic stop in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area. The cop won his acquittal partly on the basis of the claim that Castile had been high on cannabis at the time of the shooting. Again, it was touted that a blood test posthumously performed on Castile came back positive for THC. Again, the defense team succeeded in getting the judge to declare evidence of Castile’s past cannabis use as admissible. The accused cop testified: “I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her second-hand smoke and the front-seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me?” No cannabis had been found in the vehicle.
In all these cases, the supposed cannabis use is irrelevant. Arguably, the media can’t be blamed for reporting what the police say, although touting the cannabis claims as if they were relevant (as in the Post Dispatch headline about Michael Brown) is poor journalism. And it is an absurdity that cannabis use by the deceased can be admitted as evidence in court when the accused killers are on trial.
In the wake of these grim Paris cases, the French have got some serious grappling to do. Let’s hope they won’t emulate the American media and justice system in muddying the waters by making cannabis an issue. Use of the cannabis can neither justify deadly police violence, nor exculpate a killer in an anti-Semitic attack.
TELL US, how have you seen cannabis use arise in the courtroom?