Robert Dear — the man accused of killing three and injuring nine in a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on Friday — might have enjoyed marijuana when he used to live in North Carolina, the New York Times reported this weekend.
And now some legalization opponents are blaming cannabis for the recent Colorado deaths — and others in Paris and South Carolina.
In researching Dear’s online history, the Times found an online handle that has been associated with Dear looking for sex and smoking partners. From the Times’ story:
An online personals ad seeking women in North Carolina interested in bondage and sadomasochistic sex showed a picture that appeared to be Mr. Dear and used an online pseudonym associated with him. The same user also appeared to have turned to online message boards to seek companions in the Asheville area with whom he could smoke marijuana.
Dear lived in North Carolina before moving to a rural plot of land in Hartsel, Colo.
After the Times piece was published — and after the Daily Mail aggregated it with a sexier headline — some anti-marijuana groups spoke out on social media, linking the killings at the Planned Parenthood location to Dear’s alleged cannabis use.
The groups’ primary arguments center on an important 2015 study published in Lancet Psychiatry that showed a potential link between users of high-potency cannabis and an increased risk of having a psychotic episode. The Washington Post reported on the study:
Compared with someone who had never smoked, a weekly user of high-potency weed (defined here as having greater than 15 percent THC content) was about three times as likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. For daily users, the risk increased to five times.
California outfit Stop Pot 2016 posted on its social media: “CO shooter was a POT smoking oddball! How can the FBI and ATF ignore another #marijuana link to this deranged killer? A recent study from Kings College London found that skunk #cannabis severely damage the corpus callosum region of the brain causing psychosis and permanent mental illness. #StopPot”
On the homepage of the organization’s website is a story with the headline: “Holmes, Aurora shooter, had marijuana history.” (A neighbor of Holmes’ told the New York Post he’d seen Holmes getting high behind his apartment.)
The group Parents Opposed to Pot posted on its social media, linking Dear’s alleged pot use to others being tried for murders in South Carolina, Oklahoma City and Paris.
“Robert Dear may have been one of the many discontents who relocated to Colorado because the marijuana available there,” Parents Opposed to Pot’s Facebook post begins. “The latest mass shooter (Planned Parenthood clinic) appears to be a long-time marijuana user who, like (Paris attack suspect Salah) Abdeslam, was not especially religious according to ex-wife. … The link between Robert Dear, Dylann Roof, some Paris attackers, the Chattanooga shooter, Tim McVeigh — long persistent marijuana use and then finding an ideology to give them meaning.”
One of the lead stories on Parents Opposed to Pot’s website is anonymously written, titled “The Dark Side of Marijuana” and begins, “My son went into psychosis and I’m lucky he is still here. The drug that is being advertised and promoted is part of an irresponsible industry that provides no education to our youth, and actually makes marijuana look cool and harmless.”
The group later responded to a Facebook comment, “The fact is 90% of adults choose not smoke pot in America. More than 50% of those who kill have chosen to smoke marijuana, like Robert Durst.”
Activist Christine Tatum — who wrote “Clearing the Haze: Helping Families Face Teen Addiction” with her husband Christian Thurstone, a notable Denver doctor who has spoken against marijuana in numerous state and national forums — has been pointing out Dear’s alleged affinity for cannabis on her social media.
“Ah, yes,” Tatum wrote on Facebook, linking to the Daily Mail piece. “Am sure it’s just another coincidence that a man using marijuana and displaying increasingly intense agitation and signs of psychosis has erupted in murderous violence in a state that gave him easy access to very high-potency forms of the drug and the weapons he used. Sure, there’s a distinct chance videos affected his thoughts and actions — but howzabout we check into this man’s drug-use history and his toxicology very carefully and start asking ourselves some hard questions about the world body of reputable medical research that has found strong links between marijuana use and psychosis in a percentage of users? Being severely under the influence explains a lot of expressions of hatred and zealotry. It also messes with a lot of preferred narratives, I realize …”
Pot proponents have been quick to point out the many assumptions at play in these online theories — mostly via the posts’ comments. We know Dear moved to Colorado from points east, but was it the state’s legal cannabis that brought him here? We learned that Dear might have been looking online for pot-smoking buddies in North Carolina, but was he using cannabis last week?
On both counts, we don’t yet know.
“To oversimplify the issue to that degree is really problematic, and I think the majority of people see through that oversimplification,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “To try and claim a causal role of someone’s use of cannabis at some point in time to an act of aggression later on in their life is not only specious but also highly misleading.”
When Tatum was contacted for this piece, she pointed toward an article on her husband’s personal website titled, “The marijuana, psychosis connection,” which reports on the Lancet Psychiatry findings. She also pointed to an article from the Colorado Springs Gazette’s “Clearing the Haze” perspective series, which she co-reported with the paper’s editorial board, which primarily writes from an anti-legalization point of view. From the Gazette editorial board’s report:
Adolescent exposure to marijuana doubles the risk of developing psychosis in adulthood — which includes seeing and hearing things that aren’t there and maintaining fixed, false beliefs not shared by the larger community, according to research published in Lancet in 2009. This finding first was reported in 1988 and has been replicated at least five times with studies controlling for dozens of possible, confounding variables — and all yielding similar results.
“I think there’s a lot more that people do know about the connection between marijuana use and psychosis than a lot of people want to acknowledge,” Tatum said Monday.
The real-time analysis of cannabis and its role in current events isn’t new to Tatum and Thurstone. In 2014 they caught heat from pro-cannabis activists after Thurstone wrote and published, and eventually removed, a blog that discussed the discovery of marijuana in Ferguson, Mo., shooting victim Michael Brown’s blood work.
“Brown’s death also should serve as a tragic reminder that marijuana is not harmless, that it is not just like alcohol,” the original blog read, “that its consumption often leads to impairment that is very difficult for the public to measure — also making it tough for the public to hold users accountable for the harm they’ve caused others. Marijuana users also could be vulnerable to aggression and attacks while under the drug’s influence.”
Some called the post racist while others said it was tonedeaf. Even Thurstone’s ally, national anti-legalization outfit Project Sam, distanced itself from the controversial blog: “To imply that Michael Brown’s death was due to pot is to confuse and distort a profoundly troubling event,” Sam tweeted last year. “This is not SAM’s view.”
The day after Sam’s tweet, Tatum tweeted that she and her husband had taken the post down.
“When you’re crushed by comments that are mischaracterizing and misstating what you said and you can’t respond and people are calling you names, it’s not worth it at a certain point,” Tatum told The Cannabist in October 2014.