Harry Anslinger, who directed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1932 to 1962, famously described marijuana as a "killer weed" that inspired irrational acts of savage violence. Anslinger's method was simple: He would identify crimes committed by marijuana users and assert that the drug must have been the cause. It was not the most scientific approach, but it was good enough for government work. Roger Morgan, the anti-pot activist who is spearheading the campaign against legalization in California, has managed to out-Anslinger Anslinger by claiming, in a recent Reason TV interview, that in "almost all of the mass murders that we've had in recent years," the perpetrator "has been a heavy marijuana user, because it changes the brain."
For now let us overlook, as Anslinger did, the distinction between correlation and causation. It was news to me that almost all mass murders in recent years have been committed by potheads. Is that true? As far as I can tell, no.
Morgan mentions the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and "Paris recently," by which I assume he means the gun and bomb attacks that killed 130 people at various locations last November. The Tucson shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, tried to enlist in the U.S. Army in 2008 but was rejected because he admitted he was a marijuana user. A neighbor of James Holmes, the 24-year-old Aurora shooter, told the New York Post, "I'd see him smoking weed behind the apartment." The former wife of 31-year-old Paris bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam told the London Daily Mail "his favorite activities were smoking weed and sleeping."
That's three homicidal cannabis consumers, including two Americans. Mother Jones counts 23 mass shootings in the U.S. since the beginning of 2011, when the earliest crime Morgan mentions (the Tucson massacre) occurred. In addition to Loughner and Holmes, these four perpetrators have been described as marijuana users:
1. MPR News reports that the mother of Andrew Engeldinger, a 36-year-old man who murdered six people at a Minneapolis sign company in 2012, said he "began using marijuana and alcohol as a young adult."
3. The New York Times reported that 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, last year, started smoking pot as a teenager.
4. ABC News, citing a family representative, reported that 24-year-old Mohammod Abdulazeez, who killed five people in Chattanooga last year, "would abuse sleeping pills, opioids, painkillers and marijuana, along with alcohol."
That's six cannabis consumers out of 23 mass shootings, or 26 percent of the total—no one's idea of "almost all."
I may have missed a bunch of references to marijuana use by mass murderers, but I doubt it. The website for Morgan's anti-pot campaign has a list of crimes allegedly caused by marijuana—titled, apparently without irony, "Modern Reefer Madness." It mentions Holmes, Loughner, and Fryberg, but none of the other mass shooters on the Mother Jones list. Morgan and his colleagues at the Stop Pot 2016 campaign are highly motivated to find such examples, and you can be pretty sure that if they were aware of others, they would have noted them.
The "Modern Reefer Madness" page includes several murderers who did not make the Mother Jones list because they killed only one or two people, such as Darion Aguilar, who shot two employees of a skateboard store at a mall in Columbia, Maryland, in 2014. The anti-pot campaign says "his writings indicated marijuana use and wanting to die." The Stop Pot 2016 list also includes 19-year-old Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who reportedly was a pot seller as well as consumer while attending the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and Rudy Eugene, the notorious Miami face chewer, whose blood tested positive for marijuana (but not bath salts!) after he was killed by a police officer while attacking a homeless man in 2012.
It seems clear that Roger Morgan is just making shit up when he claims "almost all of the mass murders that we've had in recent years" were committed by "heavy marijuana user[s]." In fact, cannabis consumption may not even be especially common among mass murderers. The perpetrators of the 23 post-2010 mass shootings on the Mother Jones list ranged in age from 15 to 64, with most in their 20s or 30s. Almost all were men. Survey data indicate that 34 percent of male 19-to-30-year-olds have used marijuana in the last year.
Even if it's true that mass murderers are especially likely to consume cannabis (or to consume it frequently), of course, that does not mean the marijuana made them do it—the interpretation that Morgan favors. Mass murderers are more troubled and less law-abiding than the average American, and both of those factors are associated with heavy drug use. Morgan has little patience for such alternative explanations, insisting that marijuana "is a causal factor, not a correlated factor."
It's not clear how Morgan knows that, just as it's not clear how he knows "radical Islams [sic]" use marijuana to "change the motivation of younger people." But under persistent questioning by Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller, Morgan retreats a bit from his position that marijuana is responsible for nearly all mass murders. "You don't believe it," he says, "but I'm just telling you every scientific research project ends with 'we need to study this further.' I would tell you the same thing."