Marijuana

First Lawsuit of Its Kind Blames Marijuana for Murder

Kristine Kirk's family say her husband would not have killed her if he had been properly warned about THC side effects.

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Family Photo

The family of a Denver woman whose husband killed her after eating marijuana-infused taffy has sued the manufacturer who made the candy and the retailer who sold it. The Denver Post says the case "appears to be the country's first wrongful-death lawsuit against the recreational marijuana industry," and it surely won't be the last. But any lawsuit that blames marijuana for murder faces steep obstacles because causation is virtually impossible to prove when a cannabis consumer does something that cannabis consumers almost never do.

Kristine Kirk, a 44-year-old mother of three, died on April 14, 2014, after her husband, Richard, shot her in the head. He had been behaving oddly, jumping in and out of windows and raving about the end of the world, after eating a few bites of Karma Kandy Orange Ginger taffy that he bought that evening at Nutritional Elements, a marijuana store on South Colorado Boulevard in Denver. The lawsuit, which was filed by Kristine's parents and sister on behalf of her three sons, argues that Nutritional Elements and Gaia's Garden, which made the candy, failed to adequately warn Richard about the hazards of consuming too much.

According to Richard Kirk's public defender (who has since been replaced by a private attorney), the clerk at Nutritional Elements, after learning that Kirk was an inexperienced user, did caution him against taking too large a dose, and Kirk ate more than recommended. It's not clear exactly how much. The entire taffy contained 100 milligrams of THC, which state regulators count as 10 doses. But Kirk did not eat the whole thing, and when his blood was tested after the murder the THC concentration was just 2.3 nanograms per milliliter, less than half the level that is presumed to impair drivers under state law (but which may not in fact indicate impairment, especially in regular users). Assuming Kirk was an infrequent cannabis consumer, it is still possible that he ingested enough THC to have an unpleasant experience. But bad trips rarely end in homicide.

The lawsuit nevertheless argues that Nutritional Elements and Gaia Gardens had a duty to warn Kirk that too much THC can trigger paranoia, hallucinations, and psychosis. It says the defendants "negligently, recklessly and purposefully concealed vital dosage and labeling information from their actual and prospective purchasers, including Kirk, in order to make a profit." At the time of Kirk's purchase, edible manufacturers were required either to list the THC content of each product on the package or indicate that the product had not been tested. New regulations approved after the murder mandate THC testing, impose a 100-milligram limit on the amount of THC in a single package, and require that each 10-milligram dose be wrapped separately or clearly marked.

The rules, which took effect in February 2015, do not mandate the sort of warnings about psychiatric side effects that Kristine Kirk's relatives say are necessary. But they do require a warning about the lag between ingesting an edible and feeling its effects: "The intoxicating effects of this product may be delayed by two or more hours." The lawsuit argues that Richard Kirk ate too much taffy because he did not realize how long the delay might be.

"While nothing can bring their parents back, this lawsuit will seek justice and change in an edible industry that is growing so fast it failed these young kids," said the family's attorneys. "Edibles themselves are not the evil. It is the failure to warn, the failure to properly dose, the failure to tell the consumer how to safely use edibles, that is the evil."

The challenge for the plaintiffs is connecting that alleged failure to Richard's decision to retrieve a pistol from his safe and shoot his wife, which requires showing that marijuana made him do it. As University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin noted in an interview with the Post, "We don't hold liquor stores responsible, and we don't hold vodka producers responsible, for drunk drivers." The challenge for Kristine's relatives is even harder, since alcohol demonstrably affects driving ability, but there is little scientific basis for the idea that marijuana causes murder.

"The plaintiffs will need to establish, among other things, causation—in other words, that the ingestion of defendants' edibles caused the incident and the proposed warnings would have made a difference," note Abby Sacunas and Leigh Ann Benson in an analysis on the website of Cozen O'Connor, a law firm specializing in product liability defense. "Causation in this type of case, like in food contamination cases, is likely to be an incredible hurdle given, for example, the variability of individual reactions and the inherent destruction of the product when ingested."

The lawsuit's claims resemble the criminal defense that Richard Kirk seems to be planning. Kirk, who was charged with first-degree murder, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and his lawyers appear to be laying the groundwork for claiming that marijuana triggered a temporary psychosis that rendered him incapable of forming the intent required for conviction. But that defense seems inconsistent with Colorado law, which says "the voluntary ingestion of alcohol or any other psychoactive substance" cannot be the basis of an insanity defense. The lawsuit likewise says Kirk, who is also named as a defendant, bears responsibility for putting himself in a position where he lost control of himself.

Police argue that Kirk knowingly and deliberately killed his wife, with whom he had been fighting bitterly for weeks. Kristine's relatives, by contrast, say he did not intend to kill her and had no way of knowing how he would react to the THC-treated taffy. They cannot blame Nutritional Elements and Gaia Gardens for her death without letting her husband off the hook. 

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  1. Police argue that Kirk knowingly and deliberately killed his wife, with whom he had been fighting bitterly for weeks.

    “THC-treated taffy …. Yeah, *that’s* the ticket!”

    1. +1 Lovitz

    2. Right. Any port, in a storm. It’s what lawyers do. You can’t have a remunerative lawsuit without someone with deep pockets to sue. I find it difficult to believe the parents actually thought it was the fault of the store without some prodding from the lawyers.
      What is interesting is that no one does sue the liquor store or distillery. Why not? Why is this case different? After all, it is well-known that alcohol is associated with violence, and that marijuana is not. Quite the opposite. Is it simply that legal marijuana is new? Or, that there’s a long history of prejudice against this particular intoxicant, which makes it seem ok to sue?

  2. It’s a shame. The family obviously sees this woman’s murder as a potential financial windfall and have decided to run with angle. “They’d been fighting for weeks and he snuffed her” doesn’t pay out very well.

  3. If she would have given him the damn Doritios every thing would have been fine.

    1. +1 Pepsi

  4. The idea that marijuana makes people violent is beyond laughable. It makes them hungry, sleepy, and think shitty music is good.

    1. Cheech and Chong isn’t a documentary, you know.

      Of course, that is the effect for a lot of people. But the range of effects on different people is interesting. I know some people who get almost hyper and super motivated. It can be great for treating anxiety in some people and in others lead to panic attacks.
      But murderous rage is not one that I’ve run into. These people obviously had other problems.

    2. There are different types of MJ and people can have very different responses. Yes, a CBD high will certainly make most people sleepy, hungry and relaxed. However, high THC, low CBD strains can trigger panic, anxiety and disorientation. This is especially common when inexperienced people use high doses.

      I’m not saying that’s what happened in this case, but the whole MJ is 100% benign is not entirely true.

      1. Is there a strain that triggers murderous rages? Sure, people have different responses, but not violent responses. On the other hand, alcohol is well correlated to violence. The big difference is that pot makes one more self-aware, or self-conscious, and alcohol makes one less so, thus less inhibited.
        Regardless, as is pointed out in the article, no one sues the liquor store, (although they will sue the tavern). Why do people have enough sense to understand that those who sell alcohol are not responsible for what people do with it, but don’t have that same understanding about pot or guns?

  5. Could I sue this lady for reinforcing the idea that smoking weed’s a good enough reason to lock you in a rape cage (which has undoubtedly caused many, many times the suffering the plant itself has)?

  6. What is the overlap in this case of people who think it is ludicrous to try to hold the makers of the pot candy and the store owner responsible, but who would be OK if they tried to sue the manufacturer of the pistol and the gun store owner who sold it to them?

    1. Maybe they’ll do a poll.

    2. Hillary says yes,it would.

  7. Reefer Madness II: Electric Boogaloo!

    I thought this tripe was effectively refuted decades ago.

    1. I was thinking this exact same thing. It’s such an old entry in their playbook that it’s almost ludicrous they would trot it out again as a valid ‘thing’.

      I wonder if he had been roaring drunk if they would be suing the alcohol manufacture and the quik-e-mart where he bought it.

      Whoops, sorry! I almost forgot, since this drug is illegal, it’s automatically infinitely worse. Remember when President Obama was in the Choom Gang and murdered like 1,000 people? Yeah, me neither. How about all those muders when Bush was toking and snorting coke? No?

      I guess Presidents and ex-Presidents are immune to the wackier side effects of narcotics!

      1. yknow Ive never killed anyone when I was stoned, unintentionally or otherwise. Maybe somebody is trying to tell me something…

    2. Yeah, I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when the squares were a lot more ignorant about this stuff than they are now. Yet, marijuana “addiction” is spoken about with a straight face nowadays, something which was considered laughable, waaaay back in the seventies. I get that the rehab industry profits by promoting this disinformation, but it’s still shocks me that they can get away with it at all. Are people really that ignorant?

  8. The weed/alcohol comparison gets a little old. But it’s mention here is more interesting.

    How many murders are committed by drunk people? Quite a few, I think. But I don’t recall hearing about any wrongful death suits against alcohol producers or retailers.

    1. I’m sure somebody tried to do so and was laughed out of court. These lawsuits will happen until enough of them are dismissed, lose on the facts or lose on appeals.

    2. Ya, but he knew the side effects of alcohol were becoming drunk. Apparently they need to put a warning label on MJ that says “smoking this will make you stoned”.

  9. Once again that eeeee-vee-ill merrywanna has hypnotized a good person and turned him into a criminal. There’s no doubt that but for the existence of cannabis that the culprit in this case would have instead been singing in the church choir on Sundays, working as a full time volunteer at the soup kitchen feeding the hungry, and helping diminutive, elderly women negotiate busy traffic intersections in his spare time. There’s no doubt whatever that were it not for merrywanna, that there would be no crime in our society!

  10. So he consumed marijuana before and didn’t kill his wife? Case closed.

    It’s possible he truly has a psychosis which the taffy triggered somehow; the solution is to get a medical opinion of psychosis, not sue the retailer, and throw yourself at the mercy of the court.

    1. Though I don’t think doctors will consider hating your wife a psychosis…

  11. There’s something about alcohol that makes people less concerned about their own safety. It’s attested to in ancient war tomes, from Sun Tzu and the ancient Greeks–for your men to fight well in a phalanx, they need to be properly drunk. Not too drunk, just drunk enough. Liquid courage, they call it.

    People are much more likely to get in fights when they’re drunk.

    There is a large correspondence between being drunk and being successful in a suicide attempt. Committing suicide for many people is like trying to quit smoking. They’re often unsuccessful on the first attempt. The successful ones are disproportionately drunk. The alcohol seems to turn down the volume on our instinctive survival mechanism–just like it did with ancient warriors.

    Has anyone ever sued the alcohol industry because someone got in a fight or committed suicide?

    1. Has anyone ever successfully pled ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ for a murder committed while intoxicated?

      1. If you willfully put yourself into a crazy state of mind, you can’t claim insanity. If you honestly didn’t know you were getting intoxicated, then there is likely an out (I honestly don’t know).

        If somebody, for example, is slipped some acid “as a joke” by a (horrible) friend, I would like to think he won’t be held liable for his actions (if he can prove he was on acid at the time… which will likely be very difficult).

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  13. SAD STORY, BUT DON’T BLAME MARY JANE. got hemp??

  14. Did they file that lawsuit down at the Harry J Anslinger Memorial Courthouse?

    It would be an interesting argument because I defy the plaintiffs to document even a single similar murder anywhere in the world. When I hear hoofbeats I think horses not coconut shells. In this case the hoofbeats are the very compelling circumstantial case that Mr. Kirk committed a premeditated murder and was attempting to mitigate if not eliminate his criminal liability by claiming he had suffered from an acute case of reefer madness. His wife had told confidants that she was scared of Mr. Kirk. The Kirks were in debt up to their eyeballs. They were only a few steps away from filing for bankruptcy. Mr. Kirk was the beneficiary of his wife’s $340,000 in life insurance. It was very convenient that Mr. Kirk left the receipt for his purchase where the investigation would discover it. Then when I factor in the extremely high probability that there hasn’t ever been any other similar event before (except in the pristine wilderness of the respective brains of Harry J or William Randolph Hearst) or since. It makes no sense to believe that this was anything other than a garden variety murder motivated by greed albeit one with a very unusual modus operandi.

    1. I still haven’t been able to decide if Mr. Kirk’s reported 2.3 ng/ml of active THC has any significance. It sure as heck isn’t consistent with a guy so high he committed murder IMO but neither do I know how long after the murder he was tested.

      I’m disregarding the fact that Mr. Kirk was able to remember the combination to his gun safe. Drunks don’t appear to have much of a problem opening their gun safes every day of the week.

      I’m not up on the legal arcana of life insurance payouts to a beneficiary who kills the insured. Would a verdict of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect be enough to allow the underwriter to refuse to pay the primary beneficiary? Was Mr. Kirk sophisticated enough to know that life insurance companies can do that? Were the children the secondary beneficiaries?

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