Richard Kirk, the Denver man who almost single-handedly revived the old-timey notion of marijuana-induced violence by killing his wife after eating cannabis candy in 2014, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder last Friday. His deal with prosecutors calls for a sentence of 25 to 30 years, followed by five years of parole. Kirk also agreed to surrender custody of his three children, who will be raised by their maternal grandparents.
The children were at home on the evening of April 14, 2014, when Kristine Kirk called 911 to report that her husband was acting oddly after eating THC-treated taffy. She said he was raving about the end of the world, hopping in and out of windows, and asking her to kill him. Instead he shot her in the head with a gun he retrieved from a safe.
In addition to the body and the gun, police found a partially eaten piece of Karma Kandy Orange Ginger taffy, which Kirk had purchased around 6:30 p.m. at Nutritional Elements, a marijuana store on South Colorado Boulevard in Denver. The shooting happened just a few months after state-licensed marijuana merchants began serving recreational customers in Colorado, and it figured prominent in early coverage of legalization.
Kirk initially pleaded not guilty, then switched to not guilty by reason of insanity. In a report submitted by the defense in August 2015, a physician said the THC that Kirk ingested had triggered a psychosis-mimicking delirium. The relevance of that conclusion to Kirk's defense was unclear, however, since under Colorado law "the voluntary ingestion of alcohol or any other psychoactive substance" cannot be the basis of an insanity defense. Rather, a defendant must show that a "mental disease or defect" rendered him "incapable of distinguishing right from wrong" or incapable of "forming a culpable mental state."
Last year Kristine Kirk's sister and parents sued Nutritional Elements and Gaia Gardens, which made the candy Richard Kirk ate the night of the murder, arguing that they failed to adequately warn him about the hazards of consuming too much. According to Richard Kirk's public defender (who was later 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.
Kristine's relatives say Richard Kirk did not intend to kill her and had no way of knowing how he would react to the THC-treated taffy. Police argued that Kirk knowingly and deliberately killed his wife, with whom he had been fighting bitterly for weeks.