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Marijuana Murder: Under the Influence?

While there is growing support for the legalization of cannabis, especially for medical uses, there are many U.S. citizens and lawmakers who strongly oppose legalizing the drug. The Colorado case of Richard Kirk may give fuel to the opposition, even though he hasn’t even been tried yet.

In April, 2014, Richard Kirk fatally shot his wife Kristine in the head at their University Park home. His original plea was not guilty by reason of insanity, but just this week his defense filed papers to change that plea to not guilty by reason of intoxication, both voluntary and involuntary.

The source of the intoxication? Cannabis-infused candy that he had purchased at a legal marijuana store in Denver. There are numerous cases where murders have been attributed to the use of illegal drugs such as cocaine, PCP (Phencyclidine), methamphetamines, or even LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), but cannabis is rare. Yet, in response to both the Kirk case and that of a college student who jumped to his death after eating a potent marijuana edible, Colorado lawmakers have tightened regulations on cannabis edibles.

Let’s look at the facts of the Kirk case:

  • Kristine Kirk called 911 and said that her husband was paranoid and hallucinating after eating the cannabis candy.
  • On the call, the dispatcher heard Kristine Kirk beg her husband not to retrieve a gun from a safe. The dispatcher then heard a shot.
  • The THC levels found in Richard Kirk’s blood were very low.
  • The couple had been experiencing both marital and financial problems, and Kristine Kirk was covered by a $340,000 life insurance policy. Kristine Kirk had told friends that she had grown afraid of her husband due to the constant fighting.
  • Richard Kirk was capable of remembering the combination for the gun safe and held the gun to her head.

In the court documents filed to change the plea, the defense attorneys for Richard Kirk are now putting forward the professional opinions of three experts: Dr. Andrew Monte, a medial toxicologist and attending physician at the Colorado University School of Medicine; Dr. Katherine Bellon, a clinical psychologist; Dr. Ryan Vandrey, who studies the effects of cannabis.

According to the court documents, Dr. Monte is willing to testify that, in his professional opinion, the THC in the cannabis edible is what caused Kirk’s “delirium and psychotic-like symptoms at the time of the homicide.” Dr. Vandrey is willing to testify that cannabis, when ingested orally, can cause strong drug effects even when it contains a low level of THC.

Dr. Bellon interviewed Kirk in jail over a period of three days. Her testimony, according to the court documents, doesn’t speak of what Kirk’s state might have been at the time of the killing, but rather his behavior now. Dr. Bellon states that Kirk is “vulnerable to severe distortions,” “is socially and emotionally withdrawn” and “may feel a chronic sense of self-loathing.” Although she concludes that his basic personality does not class him as an aggressive or violent individual, she blames other factors, like stress, for his actions at the time of the murder.

There is no question about who committed the murder: That was Richard Kirk. But what the prosecution will set to prove is why he did it-was it insanity? Was it the cannabis candy? Or was it a premeditated act committed to access the life insurance money?

The trial, first set for October, has been postponed until December by a judge. We will have to wait until then to see how this case plays out in court. As both a proponent for marijuana legalization and a defense attorney, I will be watching carefully.