Justin Zhao is an American, with extensive experience of the prison system – his perspective on the involvement of marijuana in nearly all facets of criminality reveals that the problem that we here face in Britain is far from contained.

I am not now a policeman, but I did spend a decade of my life working with the police, as well as with corrections, in jails, and in the courts too. It’s been more than a decade since then, but I still often think about how lightly all of us took the issue of marijuana usage.

I have seen thousands of arrests and criminal interviews; I have talked to those in holding cells, and more; and marijuana is a constant, ongoing factor relating to violent crimes, property crimes, aggressive criminal behaviour, vandalism, threats and assaults of every kind.

At the time, I never wrote an account of just how many instances the perpetrator was known to have been high on marijuana whilst committing their offence(s), but it was so frequent that I would confidently guess this was something close to half of the time. If they weren’t peaking on the drugs, they had smoked up the very same day.

What bothers me to this day is this; how rarely anyone involved, be it police, lawyers etc. paid serious attention to the fact that marijuana had been used in the context of the offence. Isn’t that strange? Alcohol is a strictly noted factor; if they had said they had taken meth it would be very carefully noted and considered. Here would be a typical conversation snippet during questioning:

‘Were you guys high on any drugs that night?’ Here, I often noticed that the suspect’s body language itself relaxed – indicating relief – even though they would answer ‘oh, no sir… nothing, just smoked some weed with buddies after work, but we always do that so no, no not like any drug drugs, no.”

The strange thing is the interviewers would often respond in kind. They would mirror the relaxed or ‘relieved’ body language as if they had also heard that no drug use had really occurred. Not “drug drugs”, anyway.

Why doesn’t that count? Why are they relieved to admit to marijuana as something that is insignificant and trivial? I also noticed that their lawyers would adopt a similar sort of disregarding tone of voice when letting a judge know that their client had indeed failed a probationary drug test, but assured everyone only because of ‘a small amount of marijuana.’

It so happens that my decade with the justice system was in a relatively small city. We had more cows than people and so, over the many years I lived there, I either knew the perpetrators personally, casually, or by just a degree or two of separation. Everyone was someone’s husband, someone’s brother, or someone’s cousin. Some I met and got to know from being brought in and staying for a while.

If we are talking about the regulars, the repeat offenders, the lifestyle criminals, the same few hundred doing weekends in jail or more – realistically nearly every single one of them were routine pot-smokers too. They were either chronic daily addicts or weekend bong warriors and at least they all happily smoked up if and when it was available to them. I will easily estimate these are ninety per cent of the usual property thieves, drug dealers, various gangsters, the usual thugs, the domestic violence types (male or female) – and I think I’m being conservative.

Let me say this again – plenty of them carried out violent crimes while high on marijuana.

More than that – some would explain that they got as high on weed in order to carry out violent crimes, armed robberies, physical assaults, etc.. This sounds counter-intuitive to people who constantly hear ‘you don’t see pot-smokers outside a weed cafe picking fights, do you?’ The truth is, for these violent and dangerous crimes, the biggest problem they have is going into a state of sheer panic and fear, of overdoing it, developing a “tunnel vision” which they lapse in to during the panic and anxiety; this is how they manage to do things like leave their wallet on the bank tellers desk as they run away with the cash (yes, this really happened).

They would tell us plainly – they smoked a joint to calm their nerves so that they could carry out the high-risk, violent or dangerous crime. They were using weed to enable their criminality.

There were plenty of other examples of people high on marijuana carrying out some sort of physically-dangerous behaviour. If you don’t believe me, feel free to survey local police in your area; but I can say around once a month someone needed to be removed from a front yard or a street acting alarmingly – it would always turn out that they had been high on marijuana. It may have been their first time, it may have been some sort of powerful weed; we’d even get calls from terrified middle-aged couples who hadn’t smoked since college, who – when their trip down memory lane turned sour – claimed they had been ‘poisoned’, or insisting the marijuana must have been spiked with LSD, or some other drug.

Ask the local Emergency Room how often people come in after smoking marijuana convinced they are having a reaction. It is a surprisingly common occurrence. Someone will often insist they must be having an ‘allergic reaction’, or that something must have gone wrong because they are taking some prescription drug; but it will always simply be marijuana. Sometimes, they act violent, hysterical – often terrified. They or their caretaker will often be asked if the weed smoker has a history of schizophrenia, because their behaviour will often mimic this mental illness.

Some people find these things to be funny. You can go online and find emergency calls from people pleading for an ambulance because they smoked marijuana, and thousands of comment sections chortling as if it is so funny that these wimps and fools ‘can’t handle weed’ – but this genuinely is the case. They really cannot. Many ‘can’t handle’ smoking crack cocaine, meth, or injecting heroin; but nobody would laugh if those were the drugs being discussed in this context.

Sometimes I’d think about it like this – wherever you’d hear or read ‘marijuana’ replace it with any other so-called ‘hard drug’ and see how we think about it.

Instead of telling the police, casually, they only smoked a bit of weed, suppose they said ‘oh no drugs no, I mean, just one LSD tablet with my breakfast this morning, but nothing else.’ Instead of a lawyer lightly assuring the judge ‘it was only a small amount of marijuana’, he said ‘only a small amount of crystal meth.’

I can’t really explain it, it seems to have been part of our North American culture in the last decade but every one of us seemed to overlook what was easily one of the single most common drugs used by nearly ever criminal to some extent, a drug that is a psychotropic, a drug we saw panic and wreck the minds of some but decided didn’t really factor much into others behaviour.

If anyone is reading this and thinks that maybe I was in some sort of strange place, some remote province which is an exception to the rule, that maybe I’m exaggerating this, then I would strongly encourage you to go find your local police station, your local jail, to find the people who deal with the world of crime, and to ask them for their best estimates on just how many criminals who carry out violent crimes – include here murders, assaults but all sort of ‘physical aggression’ behaviour from theft to vandalism, domestic violence, resisting arrest or threats or even stalking – are marijuana users.

Maybe you will get different answers depending on where you live – but I am wholly confident that they will describe a situation very similar to what I am telling you here.



Photo from Raquel Baranow on Flikr.