Amid the ongoing crisis of mass shootings in America, conservative media are trying to deflect blame for mass shootings onto anything but guns. One particularly misleading scapegoat for gun violence is marijuana, with Fox News hosts and other right-wing media denizens falsely claiming that mass shootings are the result of heavy pot use.
The narrative has picked up in the aftermath of the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, that left seven dead and 46 injured. The next day, Fox News host Laura Ingraham claimed that marijuana use is a plausible cause of mass shootings, saying regular pot use in young men can trigger “psychosis and other violent personality changes,” and went on to link other mass shooters’ marijuana use with the extreme violence they carried out.
Fox host Tucker Carlson also blamed the shooting in Highland Park partially on a society full of young men “high on government-endorsed weed.”
Right-wing radio host and PragerU founder Dennis Prager said on his July 5 show that “something is different today and it’s not guns,” suggesting, “I think marijuana, maybe other drugs, but excessive use of marijuana” and “recreational use of marijuana, especially in young people,” may be associated with mass shootings.
Right-wing personalities have used research linking heavy marijuana use to psychosis and paranoia in some individuals to draw false conclusions about causality and dig in their heels to dismiss the role of firearms in gun violence, instead attributing mass shooters’ extreme violence to their marijuana use. In reality, a December 2021 literature review on the studies linking marijuana and violent behavior found that the link between violence and cannabis use is “strictly correlational, and the strength of this relationship varies depending on the population.”
Since 2019, accusations of direct causation between marijuana use and mass shootings have spread through conservative media such as Fox News, One America News Network, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Wire. These outlets frequently cite “COVID contrarian” Alex Berenson, whose book on marijuana use, mental health, and violence has been accused of cherry-picking data and “attributing cause to mere associations.”
Berenson appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight in August 2019 after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, to argue that “we know that mental illness accounts for an appreciable amount of the extreme violence, not just in the United States but all over the world. And we also know that cannabis can produce psychosis.”
“I don't think it's going way out on a limb to draw that connection then between cannabis use, particularly I assume chronic use, and acts of violence,” Carlson responded.
After the Uvalde shooting this past May, Ingraham reignited the idea of a purposefully hidden marijuana-to-mass-shooter pipeline. In reference to The New York Times removing an unproven reference to the Uvalde shooter’s marijuana use, Ingraham asked “was it bad information or is this the pro-marijuana bias that we've become accustomed to that's so powerful because billions are on the line with it nationwide?”
“The American people are hearing a lot about AR-15s and background checks, but they also deserve to hear about this as well,” Ingraham continued. “Respected medical studies for years now have demonstrated that pot use, especially among teens, can trigger psychosis and increase the chance that the young person will develop violent behavior.”
The next day, Ingraham hosted Dr. Eric Voth of the International Academy on the Science and Impact of Cannabis, who said, “The reality of it is, you know, legal AR-15 owners or handgun owners that are not stoned, that are not violent, are not killing people. If you look through the same information that the doctors are pointing out here, and you go case by case by case, you see a very clear pattern.”
The Daily Wire’s Ben Zeisloft also criticized attention given to gun control instead of marijuana and cited Ingraham’s segment, writing that “while the Left blames so-called ‘assault weapons’ and pushes for more gun control,” they “appear to be missing what could be a significant, yet underreported factor — the shooter’s marijuana use.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Allysia Finley cited Berenson to suggest The New York Times had covered up the Uvalde shooter’s marijuana use and claimed that the Tucson, Aurora nightclub, Pulse nightclub, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland shooters all “were reported to be marijuana users. It could be a coincidence, but increasing evidence suggests a connection.”
Writing for Newsmax, conservative author Ron Kessler criticized the attention given to gun control in the wake of mass shootings and pushed the claim that it should be put on marijuana instead. Kessler argued that “virtually everyone ignores the obvious reason for the dramatic increase in these tragedies: Democrats push legalizing marijuana, which has become three to four times more potent than it was only a few years ago,” and even quoted Ingraham directly: “Democrats who push stricter gun control measures as a solution to mass shootings are ‘completely oblivious to what the legalization of marijuana has done and is doing to an entire generation of Americans — with violent consequences,’ Ingraham said.”
Kessler appeared on far-right cable outlet One America News on June 4 and asserted that “pot has become much more potent” and “18 states have legalized pot because of Democratic legislatures, so you have these two forces coming together, and that has led to a lot of these shootings.” Kessler went on to mislead viewers that “the active ingredient THC creates psychosis, it creates paranoia, it creates schizophrenia, and all these things lead to some of these shootings.”
PolitiFact assessed these kinds of claims in 2019 and concluded that there is no clear causal relationship between marijuana use and mass shootings, writing that “for every study that’s declared a link between pot and violence, there are others that say the opposite.”
James Knoll, director of forensic psychiatry at Syracuse University, told PolitiFact that “marijuana use is higher in young men, people with serious adverse childhood experiences, antisocial personality, low income, low education, use of other illicit substances,” which are all “well known risk factors for violence in their own right.” In other words, while research shows that there is a correlation between marijuana use and some forms of mental illness, there are too many other factors linked to potential violence to clearly establish the causal relationship that right-wing media are pushing. .
While it’s “widely accepted that marijuana and psychosis are linked,” it’s unclear “whether the drug unmasks psychotic symptoms in predisposed people or whether it triggers the onset of psychosis entirely.” Further, PolitiFact noted that those with preexisting psychiatric disorders are more likely to use marijuana to self-medicate.
Most importantly, cannabis use is exceedingly common. As PolitiFact points out, overlap is inevitable “between people who commit violent acts and people who smoke marijuana because of how popular marijuana is. According to the United Nations, 192 million people worldwide used marijuana at least once in 2016.” As legalization has spread, this number has likely increased even more.
Blaming mass shootings on marijuana use is not only misleading and stigmatizing, but speaks to a larger effort to blame nearly unavoidable social and psychological phenomena rather than loosely controlled access to high-powered assault weapons in the United States. As these tragedies continue to happen, right-wing media will continue to use any excuse they can find to deflect attention from even the most minimal gun control measures, creating the opportunity for more mass shootings.
Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.