There was a very important difference of detail in the way in which the Daily Mail and the Guardian reported the case of Phillip Simelane, the 23 year-old man who stabbed a schoolgirl, Christina Edkins, to death on a bus in Birmingham, seemingly at random: much to the advantage of the Daily Mail, assuming that the detail it reported is actually true.
Simelane had a long history (long, that is for his age) of disordered, aggressive and even violent behaviour. As far as it is possible to tell from the reports in the newspapers, his mental state fluctuated considerably. The Daily Mail report mentioned that he had been smoking cannabis before he killed his victim, which would explain that fluctuation; the Guardian did not mention this.
The detail is a vitally important one. It is possible that Simelane had an endogenous illness (that is to say one that arose principally within himself), namely schizophrenia, in which case smoking cannabis would have made his symptoms very much worse, and him much more likely to commit acts of violence; it is possible that cannabis caused him to become psychotic, and that his psychotic state, initially an acute reaction to cannabis, subsequently became chronic, in which case further cannabis would also make it much worse; or it is possible that his abnormal mental state was entirely attributable to a reaction to smoking cannabis, and that if he stopped smoking cannabis his mental state would become normal. For a number of reasons it can be very difficult in practice to distinguish between these possibilities, but at any rate the fact that he was smoking cannabis (if it is a fact) is of the utmost significance in the case.
Why, then, did the Guardian not report it? One possibility is that its reporter did not realise its significance. It is my experience that even doctors underestimate the significance of cannabis in cases such as this. On the other hand the omission might have been deliberate, for the newspaper, as a matter of policy, would not like the public to jump to conclusions unfavourable to the legalisation of cannabis.
A senior policeman said on television that it was unlikely that Simelane would ever be released. This is untrue. If, for example, his abnormal mental state were caused by cannabis, he stopped taking it and became normal he would be released very quickly. But in any case he will not be held for long if treatment is successful. The senior policeman was either ill-informed, or lying to soothe the public’s savage breast.
Leave a Reply