This week, the world's media went mad for a story about a student from Sussex who, apparently fuelled by "miaow miaow" (or mephedrone, for anyone who's not your nan), stabbed his mum 11 times before chopping off his own dick with a pair of scissors.
Hove Crown Court heard on Monday that when police arrived at the bloody scene in the West Sussex town of Haywards Heath, Charles Mann – who was 19 at the time – said: "I am a paedophile. I do not want to live. Take me to the light, I can see the vampires."
Judge David Rennie accepted the defence's plea that Mann, although not mentally ill, committed these extreme acts of violence (his mum survived the frenzied attack after locking herself in the bathroom and dialling 999, and surgeons managed to sew his dick back on) because he was in a temporary state of "drug-induced psychosis".
He was jailed for 16 months for grievous bodily harm, although time served in custody means that Mann, now 21, will be out next month. Judge Rennie said that if he had been convicted of the original charge of attempted murder he would have been sent to prison for "very many years".
I sympathise with Charles' mother, who mouthed "I love you" to her son at court, because getting stabbed in the chest, head and neck by your naked son at 6AM can't be a pleasant thing to experience. I also sympathise with Charles, who seems like an average guy who suddenly found himself, eyes open, in the midst of a nightmare so grim even Clive Barker hasn't dreamt it up yet.
But can mephedrone, or any other drug, really warp people to the point where they commit crimes this gruesome and seemingly out of character? Should the sight of a kid emerging from a student bar toilet with dribbly nostrils and a demonic grin on his face make us tremble instead of laugh?
Drugs play a key role in many court cases because they are a curve ball. Most elements of a crime can be analysed, sifted and proven beyond doubt in court, but when drugs come into play, so does a fair bit of guesswork and hyperbole. How "out of it" someone was – how much they took and to what extent this influenced their behaviour and mental state – is almost impossible to measure retrospectively. Sometimes the offender won't even have a clue themselves.
In court cases across the UK, drug users are quick to blame narcotics for their behaviour, exaggerating their effects and their power. In an attempt to reduce their clients' level of guilt or punishment by claiming their judgment was clouded by intoxication, defence barristers often utilise the classic "it was the drugs wot dunnit" tactic, either to plead diminished responsibility or as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
Judges and juries are not blind to this tactic. On the same day Mann was sentenced, teenager Lewis Dale was jailed for life after murdering his grandmother in Hull last year. Dale's defence had claimed diminished responsibility because he was high on mephedrone at the time. However, the judge said that although Dale would not have committed the crime had it not been for the drugs, "a drug-intoxicated intention to kill is still an intention to kill".
One of the by-products of the drugs defence, whether it works or not, is that any mention of drugs being used by a perpetrator gets magnified in the media and the "killer drugs" machine whirrs into action once more, despite a distinct lack of evidence that illegal drugs miraculously transform people into killers. In fact, the drug most closely – and legitimately – associated with violence is alcohol.
There are endless examples of the killer drug story. One of the stupidest was the case back in 2002 of Mathew Hardman, a mentally-ill satanic vampire fantasist who brutally murdered a pensioner. During Hardman's trial it was mentioned by a witness that he had once smoked cannabis, some years before the murder. The Daily Mail's headline? "THE VAMPIRE MURDERER WHOSE MIND WAS WARPED BY CANNABIS".
Of course, drugs can also be used in court to taint character, a witness a defendant or a victim of crime. If someone is a drug user they are a corrupt individual, a criminal, a liar, not just in eyes of judge, but some jury who may have been fed a diet of drug scare stories, around half of whom will have probably have read either the Sun or Daily Mail before rocking up at court.
How culpable was mephedrone likely to have been in Mann's case, and did it really tip him over the edge? He was a long-term drug user and had been sent to the Priory rehab centre and a kibbutz in Israel in an attempt to get wean him off a problematic use of mephedrone, cannabis and alcohol. So it wasn't as if he was taking it for the first time.
The friend who Mann was getting high with in the early hours before the attack told the court they had not used any more mephedrone than usual and that Mann "seemed fine" when he headed home at 5AM. Toxicology tests carried out on Mann after his arrest found mephedrone present in his body, but not at high levels. The test found very low levels of cannabis in his body and virtually no alcohol. So there wasn't much of a cocktail.
Until the night of the attack he had never had any mental health problems associated with his drug use, and the most violent he had become after taking drugs in the past had been kicking doors.
Despite all this, three separate psychiatric reports – carried out by experts requested and paid for by the defence – into Mann's inner workings at the time concluded that the attack had been caused by "drug induced psychosis".
"The lack of total awareness and capacity to form intent was the direct result of drug-induced psychosis," Judge Rennie told Mann. "If there is one lesson to be learned from this tragedy, it is that young people who take drugs or mix drugs of this sort could suffer a psychotic episode or an episode worse than your own."
"Sometimes people do bad or bizarre things after taking drugs. It doesn't mean drugs have caused them to act in this way."
Psychosis is a severe mental disorder involving delusions and hallucinations that disrupt perception, thoughts, emotions and behaviour. There are significant links between drug use and short or long-term psychosis, but Ian Hamilton, a lecturer at York University with a special interest in the relationship between substance use and mental health, describes drug-induced psychosis as a "woolly concept".
"You can't be certain of the link between someone's drug use and a particular problem. Often drug induced psychosis is what we called a working diagnosis, or in other words, speculation," Hamilton told me.
Many people smoke cannabis, but very few suffer from psychosis as a result, so there is no direct link. The same goes for mephedrone. At the very least, there are 200,000 people who used mephedrone in the last year. From a quick cuttings search, only one of them ended up stabbing his mother and cutting off his own penis, and his name was Charles.
A quick search of the internet reveals that most people who cut off their dicks do so because they are cuckolded, feel sexually bereft, have mental health problems or have taken drugs. Last year, for instance, Wu Tang Clan-affiliated rapper Andre Johnson was rushed to hospital along with his penis after cutting it off and then jumping off a second floor Hollywood balcony. He blamed PCP. In another case, a man cut off his penis with a steak knife in a branch of Zizzi in London's Strand. He was later detained under the mental health act.
"Sometimes people do bad or bizarre things," said Hamilton. "Sometimes they do these things after taking drugs. It doesn't mean drugs have caused them to act in that way. People presume that odd behaviour can't just be that, odd behaviour; it has to be connected to something, an explanation, and drugs are often the fallback position."