News outlets today are reporting that Black Lives Matter activist Sandra Bland had marijuana in her system when she died while being held in a Prairie View, Texas jail three days after a traffic stop.
Reuters reports that Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis texted the attorney for Bland's family saying, "Looking at the autopsy results and toxicology, it appears she swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoked it in the jail."
Bland's actual levels were not disclosed. Her family's attorney, Cannon Lambert, has called the autopsy "defective."
The leak of the tests performed during her autopsy is following a now familiar pattern. Police and prosecutors use marijuana as an attempt at postmortem character assassination before and during trials.
Almost exactly two years ago in Florida, Judge Debra Nelson allowed a jury to hear that teenager Trayvon Martin had trace levels of THC metabolites in his system the night that he was gunned gown by George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman's attorneys and media pundits spent much time on the issue. Martin's toxicology only revealed that he might have smoked marijuana sometime in the previous four weeks. The tests did not reveal any acute intoxication.
Dr. Carl Hart, a neuropsychoparmacologist, wrote in the New York Times during the trial that Martin's tests actually proved that he was not impaired the night he was shot to death while walking unarmed.
But that did not stop the insinuation during Zimmerman's trial that Trayvon's very low marijuana metabolite levels could have made him "aggressive" and "paranoid."
Hart countered that notion saying: "Regardless of how intoxicated Mr. Martin was, the research tells us that aggression and violence are highly unlikely outcomes of marijuana use. Based on my own work, during which I have administered thousands of doses of marijuana, I can say that its main effects are contentment, relaxation, sedation, euphoria and increased hunger, all peaking within 5 to 10 minutes after smoking and lasting for about two hours."
Hart's full OPED is well worth reading.
Zimmerman was acquitted by the Florida jury of murder and manslaughter.
Then, a year later, it all came up again, with eerily similar results.
Michael Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. in August 2014. Brown's toxicology report was leaked, revealing only one thing: very low levels of THC and marijuana metabolites. Brown had 12 nanograms per milliliter of THC in his blood. But science tells us that smoking a single joint can produce levels above 100 nanograms per milliliter in the blood for up to two hours.
If Brown had consumed cannabis it was not immediately leading up to his deadly encounter with Officer Wilson.
During the proceedings of the Grand Jury that could have indicted Wilson for murder the prosecuting attorneys Sheila Whirley and Kathi Alizadeh, again, spent much time on the possibility that marijuana use had somehow affected Brown's behavior.
Without any evidence they tried to insinuate that Brown had smoked hash oil. They took great pains to let jurors know that THC could cause "paranoia," "hallucinations," and "psychotic episodes."
But even the St. Louis County toxicologist, Christopher Long, testified during the proceeding that such results are not common.
"You smoke a joint and you chill out," Long said. "That's generally what happens."
Officer Wilson was not indicted. He eventually resigned from the local police force.
The shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and the aquittals of the men who pulled the triggers, started a national movement: Black Lives Matter. Protests are vigorous. Media coverage is heavy. Now politicians are trying to find solutions. It has gone mainstream.
The core issue is how police interact with black citizens.
Some activists and commentators have implored Black America to be ultra-compliant, polite and non-confrontational when dealing with police, especially white officers. Those fears for safety are understandable given the disturbing number of police shootings of unarmed people. But that approach doesn't really let a person firmly stand on their constitutional rights either.
Sandra Bland knew her rights. She also chose to vocally express herself.
The dashcam video of Bland's traffic stop shows that in a split-second she went from being issued a simple warning for not using a turn signal to being pulled from her car and being arrested.
It appears that the turning point for the officer was that Bland asked why he requested for her to put out her lit cigarette.
A few days later police claim that she committed suicide by hanging herself from a trash bag in her cell.
One in four Americans have tried marijuana. It is fully legal for adults in four states and Washington DC. Nineteen states and, notably, our city of Philadelphia have decriminalized marijuana possession. Twenty-three states have passed some sort of therapeutic cannabis law with about 10 states running easily accessible medical marijuana programs.
Consuming cannabis is very widespread among all classes, in every state and across ethnic groups. Adverse reactions to marijuana are very rare, especially considering the scale of use.
In other words, having marijuana metabolites in one's system is quite common. Indeed some of our society's most respected members could be found with THC in their systems at some point in their lives. Scientist Carl Sagan, musician Willie Nelson, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and President Obama to name a few.
Testing positive for marijuana points to a person who wants to consume a non-lethal substance that is far less dangerous or impairing than alcohol. It should not have any impact on proceedings into whether a person died, unjustly, at the hands of police or another individual.
Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at email@example.com.