When Suspects Die, Pot Use Is Never Cause of Death

So why do police keep presenting THC toxicology as a mitigating factor?

Maybe you haven’t seen it this week, but chances are you’ll see it soon: A police department will release the toxicology report for an unarmed suspect who was either perished in an officer-involved shooting or died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. That toxicology report will include traces of marijuana byproducts in the dead suspect’s halted bloodstream, which will lead news outlets to post a certain type of headline:

• “Man Shot and Killed by Hudson Police Had Marijuana in His System

• “Evidence: Michael Brown Was High on Pot and Carrying a Bag of It

• “Marijuana Possession Played Key Role in Police Shooting of Keith Scott

The reportage under those headlines often includes paragraphs of specious reasoning spouted by biased parties equating the choice to consume marijuana with forfeiting the right to remain alive.

Look to Minnesota's local ABC affiliate for an example:

Claiming self-defense, attorney Paul Engh said Officer Jeronimo Yanez had every right to shoot Philando Castile on July 6, 2016, because Yanez said Castile was reaching for a firearm. Engh also said Castile had marijuana in his system at the time of the shooting and therefore was negligent in his own death.

Castile died live on Facebook after alerting St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officers that he was carrying a permitted firearm and being shot seven times in reply. Castile’s death was ruled a homicide, and officer Yanez’s attorneys are still submitting court filings seeking to dismiss manslaughter charges brought against him back in November 2016.

Image via Twitter

In Saint Louis County, Missouri, an investigation cleared an unidentified off-duty police officer of any crime in the July 9, 2016, shooting death of 20-year-old Tyler Gebhard. Gebhard, who had a history of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and shortly before being shot to death declared himself to be Jesus Christ, used a concrete planter to smash his way into the off-duty officer’s home.

The implication is that marijuana increased the former high-school football standout’s menace to a level that justified shooting him three times instead of once or twice.

Gebhard had reportedly made Facebook threats to harm the officer and his family. News stories depicted the off-duty officer’s wife, mother-in-law, and two young children attempting to flee out a bedroom window as Gebhard advanced into the house. The shooting of Tyler Gebhard would appear to be justified under the “castle doctrine” or “defense of habitation” laws that protect homeowners from criminal charges in the event they attack an intruder.

Still, in its report justifying the officer firing three shots into Gebhard—two in the chest, one in the neck— the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office made sure to note that Gebhard had marijuana in his system. The implication is that marijuana increased the former high-school football standout’s menace to a level that justified shooting him three times instead of, for instance, once or twice.

The Illinois state’s attorney declined to prosecute Chicago police officer Robert Rialmo over his response to a December 26, 2015, domestic disturbance call that resulted in Rialmo fatally shooting one of the domestic disputants (who was hit by six bullets) and an uninvolved neighbor (killed with one stray shot to the chest).

From Chicago’s local CBS affiliate:

“After thorough review, the Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Rialmo did not act in self-defense in shooting LeGrier and Jones,” the state’s attorney’s office said in a statement.

In case you need assistance unraveling that double-negative logic, the Cook County medical examiner helpfully explained that the teenager who was shot six times had marijuana in his system.

Sandra Bland (via)

Texas patrolman Brian Encinia stopped motorist Sandra Bland for a routine traffic violation on July 10, 2015, and ordered her to put out her cigarette. Three days later, the 28-year-old woman was discovered dead in a Waller County jail cell. Authorities concluded Bland had used a plastic trashcan liner to hang herself. The details surrounding Bland’s arrest and incarceration, and her mental state at time of death, are complex and disputed. Perhaps to clarify, or maybe as a means to obfuscate, Texas officials were sure to call attention to marijuana traces in Bland’s system.

From Forbes:

A toxicological report released on Monday says Bland’s blood contained about 18 nanograms of THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, per milliliter. “It may be relevant as to her state of mind to determine what happened on the street,” First Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam told reporters. “It may be relevant to her state of mind to determine how or why she committed suicide.”

Weed may in fact have some intangible relevance in why Sandra Bland is not alive today. Far more relevant to her death is the fact that she was taken into custody after declining to extinguish a cigarette.

None of the alleged marijuana users noted in this article because they died through the agency of American police forces were white. One was a law student from the United Arab Emirates. All the others were black. Deep and ingrained behaviors, it would seem obvious, exist within certain aspects of American society that contribute to unjustified killings of civilians by the police forces sworn to protect them. Marijuana use is not one of those behaviors.