Was Sandra Bland under the influence of marijuana, and did this lead to her arrest and/or suicide? This is what Waller County officials suggested in statements given to the media.
The county has come under intense scrutiny for racial discrimination after the death of Bland who was taken into custody following a minor traffic violation that escalated into an altercation with white trooper Brian Encinia.
Sounds familiar? That’s because it is. Two summers ago, George Zimmerman’s lawyers argued that Trayvon Martin attacked him in an aggressive and paranoid rage fueled by Martin’s marijuana intoxication. And last summer, St. Louis County officials floated similar arguments to justify the killing of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson.
Of course, the scientific evidence almost never supports these fantastic distractions.
Yet, the “drug-crazed black person” myth continues to be revitalized decade after decade by racists masquerading as public servants.
As a neuroscientist who has spent nearly 20 years studying the neurophysiological, psychological and behavioral effects of marijuana, I find this line of reasoning insulting and offensive. It seeks to misuse the science of behavioral pharmacology to excuse reprehensible acts perpetrated by the state or state proxies.
As part of my research, I have given thousands of doses of marijuana to people and carefully studied their immediate and delayed responses. And I have never observed a marijuana-induced violent and self-destructive attack or anything remotely similar to the reefer madness put forth by desperate public officials.
As part of my research, I have given thousands of doses of marijuana to people and I have never observed a marijuana-induced violent and/or self-destructive attack.
It’s true, the drug can temporarily slow people down in completing tasks that involve memory or abstract reasoning, and it can lower a person’s level of vigilance or focus. But people can make plans, exhibit self-control and cooperate with others even under heavy influence of marijuana.
In short, the main effects of the drug are contentment, relaxation, sedation, euphoria and increased pulse and hunger, all peaking within 5 to 10 minutes after smoking (or 60 to 90 minutes after eating) and lasting for about two hours (4 to 5 hours after eating).
Waller County Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam said it was unclear whether Bland ingested marijuana before or after she was jailed. What’s certain, he said, was that a large amount of the drug was found in her system. But when the county finally released the toxicology report, several days after the autopsy, it revealed that Bland had 18 ¬± 4 nanograms per milliliter of blood of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in her body. These THC levels are comparable to baseline (or sober) levels of about 10-20 nanograms per milliliter of many of my research participants, who are regular users.
Importantly, Bland’s levels were well below the THC levels that I have found necessary, in my experimental research on dozens of subjects, to induce intoxication: between 40 and 400 nanograms per milliliter. Furthermore, the levels are far below the 150 nanograms per milliliter limit set by the World Anti-Doping Agency to indicate marijuana-induced performance alterations.
Some may note that Bland’s toxicology test also found 120 nanograms per milliliter of THC-COOH, the main metabolic byproducts formed as the liver breaks down THC. But these metabolites of marijuana have no psychoactive properties, and they have no effect on behavior. They can also remain in the body, like THC itself, for up to four weeks. This is why their presence does not reveal when — or exactly how much of — the drug was used.
Simply put, Waller County officials exaggerated Bland’s THC amounts.
For argument’s sake, though, suppose Bland had consumed the drug shortly before being stopped by trooper Encinia. Dashcam video from the officer shows that Bland was annoyed and irritated about being pulled over for failing to signal, just as most of us would have been under similar circumstances, especially if you are black.
In short, the main effects of the drug are contentment, relaxation, sedation, euphoria and increased pulse and hunger.
But, she was cognizant to assert her rights when the officer asked her to put out her cigarette while she sat in her car. This appeared to infuriate trooper Encinia causing him to demand her out of the car, slam her to the ground, and arrest her for reasons not apparent to even law enforcement professionals.
It was Encinia who behaved irrationally and escalated the situation, not Bland.
There is no indication that she was under the influence of marijuana or that it caused her to behave foolishly. The same cannot be said for officer Encinia.
It is disappointing that that county officials did not require him to provide a urine sample for drug testing; nor did they require him to undergo assessment for racial discrimination, which is the most likely explanation for his behavior.
As seen with Trayvon Martin & Michael Brown, Waller County officials are dishonestly pushing racial bias as scientific fact.
Given that it is highly unlikely that marijuana consumed three days prior contributed to Bland’s death, let’s further speculated that Bland managed to conceal substantial amounts of the drug during her arrest and consumed it while incarcerated.
Assistant DA Diepraam laid out the theory that marijuana is a “mood amplifier” and may have exacerbated Bland’s depressive disorder causing her to commit suicide. (By the way, to my knowledge she had never received a formal diagnosis for such a disorder.) Bland would have had to consume a substantial amount of marijuana for this conjecture to be plausible (The toxicology report does not support this view).
The drug would have caused her to behave conspicuously bizarre and would have undoubtedly impaired her motor performance, increasing the likelihood that jailers would have noticed her and decreasing the likelihood that she would have constructed a perfect slipknot as an instrument to hang herself.
One does not need to be a neuroscientist to see the absurdity of the theories peddled by Waller County officials.
Just ask some of the participants of Black Twitter. Responses to statements suggesting that marijuana played a role in Bland’s death are exhaustingly incredulous.
I agree with Black Twitter. Waller County officials might be mad for marijuana, but there is no evidence indicating reefer madness had its grip on Sandra Bland.
It’s high time Americans called out racists when they employ the
“drug-crazed black person” myth.
The days of “sprinkling a little crack or marijuana on the body and calling it a wrap” are over.
An older version of this post appears in Ebony Magazine