Expert Calls Report On Sandra Bland’s Marijuana Levels “An Interesting Distraction”

When the results of Sandra Bland’s toxicology report were discussed last week — and then officially released on Monday —  Texas authorities made it a point to emphasize that “high” levels of marijuana were present in the deceased woman’s blood. Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam said that the report indicated Bland smoked a large amount shortly before being arrested and might have even received some while in jail, implying that it might have contributed to Bland’s death in police custody, which authorities maintain was the result of suicide by hanging. (Bland’s parents, not to mention many others, remain unsure of that given the suspicious circumstances and the manner in which she was arrested to begin with. They have asked the Department of Justice to step in.) Diepraam said the information was relevant to their investigation because marijuana is a “psychoactive drug” and “mood amplifier.”

However, experts speaking to the Houston Chronicle insist that it be incredibly difficult to draw any “meaningful conclusions” about the link between the THC in Bland’s blood and her death, especially because, as the Chronicle put it, “marijuana science is in its infancy and legal interpretations of the tests are sometimes based on cultural stereotypes more than modern scientific understanding.” You don’t say…

One of the experts, Columbia University drug researcher Carl Hart, specifically called out those legal interpretations, telling the paper that Bland’s levels were actually comparable to the baseline, or sober state, of many of his research subjects who regularly use marijuana.

“Simply put,” he said in an email, “Waller County officials exaggerated Bland’s THC amounts and this gave the public a false impression of THC’s role in her death.”

Based on the information available, the experts that the Houston Chronicle spoke to had all manner of opinions on what Bland’s “levels” could indicate about how high or not high she was, and when she might have consumed the THC — but they all agreed it was impossible to conclude anything based on one post-death marijuana screening, and that lots more testing would need to be done. So if nothing can be concluded from the toxicology report, why make it a point to emphasize that Bland’s THC levels were “high”? Oh, I dunno, maybe to cast Bland in a negative light and to fan the flames of certain cultural stereotypes — after all, this would not the first time authorities pointed to marijuana use as a way of victim-blaming an unarmed Black person who was killed or harmed by police. As Bruce Goldberger, director of Health Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville, put it, “This is an interesting distraction.”

District Attorney Elton Mathis did not respond to the experts’ analyses, but told the Chronicle that they released this information, as well as other details about Bland’s mental and physical state prior to her death, “because of the public safety (threats received) and major issues surrounding the questioning of her death.” He went on, “We don’t want to try the case in the realm of public opinion, but y’all are of course free to draw your own conclusions from what we have released already.”

Yes, indeed we are. [Houston Chronicle]