Chem Tales: The “Marijuana Smear” Job on Sandra Bland

For those charged with ensuring her welfare, it wasn't enough to say that Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman discovered dead in a Texas jail cell on July 13, died by her own hand.

Last week, authorities in Waller County, Texas, added another incredible layer to their narrative that Bland hanged herself with a garbage bag. She was under the influence of marijuana, they suggested, drugs she may have consumed — nobody can say how — during her three days in jail following a traffic stop.

“Looking at the autopsy results and toxicology, it appears she swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoked it in the jail,” Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis wrote in a text message to the Bland family's attorney, as Reuters reported. “This will of course be very relevant in any future criminal or civil litigation.”

On Monday, Mathis' claim appeared to float thanks to the initial toxicology report, which revealed Bland had a level of 18 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. That's more than three times the legal limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter for cannabis users to be permitted to drive in Washington, one of the few states with a legal standard of “cannabis intoxication.”

In comments to The Associated Press, the chief toxicologist serving Fort Worth and a University of Florida toxicology professor agreed that Bland's THC level was “high enough to suggest she used marijuana in jail.”

Does this mean Bland was stoned when she died, or when she entered jail? We don't know. What's more, without knowing her lifestyle, we can't know.

What we do know is that it's all but impossible that Bland consumed cannabis undetected while in police custody. Further, as many pointed out in the last week, we also know that trotting out drug use as a tangential red herring has become standard procedure when black people die in questionable circumstances during encounters with police. It behooves us all to recognize this.

To understand why we don't and can't know how high — if at all — Bland was when she died, it's necessary to understand how drug tests work. It's also important to understand how cannabis works in the body.

First, forget what you know — because what you know, thanks to alcohol testing, is “0.08 equals impairment.” Alcohol is easy to understand because presence in the body corresponds to intoxication. But that isn't how cannabis works.

THC also hangs around in the body much longer than alcohol, partly because THC is stored in fat. Alcohol and cocaine are water soluble and cycle out quickly. Further, a regular or heavy cannabis user will have a higher baseline level of THC in his or her blood than an occasional user.

Importantly, 18 ng/mL could be a baseline level, “low … or near placebo,” according to Columbia University drug use and abuse researcher Carl Hart. “Research participants in our studies often times have baseline (before smoking) levels of about 15 nanograms per milliliter.”

And you can't get stoned from ingesting raw cannabis. Nor can you ingest much THC by eating most concentrated cannabis. Raw, cannabis has little THC. In plant form, cannabis contains tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THC-A. THC-A is the biosynthetic precursor to THC. To create THC out of THC-A, you must apply heat. (Even most high-potency concentrates have mostly THC-A).

This all makes Mathis' text message claim highly implausible. Did someone in rural Texas smuggle Bland a high-potency brownie at the same time that her family was trying to scrounge up $500 for bail?

Further, detectable THC levels vary depending on how the cannabis is consumed, according to Ethan Russo, a board certified M.D. in neurology who now serves as medical director for PHYTECS, a cannabinoid research and therapeutics firm.

When smoked, THC levels in the blood spike higher than if cannabis is eaten. As many users will tell you, edibles are often much more unpleasantly intense. A blood test “really doesn't tell you what's going on in the brain, and that's where the action is,” Russo said. “It doesn't measure how impaired you are.”

The final takeaway? Bland's THC levels prove nothing. They don't prove that she consumed marijuana while in jail, a far-fetched proposition on its face. Nor is there any proof that cannabis contributed to her alleged suicide, if she did in fact kill herself, something her family vehemently denies.

But as Hart pointed out in EBONY, this case does fit one profile to a T: The “marijuana smear,” as ThinkProgress deemed it, is an all-too-common tactic in these situations. The level of THC discovered in Trayvon Martin's blood was used against him two years ago, and it was similarly used against Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer.

It is possible that Bland swallowed a large amount of cannabis before her traffic stop or while she was in jail. It is also possible that her lab sample was switched with another person's, or fabricated entirely. It doesn't matter. Whatever happened to Bland, she's the latest victim in an all-too-predictable script.

The least we can do is recognize the script in action. Cannabis use is being presented as an excuse when people die and the police are involved.

“I think it's a diversion. A side story,” Russo said. “To me it's a way of poisoning the well while blaming the victim.” The victim, and the drug, too.

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