Drug War Slurs Will Never Justify Police Killings

Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Keith Lamont Scott. Terence Crutcher. And now Philando Castile. Last Thursday, Minnesota media reported that charges against the Minnesota police officer who killed Castile could be dropped because attorneys claim Castile was high on marijuana when police stopped him, and didn’t listen to officer instructions. Castile is the latest victim of an oft-used tactic by law enforcement and their defenders – point to drugs to justify the killings of people of color. As the country slowly shifts away from the tough tactics of the drug war, using drugs to validate police killings is a despicable tactic that must be denounced.


Let’s forget for a second that 8 states and the nation’s capital have legalized marijuana for adult use. Let’s forget for a second that 28 states have medical marijuana, including Minnesota. Let’s forget for a second that the federal government has allowed legalization to proceed, and President Obama has said that federal marijuana prohibition is untenable. Even if none of that were true, the marijuana use claims would still be baseless. The claim here is that Castile was driving under the influence of marijuana, and therefore, “was culpably negligent and was the substantial cause of his own demise.” This disgraceful phrasing – signaling that if you get high, you deserve to die - willfully ignores the facts that surround marijuana use and the murky reasons behind Castile’s traffic stop.

Firstly, marijuana is detectable in the human body for weeks after initial consumption. In other words, there is no way of knowing if Mr. Castile was under the influence at the time of driving, or if he had smoked marijuana hours, days, or weeks before his interaction with law enforcement. Secondly, there is no accepted standard for what constitutes driving under the influence. The standard for alcohol has been long established as 0.08% BAC (Blood Alcohol Content). No such percentage exists for marijuana, so there is no current way of telling if someone who tests positive for marijuana has used too much, or is fit and able to drive.

Thirdly, the attorneys’ line of reasoning also echoes the days of reefer madness - the debunked notion that someone on drugs is crazy and cannot be reasoned with. Claiming Castile had marijuana in his system is an attempt to indicate that he was intimidating and uncontrollable, and officer lives were in danger. But it defies science and logic to say that Castile’s alleged marijuana use could justify his killing at the hands of police.

The sad reality is that the slander against Mr. Castile is but the latest example of a shameful American tradition - using the war on drugs to prosecute and persecute people of color.  We know that people of all races use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates, but people of color represent the vast majority of those arrested and convicted for non-violent drug offenses. We know that people of color are discriminated against at every stage of the judicial system and are more likely to be stopped,searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. And we know that Jim Crow did not disappear; it was revamped and replaced by the War on Drugs. We must be willing to accept these facts, and reject the desperate drug war slurs that serve only to further denigrate people of color.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance blog.

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