Pubdate: Wed, 29 Jul 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts
Column: Chem Tales


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 

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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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom