Adding another wrinkle to slew of police encounters that have dominated national headlines, the smell of marijuana coming from the car of Philando Castile appears to have directly contributed to his fatal shooting in St. Anthony, Minnesota last July. While the recently released video has been widely circulated, the testimony of the officer who shot Castile, Jeronimo Yarnez, offers us even more insight into the tragic death and points to a country that is still coming to grips with the facts and stereotypes of cannabis. As Castile’s family, friends and supporters look for answers, Castile’s untimely death also shows an even greater need for cannabis law reform, particularly within minority communities ravaged by an unequal enforcement of the law.
Although it’s impossible to know just what would have transpired if Castile’s car did not contain the smell of marijuana, we know from Yarnez himself that the presence of marijuana was a significant factor in the tragedy. In his own words, Yarnez stated that “if he (Castile) has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her second-hand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me?” For Yarnez, the mere presence of marijuana – regardless of whether it was Castile who was using – was enough to fear for his life, ultimately leading to Yarnez pumping seven shots into Castile’s car.
While the facts are stunning on the surface, they become even more troublesome when considering that cannabis possession is only a misdemeanor in Minnesota for small amounts (under 42.5 grams) and carries a maximum fine of just $200. Yarnez’s interpretation of the situation also brings about a slew of significant concerns, including the summary judgement that Castile was actively using cannabis in front of his daughter – a claim that Yarnez was not in a position to make without a field sobriety test. Even if Yarnez was correct on Castile’s usage of marijuana, however, the use of lethal force for a minor violation is likely to bring about a slew of lawsuits from Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and other parties close to Castile.
Racial disparity in marijuana arrests
(Philando Castile (Star Tribune photo)
The Castile tragedy also adds to the ongoing debate on social justice, especially given the alarming rate at which African-Americans are arrested for cannabis. According to the ACLU, black Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, pointing to a demonstrable bias that continues to wreak havoc in communities of color. Given Yarnez’s own views and judgments on marijuana usage, it appears extremely likely that his bias laid the groundwork for the decision to open fire and ultimately prematurely end the life of Castile. For those advocating the end of the often criticized prohibition on cannabis, Castile’s death brings about a fresh outrage given the role that marijuana played in the shooting.
Castile’s case is far from the only example of law enforcement officials failing to understand the effects of cannabis when facing an altercation. Also in summer of 2016, Keith Lamont Scott was confronted by two officers in Charlotte, North Carolina after he was observed smoking marijuana, which ultimately led to a fatal confrontation when the officers saw that he had a gun in a holster on his ankle. Much like the Castile tragedy, officers originally arrived on the scene looking for a different African-American suspect and then cited the “illegal drugs and the gun Mr. Scott had in his possession” as a reason for the quick escalation. Similar to Minnesota, it is a misdemeanor to possess a small amount of marijuana in North Carolina and there is also a max fine of just $200.
Highly publicized altercations like the Castile and Scott shootings point to law enforcement agencies unable to control inherent biases or to correctly address the facts of cannabis consumption. Considering that marijuana is more likely to lead to marked decrease in aggression, there is a pattern of officers viewing potential suspects in ways that contradict the actual effects of the drug. Given the dramatically higher rates of marijuana-based encounters with law enforcement in minority communities, the risks of consuming cannabis are disproportionately based upon race, adding fuel to an already fiery debate about the role of cannabis laws in social justice reform. As fully legalized cannabis becomes more and more of a possibility, overcoming long-held biases by law enforcement officials will remain a crucial obstacle as cannabis and civil rights advocates look to challenge the status quo and improve upon a system that continues to turn deadly.
In November, 70 percent of voters legalized marijuana in Washington D.C. by way of democratic election, and now some members of the United States government are hoping to overturn the majority vote. Do you wish to help defend the voter approved initiative?
The Drug Policy Alliance wants to make it simple for you to send a letter to Congress to voice your opinion. Click here to send your letter now. You will be required to enter personal information including your full name, email address, home address and phone number.
The automated, personalized letter, courtesy of the Drug Policy Alliance, will read:
I’m writing to strongly urge you not to overturn Washington, DC’s marijuana legalization initiative as part of the omnibus spending bill. That initiative was approved by 70% percent of DC voters – overturning it is profoundly undemocratic. And the symbolism of overturning an election in the capital of our great nation will not be lost on the American people.
The DC initiative was written and passed to reduce massive racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Overturning a racial justice oriented initiative approved by voters in a majority black city will send a very clear message to this nation and the world that you have no commitment to equality and justice. The D.C. Council decriminalized marijuana earlier this year in an effort to address the racial injustice in marijuana enforcement, however it has become clear that under decriminalization 77% of the tickets for marijuana possession have been written in low income communities of color. This is in effect a tax on the poor and that is not right.
DC, like other jurisdictions, should be allowed to conduct its own affairs including setting its own marijuana policies.
[City, State ZIP]
At this point, this is no longer just a marijuana policy reform issue. It is an issue of freedom and democracy. What kind of a precedence does it set if the government is easily able to overturn legislation approved by the majority vote?
Its like Bob said, “Get up. Stand up. Stand up for your rights.”
photo credit: Huffington Post
Sadly, the War on Drugs in the United States has produced severely unequal outcomes among racial groups, with the bulk of marijuana related arrests being driven by racial discrimination from law enforcement and it’s guiding bureaucratic agenda.
The American Civil Liberties Union pointed this out in June 2013 when The War On Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests was published. This report analyzes the number of marijuana arrests per state, by race, from 2001 to 2010. It also takes a look at how much money is wasted enforcing marijuana prohibition laws in each state and across the nation.
Marijuana use reported by whites and blacks has been nearly equal from 2001 to 2010 with white people between the ages of 18 and 25 reporting more usage than black people of the same age range. If marijuana is used equally between both races, how is it possible that black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges?
The info-graphic below expresses many other facts pointed out by the ACLU report, including which four counties in the United States rank highest for racially biased arrests.
This figure, 3.7, is an average number representing all fifty states. This means that some states have a shockingly higher rate of difference. For example, in the state of Iowa, a black person is 8.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than a white person. Minnesota and Illinois follow closely behind with 7.8 and 7.6. Whereas, New Mexico and Maine are on the much lower end with 1.9 and 2.1. Hawaii is the only state that shows zero racial disparity for marijuana arrests, but black people only make up 2.3% of the population.
Law enforcement agencies operate under policies that praise officers for the quantity of arrests, rather than the quality. The number of people arrested for marijuana in 2010 surpassed the total number of people arrested for ALL violent crimes combined. Marijuana charges now account for half of all total drug arrests, and 88% of those are for just possessing marijuana. It is much easier for officers to target people on the streets in minority communities, and be viewed as successful, than it is to work long hours investigating a violent crime.
In 2010, the United States as a whole spent over $3 billion to enforce marijuana laws. This means that the U.S. has wasted an obscene amount of money ruining the lives of many, over a plant that is now legal for retail sales in two states. The Director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, Ezekiel Edwards, described this tragedy best, in a 2013 press release,
“The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn’t work. These arrests have a significant detrimental impact on people’s lives, as well as on the communities in which they live. When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, they can be disqualified from public housing or student financial aid, lose or find it more difficult to obtain employment, lose custody of their child, or be deported.”
The ACLU and many people of the United States are calling for marijuana to be legalized, regulated and taxed, or at the very least decriminalized.
Legalization and taxation would solve the problems of unjust, racially biased arrests as well as wasting tax payer dollars. In recent months, the District of Columbia and Philadelphia have realized this, and decriminalized marijuana possession as a result. In states that will not alter marijuana laws, the ACLU suggests that law enforcement agencies move marijuana possession arrests to the bottom of the list of priorities, and focus on real crimes instead.
The November 2014 election will be a look into the future of marijuana policy reform in the United States, with voters in both Oregon and Alaska having the opportunity to stand up against these racially biased arrests by ending the war on marijuana in those states. The decision of voters in these two states next month, will set a precedence for the remaining states to join the movement in the 2016 primary election.