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.