The High Cost of Cannabis Prohibition

Cannabis prohibition and stigmaOn July 6, 2016, Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Minnesota. On June 16, 2017, Officer Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Castile. In the days after the acquittal, authorities released investigative reports, including Officer Yanez’s interview with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BSA) where he stated the following:

 I thought, I was gonna die. And I thought if he’s, if he 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 secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girl was screaming.

Before I deal with the cannabis policy issues related to Castile’s death, I have to parse through what Officer Yanez says below as I am truly dumbfounded by it. Officer Yanez essentially says that anyone who smokes cannabis in front of their kid does not care about the life of their kid or about anyone else’s life either. Ponder that for a moment and then realize that if Yanez was telling the truth here (rather than simply mouthing an excuse he concocted after the fact) how ingrained in our society the idea is that people who smoke cannabis are flat out bad people.

Officer Yanez’s interview was released to the public within days of a Stanford Open Policing Project study showing that in Colorado and Washington State, highway patrol searches plummeted significantly after these two states legalized recreational cannabis in 2012. The type of traffic stop that resulted in Castile’s death occurs less frequently in states with legal cannabis.

In both Colorado and Washington, it is still illegal to drive under the influence of cannabis. However, in both states, individuals over the age of twenty-one are permitted to drive with cannabis stored in their cars. In states where cannabis is not legal recreationally, officers performing routine traffic stops may search a car if they suspect it contains cannabis. The decline in traffic stops in Colorado and Washington since 2012 is due in part to the fact that officers can no longer use possession of cannabis as a pretext to stop and search drivers.

The Stanford findings show that police are much more likely to stop African American and Hispanic drivers while driving. This is true in Washington and Colorado as well, though the overall number of stops have decreased substantially. Marijuana use has long been used as a pretext for targeting minority communities. Marijuana was first made illegal at the urging of Harry J. Anslinger, the nation’s first Drug Czar. Anslinger successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which outlawed possessing or selling cannabis. Anslinger used all sorts of racially charged (and wildly inaccurate) testimony as scare tactics to ram through his harshly anti-cannabis agenda. In the years since, minority communities have been targeted by law enforcement for cannabis crimes. A major study by the ACLU in 2010 found African Americans were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people, though data shows that both groups use cannabis at the same rate.

Castile’s death shows how the danger of cannabis can stem from its legal status. Cannabis consumers face no risk of overdose and repeated use does not lead to physical addiction. Compared to other drugs like alcohol and opioids, cannabis is relatively safe. But Castile’s death shows how cannabis use can be deadly so long as it remains illegal.

What happened to Philando Castile was a tragedy and legalizing cannabis will not solve the complicated problems with policing in America. However, at a time when Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to renew the war on drugs, Castile’s killing is a chilling reminder of the human cost of cannabis prohibition and stigma.