Sandra Bland wasn’t high when she died, and cannabis isn’t the reason the Illinois woman died in her cell three days after she was taken into custody after a traffic stop.
The first toxicology report following the death of Bland, 28, while incarcerated in Waller County, Texas, was released Monday. This comes a few days after Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis suggested that Bland committed suicide in her cell after consuming marijuana, which is a “mood enhancer,” Mathis said.
According to the first report, Bland had a THC level in her blood of 18 nanograms per milliliter, with a margin of error of 4 nanograms per milliliter.
To some, this is evidence that she was under the influence of marijuana when she died, allegedly by hanging herself with a plastic trash bag, as her former jailers have claimed. For example, Washington state has a legal limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Bland’s was three times that.
So what does this new data prove? It proves, to near certainty, that Bland did not use marijuana in her prison cell before her death, as the authorities suggest. It also suggests, to near certainty, that Bland was not under the influence of cannabis at all at the time of her death, or at any time while she was in custody.
First, an unfortunately necessary lesson on how cannabis works. Tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, does not arise without human interaction. Instead, raw marijuana in plan form primarily contains the biosynthetic precursor to THC, which is called THC-A or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid. THC-A will not get you high. THC-A becomes THC under the presence of heat, a process called decarboxylation.
If Bland had indeed ingested a large amount of raw cannabis orally, the effect would have been nothing. Second, if she had consumed active cannabis in the form of edible or hash oil, her THC levels would be much, much higher.
As it is, her THC level was that of a sober person, according to a noted researcher.
Second, a clear understanding of the terms used is necessary.
Most drug tests examine a subject’s urine, which is an indicator of previous use. Those tests do not detect THC. Instead, they look for a metabolite that is formed after cannabis is consumed. Both the NFL and the World Anti-Doping Agency test a subject’s urine. Levels of 35 nanograms per milliliter of urine are a failed test for the NFL, and 150 nanograms per milliliter is a failed test for WADA.
In Bland’s case, it was her blood that was tested. She had a THC level of 18 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Someone who has just consumed or is under the influence of marijuana has a THC level of more than 100 nanograms per milliliter, in some cases in the hundreds, according to the California NORML. This is what drunkenness looks like; that’s good, well above what Bland had in her body.
Unfortunately, linking drug use to the fate of a dead black is a tried and true tactic. ThinkProgress pointed this out last week in a piece denouncing “the marijuana smear,” and today noted addiction scientist Dr. Carl Hart the same in an EBONY piece prior to the release of the toxicology report.
Bland’s test was that of a normal, sober person, Hart told SF Evergreen. “Bland’s THC levels were 18 nanograms per milliliter, which can be considered low levels or near placebo levels,” he wrote via email.
“Research participants in our studies often have baseline (before smoking) levels of about 15 nanograms per milliliter,” he added. “Her levels are certainly not consistent with statements from the DA suggesting she had high levels.”
Unfortunately, they are completely in line with how the criminal justice system treats people in Bland’s position.