Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Saturday, October 1, 2016

"Marijuana really can be deadly – when encountering police officers"

The title of this post comes from this Denver Post article by Christopher Ingraham noting new information from the Charlotte-Mecklenberg P.D. that the September 20th shooting that left Keith Lamont Scott dead was precipitated by simple marijuana possession. 

According to police, plainclothes officers first noticed Scott when he pulled into the parking lot in which they were sitting in an unmarked car waiting to serve a warrant on a wanted suspect, after he began rolling what appeared to be a "blunt." Police say they were not initially interested in Scott but later became concerned when they saw him with a gun. Notably, as The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery reported last week:

Because of that, the officers had probable cause to arrest him for the drug violation and to further investigate Mr. Scott for being in possession of a gun.

After changing into clothes that clearly marked them as police officers, they confronted Scott. They claim they later shot and killed him after he aimed his gun at them, though this newly released video appears to contradict that claim. Whether Scott brandished his weapon in a manner that would legally warrant the use of deadly force hopefully will be clarified when police release all available video of the incident next week (although we perhaps may never have a definitive answer to that question).

Importantly, however, as Ingraham writes: 

It’s not the first time low-level marijuana possession has escalated to a fatal police encounter. Last August, 19-year-old Zachary Hammond was fatally shot by police in Seneca, South Carolina, as he tried to flee from an attempted marijuana bust. In 2012, officers killed unarmed Bronx teenager Ramarley Graham as he tried to flush pot down the toilet. Trevon Cole was doing the same thing when police killed him in Las Vegas in 2010 during a drug raid at which no weapons were found.

 

As the Drug Enforcement Administration notes, nobody has ever died of a marijuana overdose. But aggressive enforcement of drug laws has led to some deaths. Growing efforts to decriminalize or legalize marijuana in part seek to reduce these kinds of police encounters that can turn fatal.

 

Places that have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana treat offenses essentially like parking tickets. Data shows that decriminalization typically leads to drastic reductions in the number of marijuana-related arrests. For instance, the month after the New York City Police Department announced it would treat low-level drug possession as a noncriminal violation instead of a misdemeanor, arrests plummeted 75 percent year over year, according to the Associated Press.

 

But as the cases above vividly illustrate, decriminalization doesn’t eliminate violent encounters. Marijuana was decriminalized in Nevada when Cole was killed. It was decriminalized in New York state when Graham was killed. And it’s decriminalized in North Carolina, where Scott was killed.

 

This is one reason many drug policy reformers say decriminalization isn’t enough...

Indeed, after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use, the overall arrest rate for marijuana-related crimes fell significantly, although not indiscriminately. As The San Francisco Chronicle recent reported:

In the first two years of legalization, marijuana arrests fell 46 percent as many people complied with the new regulations, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. However, while the number of arrests decreased 51 percent for whites, they dropped only 33 percent for Latinos and 25 percent for African Americans. The pot-related arrest rate for African Americans remained nearly triple that of whites.

 

Juvenile marijuana arrests increased by 5 percent overall, but went up 29 percent for Latino youths and 58 percent for black youths. The number of white juveniles arrested fell 8 percent.

Put simply, marijuana won't kill you, but getting caught with it by police might; and, the chance of an encounter with police because of marijuana possession is higher if you're a person of color. If Chelsea Clinton had made this argument during her Ohio campaign stop earlier this week, perhaps she would have saved herself from the mockery of suggesting that marijuana can kill you, a claim she of course took back shortly thereafter.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2016/10/marijuana-really-can-be-deadly-when-encountering-police-officers.html

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