Blog Post

Stop Justifying Police Killings Based on Alleged Marijuana Use

Chris Alexander

The June 2016 killing of Philando Castile shook a Minnesota community and the nation. Black America woke up once again to find one of our own the victim of state-sanctioned killing. Again, America was made to confront its seemingly intractable relationship to racist violence and institutional discrimination. The flimsy justifications for such killings continued, as it emerged this week that Officer Yanez said in his defense that the alleged scent of marijuana made him fear for his life and open fire on Philando just seconds after walking up to his car.

I believed that the fact that Philando was killed in front of his family would ensure a guilty verdict for Officer Jeronimo Yanez. But once again, I was proven wrong.

The “not guilty” verdict rang out from the St. Anthony, Minnesota court room and reverberated in Ferguson, Cincinnati, Walter County, and Brooklyn --just some of the recent locations where police have killed black men and women and used the slain person's alleged marijuana use to posthumously justify deadly force, or to smear their character.

This country's relationship to marijuana and to Black people have both evolved over the years. We've gone from fears of reefer madness to the excitement about the “green rush,” where the marijuana industry is projected to soon add more jobs than manufacturing, utilities, or even the government. And, in that same time, policing of Black people has gone from Jim Crow to a new Jim Crow rooted in the war on drugs -- a war in which Black people remain the primary target for marijuana enforcement, despite similar rates of use across racial lines. We see this every day in New York City, where last year 80% of those arrested for low-level marijuana possession were Black or Latino.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have now ended marijuana prohibition in their jurisdictions and created systems to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use. This policy shift has resulted in a multibillion dollar “legitimate,” well-regulated, and almost entirely white industry. We now have a Cannabis Caucus in Congress, showing that even lawmakers have evolved on the issue.

Simultaneously, however, states like New York have managed to maintain the status quo; marijuana use is still illegal, but only really enforced if you are a person of color. This is especially problematic given that current NYC policies allow police interactions with community members based on the very same justification that Officer Yanez invoked to justify killing Philando Castile: the mere scent of marijuana.

Although Mayor Bill de Blasio ran a campaign promising to end the marijuana arrest crusade in New York City, his administration continues to allow law enforcement to use the scent of marijuana to justify any interaction or arrest -- with no corroborating evidence required. Given that people of color are disproportionately targeted for marijuana possession arrests, any policies that allow increased contact with law enforcement open the door for tragedies to occur, as we have repeatedly seen.

As I work to end marijuana prohibition in New York, I am consistently reminded that legalizing marijuana will not legalize black people. The paradox inherent in this country's marijuana policy is crucial for any advocate of marijuana legalization or drug law reformer to understand.

A recent CBS poll showed that national support for marijuana legalization was now as high as it has ever been at 60%. The poll also showed that 50% of adults in the country have admitted to using marijuana at least once in their lifetimes. That is over 128 million people.

Still, Officer Yanez was able to successfully avert conviction for manslaughter by saying that the scent of marijuana justified his killing of Philando Castile.

We need to legalize marijuana because prohibition has been ineffective, costly, and racially enforced. But, more importantly, it is beyond time that we make clear that marijuana can no longer be used as a justification for police violence or murder.

Chris Alexander is a Policy Coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York office.

View more blog posts.