Texas officials push marijuana accusations in case of Sandra Bland’s death

Jail bars

Neil Conway/flickr

Does this change anything?

Did drugs play a role in the role in the death of Sandra Bland?

Bland, a 28-year old African-American women who reportedly died from self-inflicted wounds while imprisoned in the Waller County, Texas, jail is said to have consumed marijuana prior to her death, according to a lawyer hired by Bland’s family. That information came from Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis.

“Looking at the autopsy results and toxicology, it appears she swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoked it in the jail,” Mathis told lawyer Cannon Lambert, according to Reuters.

Precisely how and when Bland allegedly consumed this marijuana is unclear. Since marijuana is fat soluble, traces of the drug can show up in a person’s system for weeks after it is consumed. It is also unclear how officials were able to determine that the marijuana was consumed while she was in custody.

Officials from the Waller Country District Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for clarification about Bland’s alleged drug consumption.

Bland was pulled over by Officer Brian Encinia in Prairie View, Texas, a city northwest of Houston, on July 10. Video recorded from the dashboard camera of Encinia’s police cruiser shows a situation that quickly escalated from a routine traffic stop. Encinia is shown arresting Bland, who was aggressively asserting her rights not to comply with many of his orders. Bland was charged with assault on a public official and taken to jail. Three days later, she was dead.

Prosecutors have said an autopsy report indicates that Bland died from self-inflicted wounds endured while hanging herself with a plastic bag. The report showed she did not have injuries consistent with a violent struggle.

The results of an independent autopsy conducted on behalf of Bland’s family has not been released.

Bland’s death sparked a firestorm of controversy on social media after her friends and family members publicly expressed skepticism about the official story. Twitter hashtag campaigns #SayHerName and #IfIDieInPoliceCustody allowed many activists to express frustration over how African-Americans are treated by law enforcement.

Brining up Bland’s marijuana use is reminiscent of similar charges made against other African-Americans killed by law enforcement or other authority figures. 

To cite a few high-profile examples:

  • After police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown  in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, investigators trumpeted that he had marijuana in is system. 
  • After neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman killed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, Zimmerman’s defense attorney argued that Martin’s testing positive for marijuana could have impaired his judgment.
  • After police shot former Texas A&M football player Jonathan Ferrell after attempting to seek help following a car accident, law enforcement sources initially told the media Ferrell had been smoking pot before the incident. However, post-mortem tests found no drugs in his system.

According to the Pew Research Center, 7.3 percent of Americans ages 12 or older have consumed marijuana in the past month.

Bland is not the first inmate to be found hanging at Waller Country Jail in recent years. In 2012, 29-year old James Harper Howell IV killed himself with a bed sheet tied to a ceiling vent. He had been in custody for a week on charges of assaulting on a public servant, evading arrest, and possession of marijuana.

Photo by Neil Conway/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.