Smell Like Marijuana and the Police will Kill You

The officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop last year told investigators that the smell of "burnt marijuana" in Castile's car made him believe his life was in danger.

So he opened fire.

"I thought, I was gonna die," Officer Jeronimo Yanez told investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension fifteen hours after the shooting. "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 girls was screaming."

The police officer said he had no choice.

Hours earlier, Jeronimo Yanez had fatally shot Philando Castile, who worked for a nearby school, during a traffic stop outside the Twin Cities. The officer said Castile kept moving even though he told him not to, reaching down and putting his hand on something.

“I thought he had a gun in his hand,” Yanez said later. Yanez feared for his life, he said, and the lives of his partner as well as the two passengers in the car: Castile’s girlfriend and her young daughter. Recounting the shooting the following day, Yanez said: “I thought I was gonna die. And, I was scared because, I didn’t know if he was gonna, I didn’t know what he was gonna do.”

This isn't the first time a police officer has cited the alleged danger posed by pot to justify a confrontation that turned deadly. Last year North Carolina police officers decided to confront Keith Lamont Scott in his car after observing him smoking marijuana in it.

Like Castile, Scott was a black man. And like Castile, police were aware that Scott had a firearm. "Due to the combination of illegal drugs and the gun Mr. Scott had in his possession, officers decided to take enforcement action for public safety concerns," the police department said in an incident summary.

But officers' claims of safety concerns about marijuana are difficult to reconcile with what researchers know about the effects of marijuana use. Numerous studies have demonstratedthat marijuana tends to decrease aggression in people under its effects.

Both drug policy experts and the general public rate marijuana use as less harmful to individuals and society than the use of most other drugs, particularly alcohol.

Yanez's statement is somewhat puzzling, conflating secondhand smoke exposure with a clear and present danger to an officer's life.

Regardless, Yanez's defense sought to make Castile's marijuana use a central issue in Yanez's manslaughter trial. Castile had THC (the main psychoactive compound in marijuana) in his system at the time of the stop. But because of the way the chemical is absorbed by the body, blood THC levels are a poor indicator of current intoxication. It's unclear whether Castile was actually impaired at the time.