Pot Lies Being Used to Justify Police Shootings of Young Black and Brown Men, Advocate Says

As we've reported, prominent addiction specialist and Project SAM principal Dr. Christian Thurstone stirred controversy via a blog post implying that marijuana contributed to -- and perhaps even caused -- the death of Michael Brown, whose shooting by a police officer caused weeks of rioting in Ferguson, Missouri. Thurstone subsequently removed the post but didn't rescind his thesis, and that infuriates marijuana advocate Wanda James. She feels misinformation like that spread by Thurstone is being used to justify police shootings of "young black and brown men." Details below.

See also: Marijuana: Mayor Michael Hancock's Treatment of Pot Industry "Beyond Insulting," Activist Says

Here's an excerpt from Thurstone's original post:
A toxicology report strongly suggests 18-year-old Michael Brown used cannabis shortly before his Aug. 9 shooting death by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and that he was a heavy marijuana user.

The teenager's death has sparked riots and protests and has raised very important -- and painful -- issues centered around racial disparities in law enforcement that must be discussed and addressed. Brown's death also should serve as a tragic reminder that marijuana is not harmless, that it is not just like alcohol or "safer than alcohol," that its consumption often leads to impairment that is very difficult for the public to measure -- also making it tough for the public to hold users accountable for the harm they've caused others. Marijuana users also could be vulnerable to aggression and attacks while under the drug's influence.

After a Twitter spat with marijuana reformers and a repudiation by Project SAM co-founder Kevin Sabet, Thurstone removed the post. But instead of apologizing, he claimed his comments had been "misstated and mischaracterized" and added this: "When emotions settle, we hope we can begin a conversation of how law enforcement, schools, health care, prevention and other systems can prevent something like this from happening again."

This response wasn't nearly enough for James, a longtime marijuana entrepreneur who currently heads the Cannabis Global Initiative. Indeed, she was so upset by Thurstone's statements that she reached out from Jamaica, where she's currently meeting with government officials in an effort to promote marijuana legalization in that country.

"This is a horrible issue," she allows. "When we've got uninformed professionals on the level of Dr. Thurstone saying things like, 'Cannabis makes people violent,' police departments use their statements to justify using deadly force, usually against young black and brown men between the ages of seventeen and 24."

Such assertions strike James as especially absurd given the numerous studies that show marijuana tends to make users less rather than more aggressive. A case in point is a recent study out of the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions that found weed-smoking couples are less apt to engage in domestic violence than those who use alcohol.

In James's view, anti-pot activists and officials "can't have it both ways. Sometimes when professionals speak about it, they say, 'Cannabis makes you lazy, so you don't want to be a productive member of society.' But then they turn around and say, 'It makes you violent and hypersensitive.' Well, which is it? It can't make you do both things."

Nonetheless, pot-leads-to-violence claims continue to circulate, often with Michael Brown front and center. Take an item by Charleston Daily Mail editorial writer Don Surber. The piece begins like so: "This summer I had an epiphany as I watched packs of racists riot in Ferguson, Missouri, in support of a gigantic thug who was higher than a kite when he attacked Ferguson Police Department Officer Darren Wilson, who unfortunately had to put this animal down."

Surber subsequently offered this update: "I made a factual error. Michael Brown was not an animal but a man. Big. Brutal. High. His death was a justifiable homicide and not a putting down."

To James, such sentiments are even more offensive and problematic when they're mouthed by someone with medical training. "Dr. Thurstone is paid handsomely to come out with this ridiculousness," she says. "But this is no longer about being misinformed. This is taking the lives of people, and law enforcement is basing their actions on the false claims of these paid professionals.

"We've got to put a stop to this falsity," she adds. "We've got to stop professionals from putting out this sort of reefer madness, because it's just not true. And it's costing lives."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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