Among the voluminous evidence released Thursday in the shooting death of 17-year-old Florida high school student Trayvon Martin is a toxicology report showing that the teen had trace levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his blood and urine.
The evidence includes abundant new information: conflicting witness statements, an autopsy report showing that Martin, who was black, died from a single gunshot wound to the chest and medical records documenting that Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who will stand trial for second-degree murder, had a broken nose the day after Martin’s death. Yet the media is focusing on the marijuana findings.
That’s a mistake that only serves to distort an already contentious case. The levels of THC detected don’t reflect Martin’s character or even his state of mind the night he was shot. For one, they are so low as to almost certainly not be connected to recent intoxication: 1.5 nanograms of THC were found as well as 7.3 nanograms of THC-COOH, a metabolite of THC that can stay in the system for weeks after cannabis has been smoked. Immediately after inhaling, THC levels typically rise to 100 to 200 nanograms per milliter of blood, although there can be a great deal of variation.
“THC in blood or urine tells us nothing about the level of intoxication,” says Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University and author of the leading college textbook on drug use and behavior. “That would be like someone going to have a beer some evening, and when he goes to work the next day, you can find alcohol metabolites in his bodily fluids. That says nothing about his functioning.” (Full disclosure: Hart and I are working on a book project together).
Moreover, even if Martin had been stoned out of his mind, it wouldn’t predispose him to violence. “I have given hundreds of doses of marijuana to people in the lab, and no one has gotten violent ever and everyone has been able to respond to the situation in an appropriate manner, when given low or large doses and single or repeated doses,” Hart says.
The night of the killing, Zimmerman began following Martin, who had gone to a 7-Eleven to get Skittles and an Arizona iced tea during a break in the NBA All-Star game. Zimmerman told a 911 operator that he was worried about Martin because he “looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs.” He was informed that the police would handle the situation and that he should not take further action. Zimmerman didn’t heed that advice; an altercation ended with Zimmerman shooting Martin in what he says was self-defense. He was charged months after the Feb. 26th killing, following widespread public outrage over the perceived lack of an appropriate criminal justice response.
“If people are trying to discount the acts of Zimmerman or excuse him because [Martin may have smoked] marijuana, they need to think about their own marijuana use and think about whether they ever get violent,” Hart says. “More than half the country has used marijuana and they really need to use some common sense.” The drug that has the strongest pharmacological link to violence is the legal one, alcohol.
And despite the fact that black youth are actually equally or even less likely to use — or sell — marijuana compared to whites, they are arrested for drug crimes at a rate ten times higher. In New York City, a recent analysis found that 80% of those arrested for marijuana were black or Latino, despite whites outnumbering them by far.
As Michelle Alexander points out in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, our drug laws have become little more than a pretext for arresting, imprisoning and disenfranchising people of color in a way that is no longer permissible to do based on race alone. Once someone is charged with a drug crime, liberty, property and voting rights can all be rescinded— in a manner that appears colorblind if you ignore the selective enforcement.
Says Hart: “If Trayvon was a white kid, we wouldn’t be here talking about drugs. George Zimmerman would have long been in jail.”