#Justice4Philando: Cannabis use is not justification for manslaughter

“How many murders… and deeds of maniac insanity [marijuana] causes each year, especially among the young, can only be conjectured; [n]o one knows.” – Harry Anslinger, Former Commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (July 1937).

 

In 2015 journalist Johann Hari published Chasing the Scream—a compelling narrative addressing the war on drugs with insights derived from the archives of Anslinger himself. Cannabis prohibition (and the larger war on drugs) stemmed from racist rhetoric hysteria and was promulgated by reactionary newspapers with the intent to control and oppress minorities over 100 years ago.

 

Unfortunately, Anslinger was right. In the case of Philando Castile, Officer Jeranimo Yanez’s defense revolved around Philando’s cannabis use. We call Gobshite.

 

Beginning December 14, 2016, we got a preview of the contents of Yanez’s defense: Philando was “on marijuana” and therefore his brutal death was justified. In a motion to dismiss, the defense argued that because Philando was “stoned,” he did not follow ‘repeated’ directions from the defendant: he stared straight ahead, avoided eye contact, never mentioned having a carry permit – only that he had a gun, and did not show his hands. Two months after the incident Ramsey County District Judge, William H. Leary III, ruled “a victim’s unreasonable conduct is never an absolute defense to a criminal charge”.

 

Unfortunately, Judge Leary went forward allowing the defense to bring these types of claims forward to the jury. The defense attorneys referenced Philando’s cannabis use repeatedly; make no mistake about it, it was their justification. This is not only incorrect, it’s a cheap cop out (no pun intended) indicative of the broader “war on drugs mentality” and the associated violence.

 

Back in the early 20th century, Harry Anslinger announced to his bosses that his team would use maximum force to make prohibition work. They did, and still do. The propaganda leveraged to garner public support for cannabis prohibition included absurd claims, like this: “colored students at the University of Minn[esota] partying with female students (white) and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.” Anslinger and company also claimed those who use cannabis would go into a “delirious rage” that would eventually lead to insanity. In this instance, it’s fair to say, these claims in and of themselves rise to the point of insanity.

 

Even later in the 20th century, former President Nixon came into the picture with the Controlled Substances Act and the furthering of these racist policies – with the intent of oppressing minorities. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon administration thereafter had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.” – Former Nixon Domestic Policy Chief, John Ehrlichman. There is insurmountable evidence confirming the intention of cannabis criminalization; it’s one of the most damning conspiracies in American history. Yet society still lives, breathes, and reacts in a way as intended by those wielding power.  It persists today and is personified by our U.S. Attorney General. Jeff Sessions is the country’s top law enforcement officer who once testified that he liked the KKK until he learned that they “smoke pot” – the “only” conceivable reason to denounce such an organization.

 

Grasping at straws, the defense even tried to question in front of the jury, whether Philando lied on his permit-to-carry license about his cannabis use. Judge Leary denied that motion, but did allow the defense to present evidence of alleged cannabis use the day of the shooting. They attacked the credibility of one of the secondary victims (Diamond Reynolds) due to her cannabis use, and they relented on the assertion that the defendant “smelled burnt marijuana” when he approached the vehicle.

 

These are absurdities that, in our opinion, should not have been a factor in this case. Communities United Against Police Brutality reported that in closing statements, the prosecution called out the defense for trying to victim blame. The example they provided (as reported by CUAPB) is that a person who was driving and texting and killed a pedestrian would have committed negligence (the standard needed to reach a manslaughter conviction). It wouldn’t matter if the pedestrian wasn’t in the crosswalk or had THC in their blood, or was a student skipping school, it would still be negligence on the part of the driver rising to the level of manslaughter.

 

The purpose of this post is not to take a position on whether or not the defendant was guilty of manslaughter, but rather, we’d like to talk about the absurdity of the defense’s claim that the defendant was not at fault because Philando was “stoned.” The fact that the judge presented the following jury instruction exemplifies the gravity of the inclusion of Philando’s cannabis use as a justification for his killing:

 

CARRYING A PISTOL WHILE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF A CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE

The statutes of Minnesota provide that a person shall not possess ammunition or a pistol or any other firearm if the person is an unlawful user of a controlled substance, which includes marijuana.

 

The defense strategies and court rulings, which inevitably led to the defendant’s acquittal, essentially say that if you go through all of the training and licensure requirements to legally possess a firearm, law enforcement can shoot you dead in cold blood and later allege you may have been stoned to justify the homicide.

 

We find this acquittal and tragedy unacceptable, and stand with our friends working in social justice organizations throughout the state in demanding #Justice4Philando.