Sandra Bland was high on marijuana — while she was incarcerated in the Texas jail where she eventually died — according to Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis. Mathis reportedly said in a text message to an attorney representing the Bland family that “[l]ooking at the autopsy results and toxicology, it appears she swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoked it in the jail.”
If true, this allegation suggests that security in this jail facility is extraordinarily lax. How does marijuana make its way to an incarcerated individual in the first place? And how does that individual manage to smoke or eat a “large quantity” of it without jail officials noticing?
The allegation that Bland used pot shortly before her death, moreover, fits a pattern in high-profile cases involving the questionable death of a black man or woman that has become so common that it is practically a cliché. During the uncertain period where investigators and reporters are trying to figure out just why someone died, news suddenly leaks that this individual was a marijuana user. Generally, the alleged marijuana use is raised to discredit someone is is no longer able to speak for themselves, and to imply that the marijuana use somehow contributed to their death.
At George Zimmerman’s trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin, for example, Zimmerman’s lawyer pointed to traces of marijuana in Martin’s blood. One conservative blogger claimed, without evidence, that Martin was a drug dealer.
Similarly, the lawyer representing Theodore Wafer — who was convicted of shooting Renisha McBride while she stood outside on his front porch, apparently seeking help after she was in a car accident — told that jury that McBride was out a friend’s house before she was killed drinking and smoking marijuana. Jonathan Ferrell, a former college football player who was killed by cops after he also sought help after a car wreck, was accused of drinking and smoking. Toxicology reports later found no drugs in Ferrell’s system and his blood alcohol level was below the legal limit.
The reported allegation that Bland used marijuana while incarcerated adds to the haze of uncertainty surrounding her death. Although Mathis says that his office’s inquiry into Bland’s death is “being treated like a murder investigation,” the sheriff’s office claims that Bland was discovered “in her cell not breathing from what appears to be self-inflicted asphyxiation,” and a preliminary autopsy announced on Thursday corroborates this claim. Jail intake forms released on Wednesday indicate that Bland answered “yes” when asked if she had previously attempted suicide, although there are discrepancies between two different forms asking about whether she has attempted or contemplated suicide.
If investigators ultimately conclude that Bland’s death was a suicide — and not a homicide — Mathis’s reported claim that Bland used marijuana while she was in jail suggests that something still went horribly wrong while Bland was behind bars. If it was indeed possible for Bland to consume a “large quantity of marijuana” while incarcerated, that suggests that the jail may have lacked other important safeguards, such as procedures to ensure that suicidal inmates do not act on these impulses.