Burnt marijuana — it's a smell everyone on the North Coast knows well, whether you're a habitual smoker or never touch the stuff. It hangs in Old Town's doorways and alleys, wafts across beaches and between redwoods. It's everywhere. So I ask you, has that scent ever made you fear for your life?
It feels like a silly question as I write it but it's deadly serious. According to a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's transcript, just hours after he fatally shot Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez told investigators the smell weighed into his calculus that his life was in danger. Yanez, recently acquitted of a manslaughter charge in the case, said he smelled the "burnt marijuana" as he approached the car in which Castile had been driving his girlfriend and her young daughter.
"I thought, I was gonna die," Yanez said during the interview the day 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 5-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing that 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 girl was screaming."
As many have seen on video of the traffic stop, Castile informs Yanez in a calm voice that he has a firearm in the car. The officer repeatedly — in an increasingly loud voice — tells Castile not to take it out. Castile calmly says he isn't. Barely seven seconds after Castile alerts him to the presence of a gun in the vehicle, Yanez fires seven shots into the car, killing him. The case is horrible in every possible way and raises a host of questions, chief among them simply whether Castile would be alive today if he were white instead of black.
We can now add the question of whether Castile would be alive if he'd been smoking a cigarette, which surely would show similar disregard for his passengers' health. How about if he'd been drinking a beer? Did the smell of pot smoke make a police officer think he was confronting someone with no regard for human life — or was that officer grasping at straws to talk his way out of a bad shooting? And would Yanez have done the same had Castile been white? Either way, it's yet another horrible example of the failures of marijuana prohibition that has been used to criminalize many otherwise law-abiding, decent people, especially those of color.
And amid news of Yanez's acquittal, Humboldt was watching a local trial that spotlights the ills of black market cannabis. Billy Joe Giddings was found guilty of second degree murder Tuesday — his co-defendant Robert Louis Huntzinger was acquited of all charges — for the death of a man in the course of a marijuana deal gone wrong, according to a report by Rhonda Parker of the Lost Coast Outpost. Her thorough coverage of the trial showed a case rife with testimony about leery buyers and sellers, armed with guns, in a shady black market transaction. Perhaps most shocking was testimony that after 38-year-old Trevor Mark Harrison was fatally shot, his mother, Kay Haug, and her caregiver worked to hide 20 pounds of marijuana before calling police, as Harrison lay bleeding to death on the kitchen floor.
These two stories help illustrate — whether through Reefer Madness hysteria, racist dehumanization or deep-seated fear of prosecution — the war on pot's ever-rising death toll. Cannabis prohibition has done nothing to prevent marijuana use and has demonized and criminalized users, while creating an unregulated black market that has artificially inflated the price of weed to the point where people bring guns to simple business transactions. And amid all this, there's a rampant paranoia that would never exist with any legal vice.
It's time for the federal government to end cannabis prohibition and concede the war on pot is senseless. It's time for Congress to stand up and say never again should a police officer point to the scent of marijuana smoke as an acceptable contributing factor to a fatal shooting, and never again should people have to choose between helping a dying man and potentially sacrificing their freedom over a plant. This is all insane and it needs to end.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.