Why Does it Matter if Sandra Bland Smoked Marijuana?

During a press conference held yesterday afternoon to release the results of Sandra Bland's autopsy, one of the first things Waller County prosecutor Warren Diepraam did was confirm an earlier report that Bland had marijuana in her system at the time of her death.

While Diepraam didn't say outright that marijuana caused Bland's death— which the autopsy report said was a suicide— he maintained that the drug's presence was relevant to the investigation because it is a "mind-altering and mood-altering substance."

To be clear, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that shows marijuana use contributes to suicide. In fact, one recent study suggests that marijuana use actually decreases depression and suicidal behavior.

In 2014, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health said that suicides among men 20 to 39 years old dropped up to 11 percent in states that had legalized medicinal marijuana compared to states that did not. 

In 2009, the British Journal of Psychiatry released a longitudinal study finding that "many factors associated with cannabis use are also associated with suicide, and may therefore confound the relationship between cannabis and suicide." The report concluded that marijuana use is "unlikely to be an important risk factor for suicide, either directly or as a consequence of mental health problems secondary to its use."

Perhaps more relevant to Bland's apparent suicide than her use of marijuana is the fact that she answered a question on her jail intake form by saying she had attempted suicide earlier in the year. Also more relevant may be the fact that according to the autopsy, she entered the jail with nearly thirty horizontal scars on her forearm— injuries Diepraam said are consistent with self-harm. Those two things — that she had recently attempted suicide and might be cutting — are big red-flags that someone in custody might be suicidal. But Waller County jailers did not put Bland on suicide watch.

Bland was found hanging in her cell three days after her arrest during a traffic stop that turned confrontational. Her story has made national headlines amid mounting questions regarding her arrest and death, both of which are currently the subject of separate investigations by multiple law enforcement agencies. 

Throughout the investigation, the Waller County District Attorney's office has carefully managed the information it lets out, scheduling press releases and news conferences hours in advance. Yet the news of Bland's marijuana use somehow leaked out nearly 12 hours ahead of the release of the rest of her autopsy. We wonder why that is.

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