Sandra Bland’s THC levels were normal

Sandra Bland was not high when she died, and cannabis is not the reason why the Illinois woman died in her jail cell three days after she was taken into custody following a traffic stop.

The initial toxicology report following the death of Bland, 28, while jailed in Waller County, Texas was released Monday. This is a few days after Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis suggested that Bland committed suicide in her cell after consuming marijuana, which is a “mood amplifier,” Mathis said.

According to the initial report, Bland had a THC level in her blood of 18 nanograms per milliliter, with a margin of error of 4 nanograms per milliliter.


To some, this is evidence that she was under the influence of marijuana when she died, allegedly by hanging herself with a plastic garbage bag, as her former jailers have claimed. Washington State, for example, has a legal limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Bland’s was three times that.

So what does this new data prove? It proves, to almost near-certainty, that Bland did not consume marijuana in her jail cell prior to her death, as authorities suggest. It also suggests, to almost near-certainty, that Bland was not under the influence of cannabis at all at the time of her death, or at any time she was in police custody.

First, a sadly-necessary lesson on how cannabis works. Tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, does not come about without human interaction. Rather, raw marijuana in plan form contains mostly THC’s biosynthetic precursor, which is called THC-A, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid. THC-A does not get you high. THC-A does become THC under the presence of heat, a process called decarboxylation.

Therefore, if Bland had indeed consumed a large amount of raw cannabis orally, the effect would have been nothing. Second, if she had consumed active cannabis in edible or hash oil form, her THC levels would be much, much higher.

As it is, her THC level was that of a sober person, according to one well-known researcher.

Second, a clear understanding of the terms used is necessary.

Most drug tests examine a test subject’s urine, which is an indicator of past use. Those tests do not detect THC. Rather, they look for a metabolite formed after cannabis is consumed. Both the NFL and the World Anti-Doping Agency test a subject’s urine. Levels of 35 nanograms per milliliter of urine constitute a failed test for the NFL, and 150 nanograms per milliliter is a failed test for WADA.

In Bland’s case, it was her blood that was tested. She had a THC level of 18 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Someone who has just consumed marijuana or is under its influence will have a THC level of well over 100 nanograms per milliliter, according to California NORML, in some cases in the several hundreds. That’s what intoxication looks like; that is well, well above what Bland had in her body.

Unfortunately, linking drug use to a dead black person’s fate is a tried and true tactic. ThinkProgress pointed this out last week in a piece decrying “the marijuana smear,” and today, renown addiction scientist Dr. Carl Hart did the same in an EBONY piece prior to the publication of the toxicology report.

Bland’s test was that of a normal, sober person, Hart told SF Evergreen. “Bland’s THC levels were 18 nanograms per milliliter, which can be consider low levels or near placebo levels,” he wrote via e-mail.

“Research participants in our studies often times have baseline (before smoking) levels of about 15 nanograms per milliliter,” he added. “Her levels certainly are inconsistent with statements made by the DA suggesting that she had high levels.”

Unfortunately, they are entirely consistent with how the criminal justice system treats people in Bland’s position.