Did Marijuana Kill Michael Brown?

Prosecutors suggested to a grand jury that reefer madness caused the behavior that led to a police shooting.


When a blood test found traces of marijuana but no other psychoactive substance in Michael Brown's body, I thought it would take the wind out of attempts to blame his death on drugs. I was wrong about that, as you can see if you read the transcript of the testimony heard by the grand jury that rejected criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who shot and killed Brown on August 9.

Wilson testified that the unarmed 18-year-old attacked him without provocation, punching him in the face through the window of his police car and trying to grab his gun. He said Brown had "the most intense aggressive face" and looked like "a demon." He also likened Brown to Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestler. After Wilson fired two rounds, one of which grazed Brown's hand, Brown took off, and Wilson got out of his car to follow him.

By Wilson's account, Brown stopped running away at some point for no apparent reason, turned, and charged Wilson. Wilson said Brown continued to charge him even after he was struck by five additional rounds, forcing Wilson to fire the final, fatal round into Brown's head. "It looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I'm shooting at him," Wilson said. "And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn't even there, I wasn't even anything in his way."

Wilson's description of Brown's behavior—in particular, the murderous rage, the extraordinary strength, and the resistance to bullets—is reminiscent of the effects that have been attributed to various illegal drugs over the years, including PCP, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and the synthetic stimulants known as "bath salts." But it has been many years since people talked about marijuana this way.

During the 1920s and '30s, anti-pot propaganda portrayed marijuana as a "killer drug" that inspires irrational violence. By the 1960s, however, marijuana had acquired a reputation as a "dropout drug" that renders its users placid and lethargic. It hardly seems plausible that such a drug could cause the behavior described by Wilson. Yet that is what Kathi Alizadeh and Sheila Whirley, the assistant county prosecutors guiding the grand jury as it considered the evidence against Wilson, repeatedly suggested.

Although Wilson reportedly had the impression that Brown was on drugs the day of their deadly encounter, he did not broach the subject during his testimony. That task fell to Alizadeh and Whirley, who wanted the jurors to know that high doses of THC can cause "paranoia," "hallucinations," and "psychotic episodes."

Testifying on November 4, St. Louis County's chief toxicologist, Christopher Long, emphasized that such reactions are rare. "You smoke a joint and you chill out," he said. "That's generally what happens….If you take a massive dose, you can get significantly different effects—those effects that are not generally associated with marijuana."

But according to Long, Brown's blood contained 12 nanograms of active THC per milliliter, which he said would not be unusual for a recreational user who had smoked pot within the previous two hours. To put that number in perspective, a 1992 study reported in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology found that subjects smoking a single joint had concentrations above 100 nanograms per milliliter immediately afterward. THC levels then dropped sharply, dipping below 20 nanograms after about 45 minutes but remaining above 10 after an hour. Daily marijuana users may register higher than that and still function normally.

In other words, it does not look like Brown took an unusually large dose. Alizadeh tried to obscure that point by noting that Brown's THC level was "over twice" five nanograms, the cutoff that Colorado and Washington chose for drugged driving after legalizing marijuana. But that standard is highly problematic, treating many regular users as impaired even when they're not. The fact that Brown exceeded that arbitrary limit does not necessarily mean he was too impaired to drive, let alone that he was impaired enough to charge a cop firing bullets at him.

Alizadeh further confused the issue in this exchange with Long:

Alizadeh: Could you experience the hallucination and/or the psychosis if you had a high enough dose of THC?

Long: If you got a high enough dose, you could have a psychotic episode into hallucinations, yes.

Alizadeh: Now, in this particular case, when you tested the blood and you got 12 nanograms per milliliter for the delta-9-THC, do you consider that a high dose?

Long: OK—

Alizadeh: What conclusions did you make from that?

Long: Well, you have to put things in perspective. This was a very large individual. I think he was about 300 pounds. So for concentration of 12 nanograms in a large person, that shows it was a large dose. In a small person, say like 100 pounds, to get to 12 nanograms wouldn't take a lot. A single joint could easily do that. But when you talk about a larger body mass, just like drinking alcohol, larger persons can drink more alcohol because they have the receptacle to hold it.

By conflating the total amount of THC consumed with blood concentration, this exchange implies that 12 nanograms of THC per milliliter will make a large person crazier than a small person, which makes no sense. If smoking a single joint can raise a 100-pound person's THC concentration that high, and if 100-pound people who smoke a joint do not commonly behave the way Wilson claims Brown did, why should we believe marijuana helps explain why Brown is dead?

Testifying on November 13, the renowned forensic pathologist Michael Baden, who was hired by Brown's family to conduct an independent autopsy, said "the amount of marijuana he has could cause abnormal behavior but usually doesn't," adding that "99 out of 100 people taking marijuana aren't going to get in a fight with a police officer." The latter observation prompted Alizadeh to question Baden's credentials. "Although you have a working understanding of toxicology," she said, "you are not a toxicologist, correct?"

While questioning Long and several other witnesses, Alizadeh and Whirley spent considerable time insinuating that Brown had consumed cannabis in the form of the concentrate known as "wax," even though there does not seem to be any evidence that he did and even though it would not matter if he had. If the issue is Brown's level of intoxication, the amount of material he burned to achieve it is irrelevant. The testimony and speculation about wax looks like an attempt to exoticize a familiar drug that people do not usually associate with demonic rage or Hulk-like strength.

Then again, marijuana may be exotic enough as far as the prosecutors are concerned. "You explained that the Delta-9-THC has a psychoanalytic effect?" Alizadeh said to Long at one point. "Psychoactive," the toxicologist corrected her. Later Whirley asked Long, "Could this amount of THC that was found in the blood be—is it possible that someone [could be] ingesting that amount on a regular basis and not be dead?" The toxicologist explained that "marijuana really isn't lethal." Unless you smoke it before getting stopped by a cop, I guess.

Alizadeh and Whirley clearly don't know much about marijuana, but they seemed determined to leave jurors with the impression that it made Brown unhinged enough to behave in the suicidally irrational manner described by Wilson. Why? Possibly because the grand jurors would have trouble believing Wilson's story, which was contradicted by some eyewitnesses (although supported by others), unless the prosecutors offered some seemingly plausible explanation for the bizarre behavior that Wilson says forced him to kill Brown.

Strictly speaking, it was not the prosecutors' job to make Wilson's self-defense claim seem plausible. Ordinarily they would be trying to persuade the jurors to indict the subject of an investigation. But in this case, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch went out of his way to avoid prosecuting Wilson without having to make that decision himself. Among other things, that required reviving marijuana myths that were hoary when McCulloch was born.

NEXT: Jeffrey Rogers Hummel Tells Us How the Fed Got So Damned Big

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  1. I hope my prosecutor points out all the holes in the state's case against me. Somehow, I don't think he/she would.

    1. I think we need to be careful of blaming the cops every single time there is a situation such as this.

      When we do that, we fall into the same trap, we're trying to change people. The libertarian should understand that this is a hopeless crusade.

      The issues are systemic. Perverse financial incentives through the War on Drugs and other policing is at the heart of many of these cases, and if it is not the primary issue it is almost at least the secondary.

      Though justice should always be served when a person violates another person's rights, we really need more focus on the underlying issues. Instead of pushing cops to act perfectly in a corrupt and coercive system, we need to remove the incentives that are the reason they are acting that way.

  2. anti-pot propaganda portrayed marijuana as a "killer drug" that inspires irrational violence.

    As opposed to ethyl alcohol?

    1. Oh, "anti-pot". Never mind.

  3. I'll go ahead and start the terminator thread.

    "He was probably on PCP."

    1. "He was so strong and crazed it took six police officers to circumcise him."

      1. You see this scar right here...

  4. That task fell to Alizadeh and Whirley, who wanted the jurors to know that high doses of THC can cause "paranoia," "hallucinations," and "psychotic episodes."

    While rare, hallucinations can and do happen. Especially if you're tired. Now, the problem is that most people don't know what hallucinations actually are. Your average citizen, hearing "hallucinogen" thinks deliriants. Which pretty much no one uses recreationally.

    1. I had the flu years ago and ran a fever for 5 days.Lived alone then with my 2 Labs,I swear they were talking to me and other visions.A doctor client of mine told me I had waking nightmares.Scared the hell out of me.As far as the grand jury,the fix was in and may not have been needed.The actions from the cops and the D.A. ,in a case where the cop was,probably, in the right shows how they lie even when not needed. I hope the 12 year old in Cleveland gets justice,I do not have high hopes

      1. "The actions from the cops and the D.A. ,in a case where the cop was,probably, in the right shows how they lie even when not needed."


      2. When I have a high fever, I hallucinate. . . Have done so since I was a small child. . .
        When I was very young, it scared me. . . since I've been old enough to understand, I try to have fun with it.

    2. Hallucinations also happen if you smoke entirely too much of a high grade marijuana in too short an amount of time. I had it happen to me once because I didn't realize the bowl I was smoking out of was broken. Not a fun experience, getting two complete lung-fulls of pot at once, nor the hallucinations and extreme anxiety and paranoia that came with it (and I get bad enough anxiety attacks when sober). That being said, I can't think of a single drug or medication offhand that requires smaller doses for larger individuals.

  5. I would be surprised if the grand jury bought the Reefer Madness theory.

    The eyewitnesses who said Brown attacked the cop were probably more influential with the jurors than speculation about the killer weed.

  6. The whole episode of young Mr. Brown's untimely death sucks so bad because without video, we will never know if it was a good or bad shoot that killed him. It's all fucking conjecture. It is total bullshit, and thank you for pointing it out, that cannabis had to be dragged into the sorry mess. Fuckin' douchebag prosecutors.

  7. Apparently marijuana usage does influence you to idiotic decsion making. Such as assaulting a convenience store owner so you can rob him of a box of cigarillos.

    1. That's probably more to do with wanting something without paying for it, which has been known to affect people on the entire spectrum of sobriety.

      Having recently committed a robbery, like marijuana, has also been known to induce paranoia.

      1. This is true. It's a mindset.

        The peace love hippies I know get more peace love when stoned out. I'm sure the strong arm bandits get more strong armed.

        So, yeah, pots has something to do with it. But way less than natural hormones and bad original mind programming.

        1. Date rape victims become more compliant and lose the ability to articulate "no".

      2. Having marijuana on his person could have added to the paranoia also.

    2. It is hilarious listening to people push the marijuana angle. The vast majority of people in this country have first or second hand knowledge about the effects of MJ and just don't buy the bullshit.

      It is like watching a cheap used car salesman try to sell a junker to a mechanic by using the ol' 'it has barely been driven!' line.

  8. Tempest in a Tea Pot. Rage - which certainly seems like MB's mindset - is well known to stop bullets, pepper spray, etc. for at least a few second. Cops often mace suspects that just keep on coming...same with shooting people. They are often so pumped up they don't know yet that they are mortally wounded.

    Of course, after the head shot they get the idea quickly!

    Speaking of offensive things.....don't folks find it offensive that folks who have 60+ billion dollars (Koch's) are begging for the tiny bit of money it takes to run this web site? That sucks. They can fork over a couple million a year and it's not even like $10 to your or I.

    I am offended.

    1. Cancel your subscription. It is the only thing they fear.

    2. You seem to be under the mistaken impression that Reason belongs to the Kochs.

      I wonder, have you ever inquired why any of the myriad proggy outfits that constantly beg for money do so even though they have collected contributions from wealthy people?

    3. Are you also offended that public TV stations are always asking for money? The Kochs donate to them as well. And to many other charitable and arts organizations.

    1. Nancy Grace will get right on this and if it turns out to be a lie,go on vacation.

  9. To me, the question of whether it was a good shoot or not is pretty moot - we'll never know to any degree of certainty.

    What pisses me off is the double standard. The cop is allowed to drive himself to the station, clean up, hand in his weapon, etc. Gross violations of investigative protocol, but of a piece with allowing cops a few days to get their stories straight before they talk to investigators.

    And, of course, the bizarre grand jury process. While within the bounds of what a grand jury can do, it is so far removed from what the proles get that I don't think there is any question that it was a cover for not charging the cop. Which is the exact opposite of what grand juries are usually used for.

    You can have a double standard, or you can have justice. You can't have both.

    1. But,but,heroes in blue,for the children

    2. The cops have something you don't, the legal right to initiate force against people. I hate cops as much as anyone. Despite this, however, I do think cops deserve more leeway in shooting cases than an ordinary person does unless the person is in their home. If I get into a bar fight and shoot someone, that really is a different case than if a cop is trying to arrest someone and a fight ensues and the cop ends up shooting him.

      1. Yes ,if defending himself others,but,not to initiate force.Resisting arrest is defending one's self actually.They can not start the fight,yet it seems they do in many cases.Then lie about it till the video comes out.Cell phones have opened a window to what happens in many cases.Plus,I do not trust any government workers,I expect them to do their job properly,just like the guy at my local Kroger.

      2. In judging whether the shooting was justified, it is probably somewhat necessary that they get a bit more leeway than a normal person. There are probably some (very few) situations where it would be appropriate for a cop to shoot where it wouldn't for another person.
        But following the incident, I agree with RC, they shouldn't be allowed to clean up, drive themselves to the station, get their story straight, etc. They should immediately be removed from duty and taken into some sort of custody until evidence can be gathered by people not involved in the incident. Even if it is clear enough that they shouldn't be charged with anything, as soon as the incident is over, they should be completely removed from the process of cleaning up and gathering evidence.

      3. The cops have something you don't, the legal right to initiate force against people

        Their right to initiate deadly force is limited fairly narrowly.

        Other than shooting at a fleeing violent felon, they have pretty much the same self-defense rights as ordinary proles.

        On paper, that is. As we know, IRL the double standard gives them pretty much a free hand to kill somebody as long as they can recite the magic words.

      4. I'm actually inclined to think that cops deserve less leeway in shooting cases precisely because they are agents of the government and claim the right to initiate force. Giving the government leeway when one of its representatives may have blasted a citizen for no reason isn't the precedent we should be setting.

  10. I don't know why we have to examine every possible angle when it is readily apparent what happened. For those who haven't figured it out here it is again.

    Michael Brown Killed Michael Brown. He did it by attacking a police officer and trying to get his gun. Michael Brown's fingerprints were on the weapon as well as the police officer's

    What also killed Michael Brown was the ghetto/thug culture promogated by many in the black community and rationalized by the liberal culture and media. Because he was raised in this culture that is glorifies crime, drug use and low achievement, he acted in a way he was conditioned to do by his community and his peers.
    Until this culture (which is celebrated and rewarded by popular culture) changes more black youths will be killed, incarcerated or fail in life.

    Arguing about the relative "merits" of pot use are not germane to this situation.

    1. You are right. It is a bad example case to use for talking about problems with police violence. And pot has nothing to do with anything. But what are you going to do? It's the one in the news.

      1. Ignore it and move on to the real issues.
        This is just an opportunity for the people who profit from this type of event to do just that - profit from it.

  11. By Wilson's account, Brown stopped running away at some point for no apparent reason, turned, and charged Wilson.

    You mean Wilson wasn't ordering him to stop? Just tagging along behind him?

    What if Brown decided this crazy cracker was going to gun him down if he didn't do as he was told, stopped running, and started walking back to the cop? The only difference in their stories is whether Brown was walking or running, no?

  12. Start working at home with Google! It's by-far the best job I've had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this - 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,
    go to tech tab for work detail ?????????????

  13. So, I guess marijuana in no way impairs one's judgment? Seriously? At least that's the impression the author seems to want to leave with us.

    1. Not the way the prosecution was trying to say. Put it this way: I've made some piss poor decisions while drunk. I've never made those kinds of decisions stoned. It can slow response time, that's where you get into issues.

  14. My question is, did they test brown for all the 500+ different synthetic psychoactive chemicals related to spice/bath salts? His behavior fits more in line with those than marijuana. I know a standard tox screen does not test for those substances, I have to wonder if they found marijuana and said we have a reason. Just a thought, there is probably more to this than we will ever know.

  15. Yes Jacob, tell us how marijuana doesn't affect judgement, inhibitions, etc. Sorry, but I have known too many potheads to believe that. Good grief do you even read your stuff before you hit send? Michael Brown was not shot for smoking dope, walking in the street, or smarting off. He was shot because he assaulted and charged at a man with a gun. A man who was doing his job. Did WIlson have a history of police misconduct? No because you would already have told us if he did. JUST ADMIT YOU WERE WRONG. BROWN IS DEAD BECAUSE OF HIS OWN ACTIONS.

    1. I'm not quite sure who you're arguing against. The entire point of this article was that the idea that Brown is dead because of "reefer madness" is complete BS. He doesn't really go into whether the cop should have been indicted or not. Personally, I say the Grand Jury came to the correct conclusion because there's not enough evidence either way. There are too many conflicting eyewitness reports.

  16. I've smoked some pot in my day. And eaten weed brownies. Bowls, blunts, bongs, joints. Varying grades. Hmm... Anxiety attacks, mild hallucinations (especially auditory) have happened, but not very often. Mostly before I learned my limits or built up any amount of tolerance. Mostly, it causes laziness, creativity, being super talkative, extreme horniness, some paranoia, and just general feeling of being laid back. And all without imparing my judgement the way alcohol can. Yay weed!

    1. However it has impaired your spelling.

      But you also admit to "some paranoia", which is an extremely dangerous mental health condition that predisposes individuals to preemptively strike back at those they wrongly believe are persecuting them, and even if this is not your modus operandi, then it might be for others whose temperaments are different, so actually you have made the argument for the other side of the case rather well.

  17. "Did Marijuana Kill Michael Brown?" No, a murderous pig killed Michael Brown. Michael Brown was a very big stupid kid, but he didn't have to die. Wilson should have been tried. The grand jury proves nothing except that cops get away with murder and other vicious crimes far too often.

  18. Having worked in mental health care in various countries for over 30 years, it has been my observation that in certain individuals who are prone to psychotic disturbances, use of marijuana may trigger disinhibition and poor judgment and in fact I have seen myself on occasion when hospital patients have gone out on grounds and smoked marijuana, these changes in behavior are evident immediately to a trained observer even before marijuana use is suspected. These changes seem to be more profound in individuals of lower intellectual capacity, and even more profound if also combined with alcohol consumption.

    Now Mike Brown may not have had any mental health history, but he was still young, so if he did, it would not necessarily be part of any public record, but I think it is a bit cavalier to assume that his response to marijuana would definitely have been the same as that of a chilled out graduate student enjoying a spliff with a couple of friends and walking down the middle of the road observing how green is the grass and how blue is the sky, oblivious to any possible traffic hazard.

  19. Having said the above, I am also very suspicious of the Darren Wilson story. It seems to me that "he was trying to grab my gun" is a stock response used for police justification of shooting people, and while in the Mike Brown case it MIGHT have been true, it is also possible that it was invented after the fact.

    Regrettably a cop has to get the benefit of the doubt in such a case even if one suspects he is lying. However, this is not to say that it would not have been a good idea for the grand jury to indict Officer Wilson for a full trial and let the chips fall where they might, although I suspect that the racial makeup of the jury would probably determine the outcome, and if it was a bench trial, the judge (regardless of his or her race) would probably side with the law enforcement officer.

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