If you say it wasn’t racial
When they shot him in his tracks
Well I guess that means that you ain’t black
It means that you ain’t black
—Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”
We recently passed a terribly sad one-year anniversary on July 6, and I’ve been struggling to frame the tragedy properly. It addresses something that I know exists, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best person to speak on it. Because even though I recognize the problem, I think I may still be part of the problem—I’m talking about cannabis and white privilege.
On July 6, 2016, a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, turned horrific in a matter of seconds for the driver, Philando Castile, his fiancé Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter. Castile, a 32-year-old nutrition services supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, was licensed to carry a firearm, and he told the officer he was armed in a calm, deliberate manner.
After that, things got really bad, really quick.
In a video that you may have seen (and if so, will never forget), Philando Castile was murdered by the officer at point-blank range while Lavish live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook.
It’s horrible to watch, with Castile painfully bleeding out, Lavish narrating what no one should ever have to see, and her daughter seeking to calm down her sobbing mother while they sit together in the back of the police cruiser by saying, “Mom, please stop cussing and screaming ’cause I don’t want you to get shooted!”
Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile, was charged with felony manslaughter. But, as we have seen so often that it’s become sickeningly, surreally familiar, Yanez was acquitted.
A transcript was recently released of Yanez discussing what had happened during the stop the day after the shooting. The justification for his actions?
He smelled marijuana.
Those are his words. This really happened.
“I thought, I was gonna die and I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me,” Yanez told investigators.
Later in the interview, Yanez tries to justify his actions: “Because usually people that carry firearms carry ’em on their waistband. Um, and or in between the seats and being that the inside of the vehicle smelled like marijuana, I didn’t know if he was keeping it on him for protection from a drug dealer, or anything like that or any other people trying to rip him.”
Never mind that Minnesota has a licensed, regulated medical cannabis program, so there was no reason to automatically assume Castile did not have a perfectly valid reason for smelling like cannabis. (And we don’t have anything other that Yanez’s assertion he did smell like cannabis.)
I’ve hotboxed more than a hundred vehicles, though never as a driver. But I wasn’t smoking alone, and yep, we got pulled over more than once. At no time did it ever cross my mind we would be shot. Because smelling like a plant is not an offense that’s punishable by death.
That’s my white privilege showing. I take for granted that my consumption of cannabis will not result in a disproportionate response by law enforcement that leads to my demise.
This is why, as a cannabis industry that is still vastly owned and operated by white people, we need to do more. To encourage investment and ownership into minority cannabis businesses, to support cannabis conviction expungements for people of color, and to speak up on the vastly disparate arrests and sentencing for cannabis offenses placed upon POC. You can start by checking out the Portland-based nonprofit Minority Cannabis Business Association (minoritycannabis.org). They are addressing these issues and others.
And what of Officer Yanez, who shot a young black man because he may have smelled like pot smoke? He recently resigned from the force after being acquitted, and took a $48,500 payout.
All because he “smelled marijuana.”