Unless you’re living off the grid, which begs the question of how you’re reading this, you’ve heard about the woman in Texas who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and died in jail. Sandra Bland was cited for failing to use her turn signal prior to changing lanes and was pulled over by a Texas State Trooper on July 10 near Prairie View, Texas. She was later arrested and jailed for assaulting an officer. Three days later, she was found hanging in her jail cell with a plastic trash bag around her neck.
You may have also heard or read that the preliminary autopsy found high levels of marijuana in her system and that officials are seeking additional tests to confirm when and how much she might have smoked or swallowed. According to Reuters News Agency, this information was provided by Waller County Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam.
In the forensic toxicology business, you see this pattern of selective release of damning information by the authorities all the time. As the saying goes, You only get one chance to make a first impression and if it relates to illegal drugs, all the better. Now, a significant portion of the general population will remember only that she was on drugs at the time of her death.
But if you have the Toxicology Secret Decoder Ring® reports like these present more questions than answers.
First, these are preliminary autopsy results. It is unclear whether these analytical results are even from the state crime lab or simply from a quick screening test conducted at the time of autopsy. Unlike television, laboratory analytical results do not magically appear within a few days.
Also, what are the definitions of “marijuana,” “high levels,” and “in her system?” This is not nit-picking.
You often hear officials use the phrases “marijuana was detected” and “preliminary reports” in the same breath and with great solemnity. These phrases usually cause knee-jerk response in the general public, but, in fact, they are practically meaningless in medical or toxicological terms.
The main active compound in marijuana is ∆-9 tetrahydrocannabidiol (∆-9 THC or just THC). This is the part of marijuana that gets you high. (Actually, there are a few others, but they are in such low concentrations that they’re mostly irrelevant.) In this case, ∆-9 THC is marijuana.
However, the compound usually detected in biological samples is the inactive marijuana metabolite 11-nor-9-carboxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabidiol (THCOOH). The important word here is inactive. It doesn’t get you high. This isn’t marijuana! (When a compound in the body undergoes a chemical reaction that changes the compound’s structure, it becomes a metabolite.)
And what does “in her system” mean? Where in her system? Detecting ∆-9 THC in her bloodstream is radically different from just detecting THCOOH, the inactive metabolite, in her blood or urine. Was she actually high at the time of her death or was the THCOOH in her blood and/or urine an irrelevant, conveniently inflammatory finding?
The third issue in this case is time. Specifically, the tremendous differences in the time it takes the body to remove, or excrete, ∆-9 THC, active marijuana, from the bloodstream as opposed to THCOOH, the inactive marijuana metabolite.
This is critically important. ∆-9 THC, of course, gets to the brain via the bloodstream. However, ∆-9 THC is also rapidly removed from the blood - within 3 to 27 hours, according to the literature. Keep in mind that this range is for controlled research laboratory studies in living subjects and using very sensitive research techniques.
Also, the actual high from ∆-9 THC usually lasts for only 3 to 4 hours. It may last a few hours longer if the marijuana is eaten; however, it’s never 72 hours. In actual practice, ∆-9 THC is gone from the blood in a few hours and is almost never found in the urine.
THCOOH, on the other hand, is detectable in the bloodstream for up to 7 days and can be detected in urine even longer after marijuana use, sometimes much longer. (I recently had a case where urine THCOOH concentrations did not fall below the level of detection [50 nanograms per milliliter] for 60 days!)
If ∆-9 THC was detected in a blood or urine sample, then marijuana use was very recent (within hours). But if only the metabolite THCOOH was found, then there is no evidence that she was high at the time of her death, even though “marijuana was found in her system.”
In Sandra Bland’s case, if ∆-9 THC was actually found in her bloodstream, and marijuana impairment could have been a factor in her death, as implied, other questions arise. Since ∆-9 THC becomes undetectable in the blood within 3 – 27 hours, and Sandra Brown was in jail for 3 days before her death, where did she get the marijuana?
Addendum: After writing this blog, officials have stated that Sandra Bland must have smoked or consumed a large amount of marijuana while in jail. Obviously, someone knowledgeable told them that the math didn’t work. Now they have to explain how she got marijuana in jail (since they never frisk anyone who has been arrested prior to placing them in jail for 3 days.)