Pot May Not Be Deadly, But Marijuana Raids Are

By Kelly Burch 03/21/17

SWAT raids involving suspected marijuana dealers have turned deadly 20 times since 2010.

Police gathering in riot gear.

Marijuana raids have caused at least 20 deaths since 2010, showing that enforcing the laws around marijuana is more deadly than using the drug itself. 

According to data compiled by the New York Times and analyzed by the Washington Post, SWAT raids involving suspected marijuana dealers have turned deadly 20 times. The number includes the deaths of four police officers who were killed during the raids. 

According the the Drug Enforcement Administration, there have been no reports of marijuana overdoses. However, the recent report shows that drug laws can have deadly repercussions that have nothing to do with getting high. 

The deaths during marijuana raids included people who were later found to be unarmed, or in possession of a very small amount of marijuana. Jason Westcott was fatally shot by a member of the Tampa Police Department SWAT team during a raid in 2014.

However, it was later discovered that there was only 0.2 ounces of marijuana, worth about $2, in his home. The entire investigation had started because an informant had bought about $200 worth of marijuana from Westcott cover the course of four months. Westcott did have a gun, but he did not fire it. 

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said that the use of force was justified (something a grand jury later agreed with), and that the small amount of marijuana found did not undermine the necessity of the operation. 

"I've gone in where there was an expectation that we would find a small amount and you would find kilos of narcotics. And then vice versa, where you were going in and you thought you were going to find multiple kilos and you found residue," Castor told The Tampa Bay Times. "It's not an exact science.”

The recent data found that 70% of fatal SWAT raids since 2010 had to do with drugs. Many drug raids are granted no-knock warrants, which allow officers to enter a building through force, unannounced. A New York Times story detailed the violence associated with no-knock warrants. In one case, an officer threw a flash-bang grenade that landed in a portable crib where a 19-month-old child was sleeping. 

Despite the risks, law enforcement defends the use of no-knock warrants and military tactics like the use of flash-bang grenades. 

“It’s not foolproof, not always going to happen just right,” said Lt. Tim Calhoun, SWAT commander of police in Little Rock, Arkansas. “But it winds up being the most safe for us. These are dangerous people we’re dealing with.”

In Little Rock, 90% of narcotics search warrants involved broken down doors and flash-bang grenades between 2011 and 2013. However, Calhoun does not see that as a problem: “If you have a dope house next door, there’s probably nothing the police can do that would be overreacting,” he said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.