Since 2010, At least 20 SWAT raids involving suspected marijuana dealers have turned deadly, according to data compiled by the New York Times.
The list of fatalities includes small-time dealers and people who sold the occasional joint to a friend, as well as people suspected of dealing in more serious drugs like crack or meth, but who were found to be in possession of only marijuana after the fact. It also includes four police officers who were killed during the raids, intentionally or otherwise.
The deadly raids are a reminder that an activity that's legal and celebrated in some states -- selling weed -- can get you killed in others.
The dead include:
- 29-year-old Jason Westcott of Tampa, who was shot and killed by police who stormed his home and observed him with a firearm. Westcott never fired his gun. The police uncovered a total of .2 grams of marijuana at Westcott's residence, not enough to fill a typical joint.
- Trevon Cole of Las Vegas, who was targeted for a raid after undercover officers purchased 1.8 ounces of the drug from him. Cole was unarmed, and was shot and killed by an officer as he was trying to flush marijuana down a toilet. His family eventually received a $1.7 million settlement from police.
- Levonia Riggins, also of Tampa, who became the subject of a raid after undercover agents purchased marijuana from him on three occasions. Riggins was in bed at the time of the raid. He didn't respond to officers' demands, and when the officers moved toward him Riggins made a quick movement. He was shot and killed. The raid turned out no firearms and a small amount of marijuana.
Marijuana itself is not a deadly substance. "No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported," according to the DEA. But the deadly raids on suspected marijuana dealers underscore how drug enforcement can become a greater threat to life and safety than drug use itself.
The Times' data shows that drugs are the primary driver of SWAT raids that turn deadly. Among the 85 fatal raids that have occurred since 2010, 61 of them -- or 70 percent -- were initiated on suspicion of drugs.
The modern-day SWAT team originated in Los Angeles in the late 1960s as a way to deal with gunmen targeting police officers or civilians. But today SWAT teams are mostly used to handle routine warrant work, especially drug warrants. A 2014 ACLU study found that nearly 80 percent of SWAT deployments were to serve search warrants. Just 7 percent of SWAT deployments involved "hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios."
Defenders of the use of tactics in drug search warrants say they're necessary to protect officer safety. "These are dangerous people we’re dealing with," an Arkansas SWAT commander told the New York Times. "If you have a dope house next door there’s probably nothing the police can do that would be overreacting."
But selling drugs is not, in and of itself, a violent crime. And with certain drugs, marijuana in particular, the risk to public health of using the drug is minimal. Over half of U.S. states have legalized the drug for medical use, and eight states plus DC have legalized it for recreational use as well.
But while nobody's overdosing on marijuana, police are still killing people for it -- and occasionally being killed themselves. In 2013, a SWAT team in rural Texas conducted a pre-dawn raid on the home of Henry Magee, who an informant said was growing 12 marijuana plants in his house.
Groggy and disoriented by the commotion, Magee grabbed a semi-automatic rifle and began firing in the direction of the door that the officers had just battered down. His live-in girlfriend, four months pregnant at the time, thought they were being robbed.
When Magee and his girlfriend heard the police announce themselves, they immediately surrendered. By then, police investigator Frederich Sowders lay dead on the floor. They later recovered 10 marijuana plants and 4 ounces of dried marijuana from his home.
It took a grand jury 12 hours to acquit Magee of a capital murder charge. "All of us felt that if I were in bed and heard anything that made me get up and get a gun, and all of a sudden my door explodes in, I’m shooting," one of the jurors told the New York Times. "Why in the world would you do a full-out assault on a guy growing pot?"