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Death by Baggie

For years I have been writing that no one dies by smoking pot. Today, I write sadly, that a young man in Florida died because he choked to death on it.

His name was Andrew Grande, and he died this week in a popular Spring Break town, Panama City Beach, because Prohibition is alive in Florida.

Attempting to avoid an arrest for possession of marijuana, trying to swallow the ‘evidence,’ he stuffed a plastic bag full of weed down his throat and choked to death. The bag apparently became trapped in his esophagus and he asphyxiated himself.

And Tru TV was there to capture it all. Coming soon to a neighborhood TV station near you.

Andrew Grande was only 23. And now Andrew Grande is dead because pot laws are alive. Yes, he was fleeing from the police. Yes, they were legitimately responding to a domestic altercation involving an assault, but no, they probably would not have needed a taser had he been not trying to hide his bag of pot.

The preliminary reports which are not available on the video indicate that deputies caught up to Andrew Grande and confronted him, managing to place handcuffs on one of his wrists. But he struggled and flailed, perhaps unwillingly, as the bag of pot lodged in his mouth.

One of the videos opens with an officer shouting: “Spit it Out.”  But he does not. Instead,
the recording shows Grande on the ground while three deputies hold him down. He is wheezing. He is tased.

The rest of the incident is caught on two video recordings for Tru TV and on a sheriff’s dashboard camera which you may see on TV in the months ahead, if it is not sealed in litigation. The three-person crew was riding with deputies during the incident and caught most of it. The Sheriff’s Office released the recordings Friday. Tru TV officials have been instructed by their lawyers not to comment. A limited amount of footage has been released to the media. It is on You Tube. You can watch it as you read this column, if you have the stomach to do so.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T-4E96tuT0

In other portions of the videos, one of the Bay County Sheriff’s deputies is heard talking by radio with a dispatcher.

“He swallowed something,” the deputy says.

Grande tries, desperately, to talk.

The deputies have Grande’s right hand behind his back. He attempts to get up.

Deputies tell him to stop resisting or they will tase him, but he gets to his feet. They tase him and he immediately rips the stun gun’s prongs out of his chest. He was choking to death. He had something else on his mind.

He falls to the ground. While seated, he puts his hand in his mouth and down his throat in what appears to be an attempt to vomit. When that does not succeed, Grande slaps his hand against the concrete and then both of his hands against his chest.
“I can’t breathe,” he says. “I can’t breathe.”

The deputies perform the Heimlich maneuver, but they cannot get the object out of his throat. One deputy rushes to his car to pull out emergency equipment. It will be too late.

“Let us help you, man,” one of them shouts. “Hang in there.”

After emergency medical technicians arrived, they eventually remove the bag of marijuana from Andrew’s throat, but only by retrieving a pair of forceps. Tragically, Grande was taken to Bay Medical Center and pronounced dead at the hospital. An autopsy was performed and the preliminary cause of death is asphyxia ‘due to obstruction of the airway by a foreign material’, officials said. It was death by baggie; death because of a bad law.

Supervisors at the police department say the deputies are traumatized over the episode, but they are not dead. They say that the deputies did not realize at first that Grande was choking and they initially believed he was overdosing. Which explains the use of the taser, how then?

There were three armed deputies at the location and an obviously unarmed young man. They really did not need a taser, did they?

Did the aggressive actions by the deputies’ act as an accelerant and contributing cause to this young man’s death?

Did the unnecessary use of the device cause the young man to gasp, opening up his airwaves, suctioning down the baggie he would have otherwise coughed up?

Personal injury lawyers may wind up suing the Sheriff’s department over their aggressive response or inattention to the personal crisis unfolding before them. But either way, because bags of pot are illegal, and because a kid tried to hide it, he is dead.

The deputies of course lay it all on the kid. They say, to quote one sergeant: “It could have been handled by compliance. It pretty much ended up with him taking his own life.” Maybe on the first part the sergeant is right. The young man should have, could have complied. But he loses sight of the bigger picture. Let all of us not.

It’s a hollow excuse and poor way out for law enforcement to say ‘the kid took his own life.’ Not at all. Obviously, ‘the kid’ wanted to live. Obviously, he did not even want to go to jail. Thus, he was trying to hide the pot: to avoid custody, incarceration, and jail for a bag of weed. So he did not willingly ‘take his own life.’ He tried to stop law enforcement from taking his freedom and his stupid choice cost him his life. But laws dumber than stupid set into motion those forces that caused him to make that choice.

The real message evolving out of this unnecessary loss of life is how stupid continued prohibition is. If pot were not foolishly illegal, subjecting someone to arrest for nominal misdemeanor weight possession, maybe Andrew Grande would be alive today. Maybe someone in law enforcement will look at what happened in Panama City Beach as a tragedy caused not by stupid choices a young man made, but by stupider laws our governments unnecessarily still defend.

NORM KENT is a Fort Lauderdale based criminal defense lawyer who is a member of the board of directors of NORML. He publishes the www.browardlawblog.com and can be reached at norm@normkent.com

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Norm Kent, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of NORML.

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