Demonstrators prepare to march toward the Ferguson, Mo., police station on Oct. 22 as protests continue in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown's death. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Anti-pot doc blasted over comments on Michael Brown, THC and Ferguson

A prominent Denver psychiatrist’s comments about the THC levels in Ferguson, Mo., shooting victim Michael Brown’s blood have some Colorado marijuana activists calling for the doctor’s removal from boards and commissions – or at least an apology.

Dr. Christian Thurstone, a leading national voice in addictions psychiatry, posted a personal blog last week under the headline “Death in Ferguson and THC.” The blog, which has since been removed, discussed the discovery of marijuana in Brown’s system and contemplated the meaning of those findings:

“Brown’s death also should serve as a tragic reminder that marijuana is not harmless, that it is not just like alcohol,” the original blog read, “that its consumption often leads to impairment that is very difficult for the public to measure — also making it tough for the public to hold users accountable for the harm they’ve caused others. Marijuana users also could be vulnerable to aggression and attacks while under the drug’s influence.”

Some observers called Thurstone’s writing tonedeaf. Others called it racist.

“Dr. Thurstone’s comments were not only insensitive, they are systemic to the issue of racism and the continued criminalization of people who chose to recreate with cannabis,” said Wanda James, a partner at marijuana business consulting firm Cannabis Global Initiative, which is demanding Thurstone be removed from the many boards and commissions he sits on. “The idea that cannabis makes people violent is a leftover stereotype from 1930s racist propaganda. It is also used as the justification to use deadly force against unarmed black men.”

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Thurstone, who was named an Advocate for Action by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2012, has a long history of criticizing marijuana and its effects on the developing brain. As the medical director of STEP, one of Colorado’s largest youth substance abuse treatment clinics, and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Thurstone is one of the most authoritative anti-marijuana voices in the region.

“He was looking only at a toxicology report and nothing else about that case,” said Christine Tatum, Thurstone’s wife, a frequent contributor to his blog and a former Denver Post staff writer who responded on her husband’s behalf. (Thurstone, an Army Reserves officer, is currently serving the Combat Stress Unit of the 807th Medical Command in Kuwait.) “It was all innocently constructed because he was taking a look at only one thing.”

Thurstone’s employer, Denver Health Medical Center, didn’t learn of the blog until after it had been removed from his personal website — but the hospital released this statement to The Cannabist via a spokesperson:

“Dr. Christian Thurstone is in the military and currently on leave serving our country overseas. When he is not deployed, he works with the adolescent psychiatry program at Denver Health serving at-risk children, many of whom are minorities. We have not seen the blog post (which was on Dr. Thurstone’s personal website), so we can’t comment on it nor can we speculate as to the intention in which it was written.”

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Thurstone’s original blog post started out: “A toxicology report strongly suggests 18-year-old Michael Brown used cannabis shortly before his Aug. 9 shooting death by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and that he was a heavy marijuana user.”

Brown’s post-mortem toxicology report showed 12 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, which “probably does represent recent use,” said Dr. Jeffrey Brent, a physician at Toxicology Associates and a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado medical school.

Does the 12 nanogram number automatically make Brown a heavy user?

“You can’t draw any conclusions,” said Brent. “It’s reasonable to say that he had exposure to marijuana that day, but whether he was high or not at the time of death or anytime that day, you really can’t say.”

In an interview on Monday, Tatum reiterated that Thurstone’s original blog, before it was taken down, was solely addressing Brown’s toxicology report.

“For everybody out there who wants to talk about how marijuana isn’t addictive and it’s not harmless and it’s all natural and not that big of a deal, (Thurstone) was looking at a kid who registered — he was looking at a toxicology report,” said Tatum, who added that Thurstone was asked by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to address Brown’s toxicology report. “He is saying marijuana use is not harmless because I’m looking at high THC numbers. He’s not saying marijuana use is harmless because a child is dead. He is saying that within the context of this toxicology report, I am just reminded once again that this is addictive and harmful to the developing brain.”

Marijuana activists, who regularly find themselves on the opposite side of the legalization debate from Thurstone and Tatum, read the blog differently.

“I don’t know if it was thoughtless or an act of desperation,” said Shawn Coleman, a Boulder-based political lobbyist and marijuana activist. “It doesn’t really matter what your intent was. It’s how it was received. And I don’t know anybody who read that Thurstone piece who didn’t read it as (Thurstone) suggesting that because (Brown) had THC in his system and was perhaps high at the time, that led him down the path that got him shot.”

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Added Tracy Williams of the Cannabis Global Initiative: “If I were Michael Brown’s parents I would have been offended that they’re trying to make a case for the so-called harmful effects of marijuana and tie that to having something to do with my son being shot while his hands were in the air. It’s a way of railroading the victim as well as the use of cannabis.”

Even some of Thurstone’s allies have distanced themselves from the inflammatory blog post. Anti-legalization group Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) initially posted Thurstone’s blog on its Facebook page, as Thurstone is a science advisor to SAM. SAM later deleted the Facebook post and on Oct. 23 the organization tweeted: “To imply that Michael Brown’s death was due to pot is to confuse and distort a profoundly troubling event. This is not SAM’s view.”

“It was taken down because they’re not the views of Project SAM,” said Kevin Sabet, SAM’s co-founder and director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. “Christian Thurstone is an incredible researcher who’s done more to research adolescent marijuana abuse than almost anyone I know, and I’d be very surprised if he meant anything nefarious from his posting.

“That being said, those are not our views and we don’t think any implication of Michael Brown’s death due to pot is a helpful conversation.”

A day after SAM’s tweet distanced the organization from Thurstone’s blog, Tatum announced on Twitter that they removed original post because it’s “not a good way to have the conversation we would like about marijuana.”

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When Thurstone’s post was taken down, replaced with a shorter blog saying “the article and our intentions were misstated and mischaracterized,” some who were offended by the original post saw it as an apology.

“Finally they understood why we were mad because they retracted it,” said lobbyist Coleman.

But the replacement of the original blog was no retraction or apology: “He stands very much by what he was saying in terms of the toxicology report,” said Tatum.

But if Thurstone still stands behind his original blog post, why did his team take it down?

“When you’re crushed by comments that are mischaracterizing and misstating what you said and you can’t respond and people are calling you names, it’s not worth it at a certain point,” said Tatum, who said numerous online media outlets incorrectly reported the story without reaching out to Thurstone. “Chris and I have two children. I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with it, and he’s stationed now overseas.”

Taking the post down was the right move, said Project SAM’s Sabet.

“Christian did the right thing by taking down his post,” said Sabet. “It wasn’t a good way to have the conversation about marijuana that they wanted to have. It’s clear that what was going on in Ferguson has very much to do with criminal justice and race, and it wasn’t something that we felt that SAM should be getting involved with.”

The women behind the Cannabis Global Initiative said Thurstone’s comments went too far — and they suspect that is why the original blog post was replaced with something less inflammatory.

“I don’t know if their intent was to smear Michael Brown,” said Williams. “I believe them if they say that wasn’t their intent. But Dr. Thurstone’s comments went a little further than just explaining the toxicology report.”

Thurstone’s website says, “We’re big believers in evidence-based medicine that has practical, real-world applications — meaning science that has been subjected to the rigorous review of reputable scholars and can be used at home and throughout a community.” But Coleman attributes Thurstone’s strong feelings about marijuana to the continued success of treatment centers like STEP, the lobbyist said.

“The treatment end of the prison industrial complex — because there is a relationship between the people who say, ‘All use is abuse’ and ‘You must come to my treatment center’ — those are the kinds of policies Thurstone is advocating for at the capitol,” said Coleman. “This blog post and almost everything else (Thurstone) does is so clearly about bringing people through the doors of their treatment center.”

The controversy has taken a toll on the Thurstone-Tatum household, and while they stand behind the original blog post, Tatum did say the message of Thurstone’s original blog post could have been more focused.

“If anything Christian didn’t write clearly,” said Tatum. “He thought he was writing clearly.”