Saturday, November 29, 2008

Simplisitc Drug Testing Kits Yield False Results and Wrongful Arrests

Quod me nutrit me destruit*, indeed.

So, what's in your wallet (or handbag or toiletry kit)? If you're traveling out of the country any time soon--hell, if you're simply driving around in this one--you'd be wise to rid your bags and carryalls of any organic chocolate bars, natural soaps, and health-food-store deodorants. Read this, be horrified, and for goodness' sake, be careful:

For Nadine Artemis and Ron Obadia, August began with plans for a family vacation in Minnesota. The vacation ended with the two Canadian citizens being led through Toronto's airport in handcuffs, locked up and separated from their baby.

"We were dumbfounded," Artemis says. Police told them they could be facing years in prison for exporting narcotics, because 2.5 pounds of material found in their carry-on bag tested positive for hashish. "All we knew was that we didn't have drugs."

They were telling the truth. They didn't have drugs. They had chocolate.

The couple were caught up in what civil libertarians, public defenders and some narcotics experts say is a growing problem: the use of unreliable field drug-test kits as the basis to arrest innocent people on illegal drug charges.

The inexpensive test kits are used by virtually every police department in the country and by federal agents, including Customs officers at the nation's borders. The kits test suspicious materials, and a positive result generally leads to an arrest and court date, pending more sophisticated tests done after the sample is sent to a lab.

The kits use powerful acids that react with the substance in a plastic pouch. If the liquid turns a certain color, it is a considered a positive result. But a number of legal products and plants test positive: chocolate for hashish; rosemary for marijuana; and natural soaps for the "date-rape drug" GHB.

"The tests have no validity," says former FBI narcotics investigator Frederick Whitehurst. And as more organic products come on the market, "the potential for civil rights violations when these presumptive tests are out there is phenomenal."

Although police have been using the field test kits for decades, "there's no regulation, no oversight that these drug tests perform in any way," says Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps President David Bronner, whose products have tested positive for GHB.

With the growth of organic and natural foods and products, experts say arrests may increase.

"We are alarmed by the growing number of people who have been taken to jail for simply possessing organic products," says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association.

On Aug. 29, Artemis and Obadia, founders of Living Libations, a company that makes organic and natural food and beauty products in Haliburton, Ontario, were cleared of the charges when lab tests showed they were simply transporting chocolate. [...]

So far, the couple's legal bills have topped $20,000, covered in part by Bronner's company.

As you can see, I'm not joking about the need to be careful. As someone who routinely carries (at least) a bar or two of organic dark chocolate in her handbag--more if I'm flying, in case I need to share it with cranky people during inevitable delayed-on-the-runway scenarios--and furthermore, who has Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap in her shower and her travel toiletry kit, let me tell you, this story sent chills down my spine.

No, we shouldn't have to modify our own normal and perfectly legal behavior in order to avoid being falsely accused and expensively imprisoned--this is America, yes? The fault for these outrageous miscarriages of justice lies clearly in the laps of the test-kits' manufacturer(s), as well as those law enforcement and customs personnel who awarded them the lucrative government contracts to make the kits. Kits that don't test for a specific substance, by the way, but rather, just identify a general classification to which a substance belongs.

Poppy-seeds fallen from your morning bagel, or evidence of something more sinister? The test kit will err on the side of un-Constitutional.

On the other hand, I'm certainly not willing to risk being thrown in jail and separated from my sons--and then forced to spend a fortune on legal help to prove my innocence--simply because I love chocolate (which I do, very much) or because I like the wake-me-up scent of mint in my bath products.

Allen Miller of Forensic Source, which makes kits, says they find "families of chemical compounds" and are not meant to be definitive. Any arrest should be the result of good investigative police work, Miller says.

But Adam Wolf of the ACLU says "police officers and drug-test companies should not subject our constitutional rights to a game of chance."

*What nourishes me kills me.

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