Americans are no fans of the War on Drugs, but law enforcement still has the unenviable job of fighting it. And because cops need to believe in their day-to-day duties, they tend to go a little overboard when it comes to drug busts. Surely you’ve noticed how they proudly post a photo to their department Twitter account whenever they snatch a few dime bags of weed of some street dealer, only to get roasted for it?
What’s even sadder is that those are the successful arrests. In other cases, police are so eager to nail a suspect for possession that they kind of…forget what drugs are. Just as they have mistaken almost every conceivable harmless object for a gun — including a Bible) — they’ve made some pretty questionable deductive leaps when evaluating potentially illicit substances. (It’s almost like they should’ve been trained a little better.)
Here are six truly egregious examples that should worry even sober people:
1) Krispy Kreme flakes = meth
When it comes to the inspiration for this list, you’ve got to wonder if the cliché about cops and doughnuts has any truth to it. In 2015, an Orlando police officer pulled over retiree Daniel Rushing after he failed to stop while exiting a 7-Eleven parking lot. She noticed hard white flakes on his floorboard, which Rushing said were probably from his favorite snack: a Krispy Kreme donut. She could have left it at that, because nobody high on meth would come up with a lie that good on the spot, but a field test bizarrely confirmed the bits of glaze as methamphetamine. The case was dropped when those results were contradicted in a lab, and the city settled Rushing’s lawsuit two years later for $37,500.
2) Okra = cannabis
Another retiree, Dwayne Perry of Cartersville, Georgia, could tell you about the drawbacks of the drug war’s increased reliance on aerial surveillance, which also represents the cutting edge in domestic U.S. spying. In 2014, heavily armed police and a canine unit turned up on his doorstep to raid his cannabis plantation. In fact, he was growing okra, an extremely legal vegetable. “It did have quite a number of characteristics that were similar to a cannabis plant,” Georgia State Patrol Capt. Kermit Stokes said defensively at the time — and he’s right insofar as both are green, with leaves. The likeness ends there, but yeah, it’s not always easy to differentiate from overhead when repeatedly buzzing an innocent old man’s garden in your helicopter.
3) Breath mints = ecstasy
A 2013 Brooklyn federal court complaint described the NYPD stopping and frisking a man, Ron Hankins, without cause in April of that year — just normal NYPD bullshit, in other words. (You get exactly one guess as to whether Hankins is white.) In his pockets were a handful of breath mints that the officers determined to be ecstasy pills after ignoring Hankins’ suggestion that they just sniff the damn things or break one in half to allay their suspicions. They didn’t, and he spent 30 hours in jail. “Fresh breath is not a crime,” Hankins said after the charges were dropped and he’d filed a lawsuit. “It’s unthinkable that mints from Walgreens could be confused for ecstasy pills. All the officers needed to do was smell them. They’re wintergreen.” Determined not to learn from these embarrassments, cops continue to insist that almost everything is ecstasy.
4) Cat litter = meth
All together now, in your best Gob Bluth voices: COME ON. Even if you’re not familiar with the lifehack of keeping a sock full of kitty litter in the car to suck up moisture and prevent foggy windows, Google is free. Maybe officers in Houston could have taken two seconds to verify Ron Lebeau’s story when they found one such kitty-litter sock in his vehicle before, you know, wrongfully imprisoning him for three days? Also, shout out to the forensic team that took that long to figure out they were handling gravel for cats to poop in. Like other people on this list, Lebeau has had to contend with a digital footprint that now includes a mugshot for a totally preposterous arrest; cops get to brush off these drug mix-ups as no big deal while targets struggle to repair their reputations.
5) Drywall powder = cocaine
This year has seen just about the most horrifying police incompetence with regard to drug identification: In addition to the kitty litter fiasco, Florida man Karlos Cashe spent a full 90 days behind bars because officers thought drywall sprinkled in his car was cocaine. (He was stopped for not having his headlights on.) Cashe, of course, repeatedly said that the drywall powder was just that, but a canine unit indicated there were drugs in the vehicle, and a field test kicked back for cocaine. In other words, he was overruled by a dog and the kind of cheap, unreliable chemical kit that police insist on using despite their tendency to produce false positives. Worse, Cashe was kept in jail for another month after follow-up testing showed that the powder contained no drugs whatsoever. “I was profiled. It wasn’t the first time, it just was just the worst of those times,” he said.
6) Art = cannabis
Okay, it’s not just American cops who are assholes about this. French police this summer took the extraordinary step of destroying a giant art installation prepared for the city of Lyon’s first architectural biennial, which was aimed at developing “an urban agroecosystem.” What law enforcement eradicated was a one-acre field of hemp, a plant admittedly much more like cannabis than okra, though neither intoxicating nor illegal, and the exhibition was prematurely shuttered as a result. Give the French some credit for owning their dickishness, though: “According to the police chief, his officers had thought that the plants were hemp, but he asked them to uproot the field anyway to avoid any confusion.” I guess that was preferable to talking to the artists involved.