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You Could Be Arrested For your Organic Soap
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
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
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
"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
Then, on Sept. 11, they were expecting to drive across the border in Lewiston,
N.Y., on their way to natural health festival. The couple hired a lawyer to go
with them just in case they were stopped again.
It did no good.
Officers searched their bags, and ran drug tests on their food and toiletries.
The chocolate again came up positive for drugs, as did a bottle of tea tree oil,
a natural antiseptic and antifungal.
Officers arrested Obadia, and he is now home waiting for lab results that he
says will exonerate him again. The first time he was arrested, "I was so naive,"
he says. "I thought somebody must have planted drugs in our bag. We didn't know
the tests could be faulty."
So far, the couple's legal bills have topped $20,000, covered in part by
Customs spokesman Lloyd Easterling declined to comment about the case or the use
of the kits.
Others who have been wrongly accused:
• Cornelius Salonis of Shakopee, Minn., who spent two months in jail after
police stopped him in August for driving drunk and tested deodorant in his car
that registered positive for cocaine.
Mankato, Minn., public defender Richard Hillesheim says Salonis admitted to the
drunken-driving charge "but he was scared witless about this drug charge that
came out of left field." Lab tests ultimately showed there was no cocaine.
• Punk rocker Don Bolles, who spent three days in jail in Newport Beach, Calif.,
in 2007 after his Dr. Bronner's soap tested positive for GHB. The charges were
dropped when lab tests found no drugs.
Government officials say there are no records on the number of people who have
been wrongly arrested because of the tests. Garrison Courtney of the Drug
Enforcement Agency says the test kits are "not perfect but they give you a
pretty good idea" whether a suspicious substance is an illegal drug.
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."
This is real scary! Something has got to be done!