The Victims of Drug Testing’s False Positives

Jacob Sullum of Reason highlights several cases where police relied on faulty suspicions of drug possession to arrest, detain, and convict people. Furthermore, he writes that thousands of people nationwide have potentially faced similar situations.

Highlighting one example, Sullum explains that sheriff’s deputies in Leawood, Kansas, detained the Harte family for more than two hours after mistakenly identifying the loose tea leaves in the family’s trash as marijuana.

Although, as Sullum writes, “these tests are generally not admissible in court,” because approximately 90 percent of drug cases are resolved by plea deals, that means that potentially tens of thousands of people have been convicted and labeled as felons based on very flawed tests.

For example, a Claflin University biotechnologist tested the “KN reagent” drug test that led to police raiding the Harte family’s home. The biotechnologist found that 33 legal plant products tested positive for marijuana under the KN reagent drug test, including “spearmint, peppermint, basil, oregano, patchouli, vanilla, cinnamon leaf, lemon grass, bergamot, lavender, ginseng, anise, gingko, eucalyptus, rose, cloves, ginger,” and others.

In another example, Sullum highlights the story of a police lieutenant in Hillsborough County, Florida, who found that the NARK II field test could yield a positive identification of methamphetamine by merely being exposed to air.

Stories of such false positives are concerning and demonstrate why law enforcement must ensure they are using reliable drug testing methods while being considerate of the great damage that can be done to the victims of such mistakes.

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