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