Law enforcement still depends on a cheap, unreliable drug test to make arrests.
Police once leveled charges on someone for cocaine that turned out just to be bird poop. Another time, for meth that was actually some flakes of donut glaze. Surprisingly, these arrests weren’t just in-the-moment visual mistakes, they’re the result of false positive drug test results.
The problem, according to VICE News, is that the kit is a $2 test that isn’t all that accurate. The charges in these cases were eventually dropped after samples were sent off to state labs for testing—and probably a lot of legal legwork on the parts of the accused. Those who can’t afford to pay bail are forced to stay in jail for weeks, or even months, until their lab tests are returned.
A Baggie Of Powdered Milk Tests Positive As Cocaine
In some cases, people may be forced to plead guilty, as in the case of Cody Gregg. In October, Gregg took a guilty plea just to get out of the notoriously problematic jail he was placed in.
After two months in that jail, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The original charge? Police found a baggie of powdered milk that tested positive as cocaine.
“You cannot indict somebody—put somebody in jail—over something you know has a very high rate of false positives,” said Omar Bagasra, a biology professor at Claflin University. “It’s ignorance.”
Bagasra has done work with the Marijuana Policy Project that found that police rely on a shoddy brand of drug tests that have mistaken patchouli, spearmint, and eucalyptus as marijuana.
Why Continue Using The Tests If They Don’t Work?
So why do police continue to use these demonstrably bad tests? They’re cheap, making them the prime choice of departments across the United States. ProPublica found in 2016 that these tests have been used to justify thousands of arrests. The only upside is that the tests aren’t admissible in court, so police are legally required to get samples lab-tested.
Another reason is that the tests are simple to do in the field, only requiring an arresting officer to drop a sample of a suspected substance, and then chemical capsules, into a bag. The contents of the bag will change color according to the particular drug it detects.
Bagasra believes the chemistry behind the color change is not nearly as precise as cops think it is. The reagents in the capsules can cause a chemical reaction to a wide range of compounds, he explained to VICE. The capsule commonly used to test for cocaine, called cobalt thiocyanate, also turns blue when it comes into contact with Benadryl, drywall, laundry detergent, and whey protein powder.
Not only that, but which colors appear are entirely subjective, especially in the dark of night under the flashing red and blue lights. Risk of contamination from random roadside particles also means the tests aren’t clean.
Police claim they rely on more than just the test to arrest a suspect. Gregg, for example, had a criminal history and was also carrying a scale with the baggie of powdered milk.
“Field testing of possible drugs by officers is a presumptive test only and is simply one part of the totality of the circumstances that can lead an officer to believe that enough probable cause exists to legally effect an arrest,” Capt. Larry Withrow of the Oklahoma City Police Department, which arrested Gregg, told VICE News. “We are reviewing our presumptive test procedures to determine if improvements can be made in this area.”