Feel like a little nip of organic chocolate while you're heading to the Big Apple, Chicago or San Fran? Careful now. If you're crossing the border with a fair trade sweet, you may get busted for drugs.
That's what happened to Nadine Artemis and Ron Obadia, owners of Haliburton-?based alternative health company Living Libations. Sure, the New York State Police dropped charges of trafficking a controlled substance late last month - thousands in lawyer's fees later.
The culprit? Narcotics identification kits (NIKs), hyper monitoring mechanisms ready to blow the whistle on your tea tree oil or natural toiletries.
The story starts in August 2008, when the two raw foodists were stopped at Pearson Airport carrying their own brand of organic chocolate made of unrefined cacao, maca root, hemp seeds and goji berries. When Canadian Border Services applied a NIK test, their sweet treat registered positive for hash, and Obadia was told he would be charged at a future court appearance.
The test, which takes a few seconds, involves a liquid interacting with the substance in a vial. If it turns any shade of purple, arrest.
Not surprisingly, the more complicated follow-up test by the feds a few weeks later came back negative, and the two were exonerated.
Fast-forward one month and those sketchy NIK tests nabbed them again, this time in Lewiston, New York. On September 11, the chocolate they were carting over the border to one of their clients tested positive - as did a bottle of tea tree oil and a natural disinfectant. "The FBI agent had never heard of tea tree oil, so it was comical and frustrating at the same time," Obadia says.
Again, subsequent tests sometime later by the New York state lab revealed no drugs in their organic products. But legal fees are still weighing down the couple, who owe more than $20,000, and their time spent in court has affected their business, which sells to Noah's Natural Foods, Live Food Bar and the Big Carrot among others.
"Imagine all the other organic companies investing money in their product line," Obadia says, "and now the RCMP and customs can arrest you for tests that give false positives."
Are Canadian authorities relying on a useless test destined to snarl organic consumers and producers in its trap? RCMP spokesperson Marc LaPorte doesn't think so.
"In practice, these field tests are most often used at airports," says Laporte. "Officers never rely solely on these results. They gather their grounds on the totality of the evidence. The evidence relied on in court is the Certificate of Analysis from the Health Canada lab."
Yes, but the follow-up test happens quite a bit later, after hapless victims have already hired a lawyer.
At Forensic Source (formerly Armor Holdings), the Jacksonville, Florida, company that manufactures NIKs used by governments on both sides of the border, rep Mark Berman defends the product as "the benchmark for presumptive drug testing nationally and internationally."
But Obadia says he tried out a NIK he bought online, assessing not only his chocolate but more commercial brands. All tested positive for illicit drugs, he says.
He's not the only one in the alternative health field quarrelling with NIKs. Mike Adams, editor of Arizona-?based NaturalNews.com and a consumer health advocate, found two nutritional powders came up positive for marijuana. "With these tests, anyone can find anything they want in the results," he tells NOW.
And the U.S. Organic Consumers Association has been watching the situation with alarm. According to Ronnie Cummins, the national director, his group tested herbs and even they tested positive. "This whole thing isn't just incompetence. It's terrible,'' he says. "People are in jail because of this worthless test."
The Living Libations duo are supporting a study probing drug tests, funded by the Marijuana Policy Project and Escondido, California-?based Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. Police in Newport Beach arrested punk musician Don Bolles in 2007 when a test made by Armour of his Dr. Bronner's peppermint castile soap tested positive for date rape drug GHB.
According to Dr. Bronner's Adam Eidinger, "The NIK's false positive rate is about 10 per cent. This is an estimate from the hundreds of times I've experimented. Our strategy is to raise awareness so politicians will tell law enforcement agencies they can't use these tests."