8 Things Mistaken for Drugs

By Keri Blakinger 06/29/17

“I don’t know if these cops have been watching ‘Breaking Bad,’ but my client is not Walter White”

silica cat litter with blue scoop
These common items you have laying around could land you in big trouble if the wrong cops find it.

Cheese, Jolly Ranchers, cat litter, baking soda - they might all seem innocuous, but those tame substances are just a few of the things the boys in the blue have mistaken for drugs. Here’s a look at some of the strangest things police have erroneously labelled illicit in misguided drug arrests.

Meow… Oops?

A Texas man was collared for kitty litter after a faulty drug test flagged the substance as meth.

A Harris County sheriff’s deputy pulled over Ross Lebeau in December 2016 after he failed to use a turn signal, according to the Houston Chronicle. Knowing he had no hard drugs on him, Lebeau agreed to let the cop search his car. But when the officer turned up a sock filled with an unidentified substance, the routine traffic stop took an unfortunate turn.

Although two field tests showed the sock contained meth, it was actually cat litter intended to absorb moisture and keep the windshield from fogging up. But police didn’t discover that till much later.

“They thought they had the biggest bust in Harris County,” Lebeau later told ABC affiliate KTRK. “This was the bust of the year for them.”

Lebeau was sent packing to the county jail on a $100,000 bond for possession of 200 grams - nearly half a pound - of meth. The Cypress man was finally let off in January when the case was dismissed from Harris County court.

A Half-Baked Arrest

And the faulty test kit strikes again.

A pair of truck drivers who haul explosives for the military got caught up in a powdery drama after a routine inspection at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

In 2015, authorities were searching Gale Griffin and her husband Wendall Harvey’s big rig when they came across baggies full of a suspicious white powder. They called in the local narcotics unit, who incorrectly identified the substance as blow - 13.2 ounces of it.

“The guy said I had over $300,000 in cocaine,” Griffin later recalled.

But in fact, the baggies were filled with baking soda, which Griffin makes liberal use of during long trips. Of course, when the $2 drug test came back with a false positive, police sent the couple to the local jail, where they spent the next two months proving their innocence.

After losing their jobs and spending half the summer behind bars, the couple was finally released in mid-July when a prosecutor had the alleged drugs re-tested.

A Sprinkled-Covered Mess

It was Cpl. Shelby Riggs-Hopkins’ “11 years of training and experience as a law enforcement officer” that led her to identify a crumb of donut glaze as crack cocaine, according to reports at the time.

The doughy drama kicked off back in December 2015 when the Orlando cop collared 65-year-old Daniel Rushing on a drug charge. During a routine traffic stop, Riggs-Hopkins spotted a speck of glaze on the floor and ID’d it as crack. But after her roadside testing kit dubbed the substance meth, Rushing was arrested - although it turned out that the cop had badly bungled the test process, using the wrong kit and failing to do a second test to confirm.

“At the time, I believed I was using the test properly,” she said later. Eventually, a state crime lab determined the donut glaze was not an illicit drug and prosecutors dropped the charges - but then in October, Rushing filed suit against the city and the Safariland Group, which produces the test kits. Earlier this year, Riggs-Hopkins was given a written reprimand for making a false arrest.

Not-So-Jolly Ranchers

A Brooklyn man carrying apparently suspicious Jolly Ranchers ended up in cuffs after NYPD wrongly identified the sugary candies as something not-so-sweet: crystal meth.

Love Olatunjiojo, 25, was detained for a day after picking up the sweet at a Coney Island candy shop back in 2012. Although a field test identified the “red crystalline rocks of solid material” and “blue crystalline rocks of solid material” as meth, a lab test later showed the colorful shards were just hard candy, not hard drugs.

The following year, Olantunjiojo sued police in federal court.

“I don’t know if these cops have been watching ‘Breaking Bad,’ but my client is not Walter White,” lawyer Kenneth Smith told the New York Daily News at the time.

In the end, Olatunjiojo and two other men caught up in the mistaken collar walked away with a $33,000 payday from a 2014 settlement.

A Marijuana Mishap

Georgia police raided a retiree’s garden in 2014 in search of a motherlode of marijuana. Instead, they found a field of okra.

Easy mix-up.

A helicopter with the Governor’s Task Force for Drug Suppression had spotted the plants from the air and found them suspicious. Minutes after that initial sighting, county deputies with canines in tow showed up at the door.

“They were strapped to the gills,” the terrified homeowner later recalled. The police took a sample of the plants, apologized and left, according to the Washington Post. But they still wouldn’t fully cop to the greenery’s innocuous identity.

“We’ve not been able identify it as of yet,” Georgia State Patrol Capt. Kermit Stokes told WSB-TV at the time. “But it did have quite a number of characteristics that were similar to a cannabis plant.”

To-may-toe, To-mah-toe

In another vegetable-based mistake, cops in Texas raided a supposed pot farm near Fort Worth - only to discover the highly suspect greenery was in fact a tomato garden at a hippie commune.

Back in 2013, the Arlington SWAT team stormed the Garden of Eden farm, in a move the six farm residents later claimed violated their civil rights and unfairly targeted them for code violations.

The lengthy search left the garden in tatters, residents said.

“They came here under the guise that we were doing a drug trafficking, marijuana-growing operation,” the property owner told a local station at the time. “They destroyed everything.”

In the end, police realized there was no pot on the premises and just picked up one man for an outstanding parking ticket.

Two years later, the Garden of Eden filed a federal suit against the city, claiming police never had probable cause to raid the farm based on a flyover and anonymous tips.

Toying with Disaster

A taqueria vending machine in California caused quite a buzz this month when police mistook a 25-cent toy for a bag of cocaine.

A concerned mother called police after her son bought a putty ball that ruptured, seemingly spilling out a stash of cocaine. Police tested the white powder and deemed it blow before confiscating all 136 grams of the stuff from little putty packages inside the Bell Gardens-area vending machine.

But after further investigation and testing, the department later revised their analysis of the treacherous toy and realized the supposedly damning result was nothing but a false positive.

In the end, police said they aren’t quite sure what the powder is. “The specific substance resembles talcum powder or baking soda but has yet to be determined,” the department said in a statement. "We are, however, confident that it is not cocaine nor does it pose a health risk.”

The Terrible Tortilla Drama

Cheese and cocaine would seem to be two very distinct substances. One is full of melty, yellow goodness that makes any food item immeasurably better. The other is a rocky white powder that numbs your face and makes you hallucinate bears in your peripheral vision after three days without sleep. One comes from cows. The other comes from Colombia. One is legal. The other is decidedly not.

But somehow, all those distinctions were lost on the North Carolina police who pulled over Antonio Hernandez Carranza back in 2011.

When Asheville cops collared the California man for failing to heed lights and sirens, at first they thought he was intoxicated. In fact, he’d just misunderstood officers’ signals to pull over so that charge was dropped once he passed a breathalyzer.

But then, police found what they thought was a bigger problem: 91 pounds of an unidentified substance Carranza claimed was a gift for his sister. And initial testing showed it was cocaine.

In fact, it was cheese and tortilla dough. But it took police four days to figure that out. When they finally realized their massive mistake, they sprung the wrongly accused man and offered him $400 for his troubles and lost dough.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.