Eight Foods That Cops Have Mistaken for Drugs

Is that crystal meth—or a Jolly Rancher?

Maple syrup, mints, a sunflower, tomatoes, tortillas, Pop-Tarts, okra
Apparent narcotics look-alikes.

Photo illustration by Holly Allen. Photos by Thinkstock.

Being a police officer is hard. Often the job consists of noticing things that don’t seem quite right, or things that aren’t quite what they seem. It stands to reason that every once in a while police officers will think they see something they don’t really see, confusing a harmless object for a harmful one. Sometimes this ends in tragedy, as when innocent items are mistaken for weapons. Other times, however, such mistakes end in something closer to screwball comedy. More often than you might think, police officers believe they’re looking at narcotics when in fact they’re looking at … food.

Herewith, eight controlled substances that turned out to be mere sustenance:

1. In June 2012, two friends were stopped by police in Coney Island, Brooklyn, on the suspicion they possessed crystal meth. According to the New York Daily News, the arresting officer reported that the perps were carrying six “crystalline rocks of solid material,” some blue and some red. When the rocks were tested in an NYPD lab, it was determined they were Jolly Ranchers. The suspects had purchased the treats at a candy store on Surf Avenue minutes before the arrest.

2. In the summer of 2013, police officers in Texas conducted aerial surveillance of a 3½ acre farm near Fort Worth, where they spotted what they thought was marijuana plants growing. Six adults who resided at the farm—a small organic operation called Garden of Eden—were handcuffed by members of a SWAT team. After a 10-hour investigation, they were released when it was determined the supposed marijuana plants were capable of yielding only tomatoes.

3. A 30-year-old in North Carolina was arrested in September for selling crack cocaine to an undercover officer. He didn’t actually have any crack cocaine in his possession, but when he was approached by an officer about a possible sale, he found the next best thing: a corner of a Pop-Tart that he had laying around in his truck, which he crushed up and parted with for $20. The man was charged with creating, then selling a counterfeit controlled substance.

4. A 45-year-old carpet cleaner was on a three-day road trip in May 2011 when he was pulled over by police in North Carolina and asked to explain the mysterious substance in the back of his truck. After conducting a field test using a portable device, officers determined it was cocaine; a follow-up analysis by a state lab, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times, showed that it was 91 pounds of cheese and tortilla dough that the arrestee was transporting to Tennessee as a gift for his sister. The man ended up spending four days in jail. Cheese, it turns out, can contain enzymes that yield false positives when tested for drugs. 

5. A crew of officers from the Georgia State Patrol descended upon a man’s home in October with a helicopter and a drug-sniffing dog in tow, having spotted plants growing near his house that appeared to be marijuana. Upon further inspection the plants were identified as okra. An apology was issued.

6. In April 2013, a 46-year-old man was stopped and frisked by police officers in Brooklyn and asked to explain the “white pellets” in his pocket. He was arrested on suspicion of possessing MDMA and kept in jail for 30 hours, according to the New York Post; the pellets, it turned out, were Pow Energy mints. “All the officers needed to do was smell them,” the accused man’s lawyer told the Post.

7. Officers in Bel Aire, Kansas, searched the home of their four-term former mayor in September 2005 after concluding, based on photographic evidence, that he was growing marijuana in his garden. After searching the home for about an hour, the 10 officers dispatched to the scene came to the realization that the plants in the backyard were sunflowers, which the mayor and his wife had grown from seeds given to them by their wildlife biologist son. Bel Aire’s sitting mayor commissioned a report to figure out what exactly went wrong but defended the actions of his officers, pointing out that the sunflowers—which happen to be Kansas’ official state flower—“weren’t blooming at the time.”

8. Investigators arrived at the home of a southern Illinois family one Wednesday morning in 2013 expecting, based on tips from neighbors, to find a meth lab. Instead they discovered an elaborate system of Walmart buckets and tubes that the family had attached to trees for the purpose of extracting sap for use in maple syrup. According to local reports, officers left the premises with free samples.