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Has the Most Common Marijuana Test Resulted in Tens of Thousands of Wrongful Convictions?

More than 800,000 people are arrested on marijuana charges each year in the United States, many on the basis of an error-prone test.
 
 
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Raised in Montana and a resident of Alaska for 18 years, Robin Rae Brown, 48, always made time to explore in the wilderness. On March 20, 2009, she parked her pickup truck outside Weston, Florida, and hiked off the beaten path along a remote canal and into the woods to bird watch and commune with nature. “I saw a bobcat and an osprey,” she recalls. “I stopped once in a nice spot beneath a tree, sat down and gave prayers of thanksgiving to God.” For that purpose, Robin had packed a clay bowl and a “smudge stick,” a stalk-like bundle of sage, sweet grass, and lavender that she had bought at an airport gift shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Under the tree, she lit the end of the smudge stick and nestled it inside the bowl. She waved the smoke up toward her heart and over her head and prayed. Spiritual people from many cultures, including Native Americans, consider smoke to be sacred, she told me, and believe that it can carry their prayers to the heavens.

As darkness approached, she returned to her pickup truck to find Broward County’s Deputy Sheriff Dominic Raimondi and Florida Fish and Wildlife’s Lieutenant David Bingham looking inside the cab. The two men asked what she was doing and when she said she had been bird watching, Bingham asked whether she had binoculars. As she opened her knapsack, Officer Raimondi spotted her incense and asked if he could see it. He took the bowl and incense, asking whether it was marijuana. “No,” she recalls saying. “It’s my smudge, which is a blend of sage, sweet grass, and lavender.” “Smells like marijuana to me,” said Raimondi, who admitted he had never heard of a smudge stick. He then ordered Robin to stand by her truck, while he took the incense back to his car and conducted a common field test, known as a Duquenois-Levine, or D-L, test. The result was positive for marijuana.

Robin protested, telling them the smudge was available for purchase online for about $7 and gave them the name of a Web site that sold it — information Officer Bingham used his laptop to verify. But the men still searched her truck. After an hour and a half they finally allowed Robin to go home and told her that if a lab test confirmed the field test results, a warrant would be issued for her arrest.

Exactly 90 days later, Robin was arrested at the spa in Weston, Florida where she has worked as a massage therapist for three years. She was handcuffed in front of clients and co-workers, and charged with felony possession of marijuana. She was brought to a local police precinct in the town of Davie where she was booked and held for three hours. Unable to post the $1,000 bail because she was not allowed to call her boyfriend Michael, she was transferred to the Women’s Correctional Facility in Pompano Beach. At no time was she read her rights.

Five hours after her arrest, she was finally allowed a brief phone call and left a message for Michael to post her bail. At the jail, a female officer came in and told Robin to take off all her clothes. She had already been searched at the precinct station and had her shoes, socks and bra confiscated. “I’m on my period,” she said. “I don’t care,” said the officer, who ordered her to pull her underwear down to her ankles, squat over the floor drain and cough. The following morning at 4:30 a.m. she was released onto the streets of Pompano Beach with no idea where she was.

The next day, Robin found a lab and submitted to voluntary hair and urine tests. These came back clean. She had previously worked for 16 years as a transportation systems specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration, a job that required airport security clearances, so drug tests were nothing new to her. During those years, she was frequently required to pass random drug and alcohol tests.