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Are police drug tests reliable?

Despite all the talk about legalizing recreational and medicinal marijuana usage across the country, the war on drugs is still in full effect. States like Colorado, Washington and now California have deregulated that particular drug on the state level, but it remains a federal crime to possess or distribute it. It's not just marijuana that's in frequent use, though. Other drugs like heroin and methamphetamines are seeing frequent arrests across the country and in Louisiana.

A drug charge is serious. It leads to jail time, seized property and a criminal record. The cost is significant: personally and professionally.

While being arrested for possession of drugs is scary, it's only the first step of the legal process. Many times the arrest does not lead to a criminal charge. Constitutional rights protect from invalid searches and sometimes there are basic mistakes. You may not have even had drugs in the first place.

Faulty drug tests

We've all seen the plastic baggies with an unidentified substance on TV. While it may look similar to an illegal drug, you can bet that the TV show isn't really using cocaine as a prop. A baggie can have any powder or plant matter. It's the same for you -- and police testing needs to be able to tell the difference between baking soda and cocaine.

Unfortunately, the commonly used NIK test is imperfect. In an Arkansas earlier this year, a truck driving couple was carrying baking soda, which they buy in bulk and transport in smaller unmarked bags. It didn't just look like cocaine, it tested positive by the police, which sent them to jail for two months before the original test was overturned in the true crime lab. The NIK test is cheap and flawed: one study found 21 percent of positive meth tests are false positives. Those are one-in-five odds.

Drug charges

The federal government has five classifications of illegal drugs, each with serious punishments that go beyond serving time. A criminal record haunts your career, housing and even voting rights long after an arrest. For the Arkansas couple, the charges were dismissed in the end, but not until their business was interrupted and their reputations damaged.

There are many defenses against a drug charge. Police don't always read Miranda rights, searches and seizures don't always follow Constitutional civil liberties and, sometimes, mistakes lead to an improbable arrest.

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