A couple says police ransacked their house after mistaking hibiscus for marijuana — it’s ridiculous that authorities were called at all AP Photo/Eric Gay
Rain collects on a hibiscus flower during a light rain, Friday, June 7, 2013, in San Antonio. Recent rains in South Texas have been welcomed in an area that has suffered the effects of drought in recent years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

I’ve never been one for houseplants — I only like growing plants I can eat — but this story from Pennsylvania may be enough to put me off them forever.

An older couple named Edward and Audrey Cramer have filed a lawsuit against their local police and Nationwide Insurance after an insurance agent reportedly told the cops their hibiscus plant was marijuana. Per the suit, the police showed up, ransacked their home, decided the flowering plant was indeed pot and arrested both spouses at gunpoint.

Here’s a visual comparison of the two plants a self-proclaimed drug expert police officer reportedly mixed up:

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The leaves are not the same shape, and the giant colorful flowers, familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Hawaiian shirt, are a dead giveaway.

Such details did not prevent the Buffalo Township police from staging an all-out assault on the Cramer household, the lawsuit alleges, as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported:

The police apparently arrived at the Cramers’ home around noon Oct. 7 while Audrey Cramer was on the second floor only partially dressed. When she answered the door, she alleges that about a dozen officers were pointing assault-style rifles at her.

According to the complaint, Sgt. Scott Hess demanded that Cramer put her hands up and told her that he had a search warrant but would not show it to her. Then, “Hess entered the home and went upstairs. Upon returning downstairs, he demanded that [Cramer], a 66-year-old woman, be handcuffed behind her back in a state of partial undress.”

The suit claims Cramer asked if she could put on a pair of pants next to her, and was told “in no uncertain terms” that she could not. She was placed under arrest and read her rights. The complaint alleges that she was walked outside and made to stand — handcuffed, in her underwear and without shoes — for 10 minutes.

Oh, and the warrant the cops wouldn’t let Cramer read contained no authorization for a search inside the home (the hibiscus was growing outside), but police did it anyway, the lawsuit alleges.

I’ve shared the photo comparison of the plants because it is truly ridiculous that they would be confused for one another. But this is not primarily a story of government incompetence. That part is noteworthy, but there are two bigger takeaways here.

First, even if the plant were actually weed, a police response like the one the lawsuit alleges would be utterly disproportionate, unnecessary and unjustified in every sense of the word. Worst case scenario, this is a couple of retirees who are so far from being a criminal menace that they have planted a single pot plant in their yard where anyone could see it.

There is no plausible scenario in which the Cramers were hurting anyone. Their story lands atop the Everest of evidence that the drug war is an absurd and unjust failure that needs to end yesterday.

The other takeaway is about that insurance agent, one Jonathan Yeamans. Whether the Cramers are correct or not in their allegation that he “intentionally photographed the flowering hibiscus plants in such a manner as not to reveal that they had flowers on them so that they would appear to resemble marijuana plants,” what Yeamans allegedly did was not right.

If you encounter someone you believe (and it is hard to credit the idea that anyone could legitimately think the hibiscus was marijuana) has a single pot plant growing in their yard, it is none of your business. Would you have ratted out a neighbor for keeping a bottle of whiskey around during Prohibition?

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This is especially the case if, for example, the person in question is at an age where medical marijuana might be a valuable treatment for chronic pain or cancer — like the elderly woman in Massachusetts who was subjected to a helicopter raid for having one medical marijuana plant in her garden to manage her arthritis, glaucoma and trouble sleeping.

Minding one’s own business is also extra important if the person you encounter is a minority more likely to be subjected to police escalation misconduct like the Cramers say they experienced (or worse).

It’s ridiculous that police may have confused hibiscus for marijuana. It’s even more ridiculous that they were there at all. And until we can get rid of our modern Prohibition, it falls on us to be discrete, responsible and careful to avoid endangering our neighbors’ lives and property because we think they may have the wrong plant.

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