US Customs Trouble
December 6, 2004 1:09 PM   Subscribe

A friend of mine had some trouble with US Customs after traveling through Europe. As it turns out, Lush soap may violate US drug laws. Customs evidently took her soap, tested it and showed it contained trace amounts of THC. She was detained for five hours, threatened with imprisonment and fined $500. So my question is thus: Is Lush in anyway liable if they are putting marijuana in their products without proper labeling? Is there anyway to appeal or contest the US Customs fine? Has anyone had a similar experience?

I should add that the bar of soap in question was originally purchased in Germany around two years ago. I should also clarify that the soap is actually some kind of shampoo bar. She has used the shampoo bar when traveling because it's compact and hassel free. She's taken the soap across the border three or four times and this is the first time anyone bothered her about it.
posted by elwoodwiles to Law & Government (26 answers total)
Whoa! I was in a Lush store yesterday looking to buy soap. I guess I won't travel with any of it.
posted by mathowie at 1:16 PM on December 6, 2004

Hmm, interesting. To contest this, I guess you'd have to know what they meant by 'trace amounts of THC.' How *much* was the trace? Was it *in* the or *on* the soap? Could it have gotten onto the soap from somewhere else (e.g. someone handling marijuana, then handling the soap, or the wash bag)? Note that they found THC, not hemp-in-general, which has a low THC content; and if it was on the soap in general, they may have extrapolated (perhaps unfairly) to 'possession.'

To begin with, I'd write to Lush ASAP and figure out what is actually in the soap in question.
posted by carter at 1:28 PM on December 6, 2004

Was she actually fined $500, or just threatened? That seems absurd for trace amounts embedded in soap.

Just went and googled around a bit, and saw this page, which links this policy of criminalizing products with even a trace of THC back to the Clinton administration. Yet another example of ideology getting in the way of common sense ("Sure, I'm high as a kite -- of course, I had to eat 28 bars of soap to get there").
posted by pardonyou? at 1:30 PM on December 6, 2004

It also strikes me that customs is aware that some soaps contain trace amounts of THC, so this gives them an opportunity to obtain easy fines from unsuspecting travelers.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:32 PM on December 6, 2004

See also, suggesting that the DEA might recognize THC-containing soap as an exemption to the "trace" rule. Bizarre.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:34 PM on December 6, 2004

seriously: how do you smoke soap?
posted by matteo at 1:37 PM on December 6, 2004

Contact your congress people and see if they could help her.
and if that fails send an email to Harry Shearer ,( is perfect for "tales of airport security" a feature on Le Show.
posted by hortense at 2:01 PM on December 6, 2004

Which soap was it? Also, which airport detained her? Has she contacted Lush?
posted by astruc at 2:08 PM on December 6, 2004

Time to rinse out my filthy mouth the 3 whole bars of soap I have from Lush then :D Me wonders if I can cut it up and deal some for some extra christmas cash....he he

Seems pretty harsh for what is essentially a trace element of THC and of all things - in soap! Contact Lush to see what they have to say for themselves, because surely they should be labeling this kind of thing as a warning on the ingredients before someone else gets threatened with imprisonment.
posted by floanna at 3:23 PM on December 6, 2004

Response by poster: pardonyou?
She was fined $500. They told her that they could arrest her if she didn't accept the fine. If she doesn't pay in 30 days she could be fined up to $5000 and do some time in prison. Further, she was told that if she paid the fine, this incident wouldn't appear on her criminal record. Sounds like a shake-down, no?

I'm not sure which soap. She said it was a "bar of shampoo" sold by Lush. I'll try to figure out which specific soap it was.

She was detained at SeaTac.

And she has not yet contacted Lush.
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:32 PM on December 6, 2004

Response by poster: I just talked to her on the phone. The soap in question was the Karma shampoo. Its ingredients look innocuous enough:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Cocamide DEA, Perfume, Patchouli Oil (Pogostemon cablin), Orange Oil (Citrus dulcis), Lavendin Oil (Lavendula hybrida), Pine Oil (Pinus), Lemongrass Oil (Cymbopogan flexuosus), Elemi Oil (Canarium commune), Gardenia Extract (Gardenia jasminoides), Colour 42045, Roman Chamomile Flower (Anthemis nobilis).
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:49 PM on December 6, 2004

This is something would consider contacting a lawyer about. $500 is a pretty fair chunk of change. I don't know the legal ins and outs, but it [i]seems reasonable to me[/i] that if she can get a statement from the company saying "we do not put this stuff in our soap, and there was no way for her to have known where it came from," I think she could have a pretty good case. It's worth giving a lawyer a call about anyways. Do [i]not[/i] try to contest it without a lawyer, though.
posted by kavasa at 3:56 PM on December 6, 2004

....hello, my name is kavasa and I post on boards more than I do here.
posted by kavasa at 3:59 PM on December 6, 2004

Maybe you should post this question to the forums on the Lush site...
posted by sad_otter at 4:00 PM on December 6, 2004

Probably OT: Back in the day, I heard tell that some people would smuggle small amounts of weed or hash by halving a cake of soap, hollowing it out, stashing the contraband inside and resealing the soap cake. The idea was that the dogs couldn't smell it inside there.
I'm assuming your friend didn't do this and then forget about it though.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:37 PM on December 6, 2004

I would actually recommend contacting Lush Germany directly, as those are the North American forums linked above, and they are wholly separate from Lush UK/EU.
posted by astruc at 5:54 PM on December 6, 2004

If "your friend" wanted to appeal this, she would have quite a few avenues to explore:

1. How was trace THC detected? An electron mass spectrometer or some such device? Similiar to a radar guns, the operator and the machine most likely need to be regularly tested and re-certified. False positives could result from sloppy procedure or misundertanding the margin of error, so a re-test should be requested.

2. The accused has a right to be presented with the evidence against them. Can the INS still find the soap 2 months from now? Will the INS officer that stopped her show up at court?

3. Could she reasonably be expected to know her soap contained traces of contraband?

All that said, I might be tempted to call the $500 the price of returning to an increasingly totalitarian country. The INS seems to believe they answers to absolutely no one. And the last thing your friend wants is to be on the blacklist everytime she passes through Customs. That's no fun.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 6:12 PM on December 6, 2004

[Looks like I was wrong, and from pardonyou?'s links above, that they can theoretically bust you for the minute THC content in the hemp oil in soap. As people have said, how bizarre.]
posted by carter at 7:17 PM on December 6, 2004

"She was fined $500. They told her that they could arrest her if she didn't accept the fine. If she doesn't pay in 30 days she could be fined up to $5000 and do some time in prison. Further, she was told that if she paid the fine, this incident wouldn't appear on her criminal record."

This is all boilerplate LE speech. If a cop pulls you over for speeding and you refuse to take the ticket he can arrest you. If you refuse to pay or contest the ticket then you haven't paid your fine and you're in violation of that. All this has nothing to do with the soap, just the fact that they ticketed her.
posted by raaka at 10:24 PM on December 6, 2004

She was fined $500. They told her that they could arrest her if she didn't accept the fine. If she doesn't pay in 30 days she could be fined up to $5000 and do some time in prison. Further, she was told that if she paid the fine, this incident wouldn't appear on her criminal record. Sounds like a shake-down, no?

IANAL and have no idea of ICE practices, but this sounds way hinky to me, especially the part about it not appearing on her record. If it were me, I'd document everything as completely as possible, then call a lawyer.
posted by Vidiot at 10:29 PM on December 6, 2004

What is truly weird is you can buy the same soap on the Lush American website. I'd say if the friend can go back to the airport it is worth trying to contest the fine.
posted by aspo at 1:09 AM on December 7, 2004

Response by poster: Maybe a dead thread, but I talked to a lawyer friend and it turns out that a customs violation (up to a certain point) is a civil penalty and then doesn't appear on one's criminal record. There still records of the incident and fine.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:06 PM on December 7, 2004

Full disclosure: I work on LUSH North America's discussion boards. There is no THC in any of LUSH's products. Hemp Oil was used in two massage items-- the Party On Bomb and the Absolution massage bar. LUSH absolutely does NOT use marijuana in any of its products.

For LUSH to be held liable in any way shape or form, one would have to establish that any trace amounts of THC arose from the original manufacturer and production of the goods as opposed to tampering by third parties following the purchase and transport of these products. LUSH Soap or any soap for that matter will adhere to other materials and vice-versa. If the soap were to come into contact with a foreign substance during the personal transport of that soap, it is possible that the soap would take on some of the characteristics of that foreign substance.

Is it possible that the container (luggage, bag, packsack, etc..) that contained the soap may have also been used, perhaps, unwittingly to carry other goods-- one of those containing THC?
posted by astruc at 2:20 PM on December 7, 2004

Response by poster: I don't think anyone is thinking of holding Lush (LUSH?) liable, we're just trying to figure out what happened and what can be done about it. I doubt that Lush would knowingly put weed in their soap. I just wonder if some of the herbs, flowers and what not might cause a false positive. If so I'd think Lush would want to know about that. I did email them, here is the response:

We ship in and out of the US on an ongoing basis, we have never had this type of problem, however we do claim what is in the packages crossing the border such as, bath products . Our soaps and shampoos do have ingredients using plant life and other herbs not marijuana being one of them, although this type of problem should have not occurred, this is unstoppable with Customs as they are on high alert on terrorism and will fine or search whomever they please.

 We do apologize once again for the inconvenience,

 Lush Mail Order North America

Astruc said:Is it possible that the container (luggage, bag, packsack, etc..) that contained the soap may have also been used, perhaps, unwittingly to carry other goods-- one of those containing THC?

Possible, but unlikely. Customs would have found multiple things with THC if this had been so. The issue of where the THC came from is a matrix of the origins and ingredients in the soap and the spot test used.

But really, this is starting to feel derailed, as the issue is how to deal with customs.
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:10 PM on December 7, 2004

I'd just hate to scare away Lush lovers, thinking that they're going to get arrested because of some mystery ingredient in our soap. Hence my contributions to the thread.

What a miserable situation, anyway.
posted by astruc at 4:04 PM on December 7, 2004

Nice to see our tax money is being used wisely to help prevent terrorists from entering the Country!
As a practical matter, your friend may not have legal recourse (at least not without going through A LOT more hassle than $500 is worth.) However, what I'd suggest is she take her story to the Seattle media: newspapers, TV stations, alt.weeklies, etc. I imagine they would jump all over it, the media tends to love "outrageous public servant" stories, especially with a local bent ("this happened at YOUR local airport.") The bad publicity and embarrassment could be effective in:
1) having the fine dropped by Customs, and
2) maybe, just maybe, shake things up a bit at the agency enough that they re-examine their policies about hassling people over stupid things like this.

I've travelled in parts of the Middle East where hash is more common and easy to find than beer. I've bought jewelry and crafts from stalls in markets which probably also sold hash. It's scary to think I could be detained because some seller in a Turkish Medina happened to touch a piece of hash before he sold me a bracelet!
posted by sixdifferentways at 12:35 PM on December 8, 2004

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