Friday, October 3, 2014

Five plants that look like Marijuana: a helpful visual guide for law enforcement and the curious

Back when I lived in Tennessee, I attempted to grow cassava plants indoors over the winter with the help of some grow lights. They were sitting on a nice window seat by one of the front windows of my house. I kept the curtains drawn to help keep in some of the heat.

One night after setting them up I went for a walk and looked at my house from the road.

I suddenly noticed the window: the grow light behind the cassava silhouetted the leaves against the curtain and I was shocked. It totally looked like I was growing pot.

I went inside and rapidly moved them to another location. The last thing I wanted was for my neighbors or the local police to think I was doing something illegal!

Seriously - it was a hilariously incriminating tableau, if harmless. Cassava don't look much like marijuana up close, but they do have a similar leaf shape. With a light shining through them and out into the dark front yard, it looked like Cheech and Chong's house.

Here's my take on the laws regarding marijuana and how I treat them.

Romans 13:1-7 reads:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

As much as we may not like the rules sometimes, those of us who hold the Bible as true will submit to it - and to those in authority, providing they're not commanding us to do evil.

I've always avoided breaking the law. Heck, I rarely even exceed the speed limit, let alone grow drugs. I'm also not a fan of the drug culture and all the evil that attends it. I grew up in the church and saw a lot of folks with broken lives who left behind all manner of substance abuse... or fell back into it later on in their lives.

That said, there are plenty of plants - like cassava - that can sometimes be confused with marijuana by folks that aren't that good at taxonomy. I thought it might be helpful for me to do a post containing some of the various plants that grow in Florida that you might see in landscapes, food forests and butterfly gardens which have a cursory resemblance to Cannabis sativa.

Here's what Marijuana looks like:

Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Actually, the only time I've ever seen marijuana growing was when we rented a house down in South Florida. Apparently someone had dropped seeds in the side yard because there was a sickly little plant there. The landlord pointed it out to us when we were inspecting the house for the first time, laughed, cracked a joke, then removed it.

So... let's take a look at the look-alikes

Plants With Leaves That Look Like Pot

1. Coral Plant

Latin name: Jatropha mutifida

This attractive flowering plant in the spurge family has leaves that look like marijuana; however, the milky latex, bright blooms and fleshy stems rapidly rule it out. Before flowering it could perhaps be mistaken for pot; afterwards, there's no way.

2. Cranberry Hibiscus

Latin name: Hibiscus acetosella

This tasty-leafed member of the hibiscus family is often planted as an ornamental in Florida. It's a perennial shrub with pink blooms that have burgundy throats.

If you were colorblind you might get worried about this one; otherwise, the red leaves should convince you that your potential criminal is just a plant enthusiast, not a drug dealer.

If the suspect has a tattoo of Bob Marley beneath a glowing mushroom, however, all bets are off.

3. Rose Mallow/Scarlet Hibiscus

Latin Name: Hibiscus coccineus 

I have a police officer friend who informed me that this particular native Florida plant has gotten more than one officer a bit... excited... over someone's garden.

The leaves on it do indeed resemble marijuana. When it's not blooming, I can see how it could be confused with Cannabis, though my police officer friend told me that marijuana plants have a particular smell that stands out when the leaves are crushed. Hibiscus don't really smell like anything.

4. Cassava

Latin name: Manihot escuelenta

I don't really think cassava looks like marijuana, though people do joke about it when they visit my place. Cassava is a tropical root crop with tall stems that just look... well... tropical! The only real resemblance it has to marijuana is the palmate leaves. The giveaway, other than the growth habit, is the fact that marijuana leaves have toothed edges and cassava does not.

5. Kenaf

Latin name: Hibiscus cannabinus

Now this plant looks like marijuana before it blooms.

I once got some kenaf seeds from the USDA and planted them in my garden. I was hoping they'd be a good source of fast-growing biomass for my food forest chop-and-drop; however, when they came up they really, really, really looked like pot. As they grew, they just got worse.

I was starting to worry that I'd get raided or that a Predator drone would come firebomb my garden so I pulled them up and threw them in the compost pile. The police have mistaken these plants before - and not had to pay for the damage they caused with their mistaken raid - so I figure they're just too close-looking to be worth growing. I like my peace and quiet - they can go after that guy with the tattoo instead.

To tell kenaf apart from marijuana is easy when the plant blooms. Otherwise, you'll need to smell it or do a lab test for THC. It's too bad it looks like something illegal, since kenaf is a great biomass crop.

Can you think of a plant I missed? Let me know in the comments. 

(If you're in law enforcement, I'd particularly love to hear your stories and any more ways to identify marijuana and its lookalikes - thanks for stopping by.)


At October 3, 2014 at 10:19 AM , Blogger jean said...

I couldn't help but be amused by this post. I can just see the alarm on your face when you looked into your window. The information for us who are ignorant of the look-alike plants (and the real one) is great.

At October 3, 2014 at 3:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Mexican Chaste Trees" on my college campus lead to numerous double takes.

I figured it was some non-THC containing legal hemp relative, until I tracked down one with an ID tag.

At October 3, 2014 at 3:20 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

Chaste Tree is a good one for me to add - I have one of those growing in my yard for the bees and butterflies. It's a hormone balancer for women... I think students might be disappointed if they smoked it. Or perhaps more balanced.

At October 3, 2014 at 3:23 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

Funny story: my little sister once bought a pair of earrings for my mom as a gift. The earrings were little gold marijuana leaves. Neither of them knew that's what they were... my sister had just thought they were a pretty leaf design.

I had to tell them. "Uh... sis... those aren't just pretty leaves!"

In retrospect, it would have been really funny if I just let mom wear them to church without telling her. My dad was the pastor at that point. Hee.

At October 3, 2014 at 5:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew Sunn Hemp (Crotolaria Juncea) as a cover crop in my front yard this summer and got quite a few people asking me what it was. I told them it was sunn hemp, and upon hearing the word "hemp" some of them gave me the most priceless facial expressions before walking away!

At October 3, 2014 at 5:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget okra! Hear about the recent episode in the news?

At October 3, 2014 at 5:54 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

I'll bet.

At October 3, 2014 at 5:54 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

No - I missed that one! I can imagine.

At December 9, 2014 at 4:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh another thumper; submission to the rules is your specialty I take it? It would be a shame if anyone thought you were doing something illegal! Your image!!

First of all, it is Cannabis leaves you are referring to. The picture you provided is of a male plant-- it does not produce the beautiful flowers ('colas' or 'buds') that a female plant would. No other plant on the planet is as magnificent and beautiful as a mature, flowering female Cannabis plant.

At December 9, 2014 at 6:31 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

"It would be a shame if anyone thought you were doing something illegal! Your image!!"

My image isn't that important. Prison sentences are. I'm not interested in that, Anonymous Internet Person. Actually, I'm for complete legalization. Until that happens, however, I'll avoid getting myself put in the clink when there's a million other plants I can grow without breaking the law.

"No other plant on the planet is as magnificent and beautiful as a mature, flowering female Cannabis plant."

Sure, I'll bet. And I'll bet MarleyFest is the height of musical events.

At April 4, 2015 at 5:09 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

I think your caps lock key is broken. It's usually on the left side of the keyboard, below "tab."

At April 4, 2015 at 5:10 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

Did you miss where I said I was in favor of complete legalization? We may be bound to obey the law except where it commands us to act immorally... but we're not bound to think it's great.

At May 12, 2015 at 2:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could tell you a funny experience about not marijuana plants, but seeing as I am from the Netherlands I don't have any. However, my step-dad has a really big bag of crushed marijuana underneath his reading chair and I thought that was pretty funny the first time I heard about it.
Thank you for this article, by the way, it was really helpful for my (cop-themed) fanfiction!!

At May 26, 2015 at 11:23 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

The legalization of marijuana can open up the possibility to regulate it. That regulation implies the opportunity to tax the drug, and it also makes law enforcement easier. If Anybody find business opportunities and jobs on the medical and recreational marijuana industries please Visit here marijuana opportunities.

At June 9, 2015 at 10:58 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I'm in Alabama we have plants growing they smell like home grown weed they have hairs on stalk and are sticky to the touch they favor weed but not quite I know they are not but I'm stumped as far as what they are they are only in front of porch what might they be your cassava favored it but only the spot in middle of leaves at the base they are jagged but pretty much shape and look the same

At June 12, 2015 at 9:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice site you have here - I came across your site because I was curious as to what some wild-growing plants at a park near my house were. They very much look like marijuana and from other web searches, it appears the only way to differentiate between it and hemp is to analyze the THC content in a lab or home test (something I was willing to do 25-30 years ago, but not anymore - note: I'm not against the legalization, I just don't have the desire to use it myself), but I digress. Anyway, given the history of the park - there used to be low-level dealers until a Pot bust ended it, I guess the plants are from 'renegade' seeds that took root.
Sam in MN

At March 21, 2020 at 1:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cleome is sometimes mistaken for pot.


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