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Botany expert: Hibiscus and marijuana leaves are similar but flowers are not

November 18, 2017 GMT

Judging by the leaves alone, confusing hibiscus for marijuana would be an easy mistake for someone to make.

That’s according to Bonnie Isaac, manager of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Botany Collection, who said the leaf structure of the two plants is very similar.

The question about the differences and similarities between hibiscus and marijuana plants became particularly important to a Buffalo Township couple in October, when police mistook the flowering hibiscus in their yard for marijuana.

Edward and Audrey Cramer, both in their late 60s, were placed under arrest Oct. 7 after police were notified by an Nationwide insurance agent of a suspected marijuana grow operation on their property.

The Cramers were later released without being charged, as police found no marijuana on their property.

As a result of their encounter with police, the Cramers have filed a civil suit in Butler County Court against Buffalo Township and three of its police officers, as well as Nationwide Insurance and one of its agents.

That insurance agent, identified in a civil suit filed by the Cramers as Jonathan Yeamans, allegedly took pictures of the Cramers’ hibiscus plants so “as not to reveal that they had flowers on them so that they would appear to resemble marijuana plants,” according to the suit.

Isaac said that with the flowers in bloom, there would be no way for a reasonable person to mistake hibiscus for marijuana.

“The hibiscus flowers are large, and brightly colored, compared to the small nothings that grown on marijuana plants,” she said.

Still, Isaac said a quick glance at just the leaves could lead to a mistake.

“The leaves are really similar; with a quick glance it would be hard to tell them apart,” she said.

Sgt. Scott Hess, who the suit alleges is a self-proclaimed marijuana expert, at first told Audrey Cramer that her husband had been lying to her about the hibiscus, and that it was marijuana.

The plants in question were confiscated from the Cramers and labeled as “tall, green, leafy, suspected marijuana plants,” but not until after, the suit says, Hess had admitted that the plants probably were not marijuana.

Buffalo Township Solicitor Larry Lutz said that neither he nor any member of the townships government could comment on the case ahead of pending litigation.

David Gilligan, a spokesman for Nationwide, said in an email, “We can’t respond to the situation because it is now in litigation. We would refer you to local law enforcement regarding its response to the situation.”

According to Cpl. Adam Reed, a state police spokesman, some police officers are trained as drug recognition experts, but that training centers on being able to tell when suspects are under the influence of drugs, not the identification of drugs “on the front end.”

Matthew Medsger is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4675, mmedsger@tribweb.com, via Twitter @matthew_medsger.