'Operation Oregano': police sell fake weed to fight drug trafficking

In 1981, the District of Columbia in the US broke its own record: 86 citizens died from heroin overdoses. To combat the growing drug problem, the city's police launched an all-out crackdown on the narcotics market. A new task force christened under the mantra of "anything goes" was given the green light to disrupt the drug trade throughout Washington D.C., including arrests of more than 200 suspected dealers, the use of video cameras and tanker trucks to intimidate and disrupt buyers and sellers on the street... and even an undercover officer disguised as the Schlitz beer mascot (he was a bull, by the way) to make surprise arrests.

But one of the police methods of disrupting marijuana sales was not intended to arrest anyone. In an idea that was at the very least bizarre, undercover officers posed as dealers in the city's most reputable weed area. Dubbed 'Operation Oregano Scam', the aim was to sell fake ganja to unsuspecting customers, giving the area a 'bad name' that, they thought, would scare off potential buyers.

So, in September 1981, undercover police took over the area and began selling bags of oregano to customers visiting the area in the hope of scoring some weed. Plainclothes officers set up on a street corner selling fake marijuana for days, handing out oregano in $5 packets to gullible buyers.... without making any arrests.

“It discourages people from coming to the area... We have some pretty resourceful officers who make things up. I support them as long as what they do is not illegal”.
– D.C. Police Chief, Maurice T. Turner, 1981, on 'Operation Oregano'

"Dude, give me my money back"

As reported by The Washington Post in a hilarious account of the operation, four officers dressed in suitably casual street clothes were stationed at the intersection of Chapin and 15th Street, adjacent to Meridian Hill Park. Several regular street dealers, who recognised the four as police when they arrived in a camouflaged patrol car, retreated, surrendering their habitual selling spot.

Packets of oregano sold by D.C. police under Operation Oregano Scam on Chapin Street in 1981.
Packets of oregano sold by D.C. police under Operation Oregano Scam on Chapin Street in 1981

Over the next few hours, a steady procession of cars drove slowly past the four men eagerly shaking their right hands, holding small brown packets, stopping long enough for their occupants to make a quick barter of what appeared to be the standard $5 packets of marijuana then in vogue. Many would return minutes later, angry to discover they had been cheated, but powerless to do anything about it. Most of the dissatisfied customers left after brief conversations with the cop-camels, some screeching the wheels of their cars and shouting curses.

But, as the Washington Post chronicles, there were some who took it even harder.

"One man in a light-coloured Cutlass Supreme was more unhappy than most. Moments after buying his "baggie of marijuana," he quickly backed his car a block into one-way traffic on 15th Street, pulling up alongside suspected dealers. Jumping out of his car, he shouted that he wanted his money back."

Officer Elliott Carter recalled the conversation this way:

- Buyer: "I want you to give me my money back".

- Carter: "No money back, man".

- Buyer: "Give my money back!"

- Carter: "We can't. We're the Police, man".

- Buyer: "I don't care. I want you to give me my money back".

The four officers then gathered around the man. One of them showed him his police badge, which the man inspected carefully. When he did not seem convinced, two back-up officers in a nearby truck arrived from across the street and persuaded the man to go back the way he had come.

- Buyer: "It's not fair. It's just not fair".

Rick and Jamie' from the D.C. Metropolitan Police's 4th Precinct Vice Unit, 1988. (Any resemblance to a character from 'The Wire' is purely coincidental).
Rick and Jamie' from the D.C. Metropolitan Police's 4th Precinct Vice Unit, 1988. (Any resemblance to a character from 'The Wire' is purely coincidental)

A handmade recipe worthy of your worst enemy

The fake weed was made from a recipe devised by officer John Eisel. "First I went to a supermarket and bought all the herbs that looked good," Eisel said. "I spent about $50 on oregano, tea leaves, parsley and celery flakes. We mixed it in a big box, but it didn't look good, so we added a little mud. Then we decided the oregano was too strong, so we added some vanilla extract. Then it smelled like vanilla. Then we added some birdseed and mixed it all up again. We packed about 300 doses.

So authentic was their ruse that two of the four police "pushers" were almost arrested by two U.S. Park Police officers driving by. The park officers, who normally help patrol the vicinity of Meridian Hill Park, jumped out of their patrol car, pinned the two plainclothes officers against a brick wall and held them briefly until the undercover officers could identify themselves.

The operation did little, if anything, to combat the drug crisis that was banging at the doors of police stations. However, far from being rendered ineffective, history repeated itself in 2010, when Washington D.C. police again used the aromatic herb in one of their marijuana scam schemes... but this time to take down a weed home-delivery service.

‘Operation Oregano with Cilantro’ (2010)

To bust a local delivery service called 'Mindy's Muffins', they again decided to follow the same modus operandi in 2010. And by answering the phones calling in orders to 'Mindy's Muffins', the police were once again organising deliveries using their special oregano sachets.

It all started after a suspected dealer was arrested in the 3rd District after being interrupting in a street buy. In addition to finding weed in the guy's house, they found a mobile phone that was ringing "every 90 seconds". "He was making deliveries like he was a pizza delivery guy," the cops recalled in a report on the incident published in the Washington City Paper, where they explained how the 'Mindy's Muffins' number had been passed on by word of mouth and ordering was very simple: you called the phone, said "I need some muffins" and after a while a guy would show up at your house and sell you a packet of about two and a half grams of weed each.

A muffin from Mindy's Bakery, a real bakery serving Chicago (any resemblance to what Washington customers received is also pure coincidence).
A muffin from Mindy's Bakery, a real bakery serving Chicago (any resemblance to what Washington customers received is also pure coincidence)

The packages had their own packaging and were full of nice logos saying 'Mindy's Muffins', but that's not all: "They were also labelled with detailed information about the origin of the marijuana". They cost about $50 each.

After discovering Mindy's tele-muffins, the agents decided to start answering the phone, executing what they later called in court documents "an undercover reverse drug buy". But instead of the weed that normally filled "Mindy's Muffins" packets, the police sting carried other, less tasty things. Specifically, according to a police source, a combination of oregano and dried coriander.

The vice squad began taking orders and making deliveries to residences and meeting points in the city, eventually arresting about 20 people. The detainees were demographically diverse, ranging from liberal professionals to clean-shaven college students, housewives and even a city hall worker. The only problem for the police was that oregano is not illegal, so the judge was not amused and the 20 cases were later dismissed by prosecutors. A former Washington prosecutor said at the time that, in general, when it comes to cannabis cases, the authorities were not interested in pursuing "end users". If that was the case, no one seemed to have told the police that they spent a great deal of resources on their 'Operation Oregano 2' for nothing.

Incidentally, the fake weed was in opaque packets, so the customers didn't get a chance to smell the ruse before the cops surrounded them. Moral of the story: if the weed you're buying smells more like pizza sauce than a Cypress Hill concert, you might have some trouble with the cops.

-----

References:

  • Pot Scam. Linda Wheeler. 1981. The Washington Post.
  • Busted D.C. Pot Delivery Service Was Called Mindy’s Muffins. Rend Smith. 2010. Washington City Paper.

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2022-11-25 News and Events

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