By Gregory B. Hladky
5:28 PM EST, November 14, 2011
Warning: The dope you are smoking can now be identified by its DNA.
Heather Coyle’s new marijuana DNA database at the University of New Haven can tell if a particular fragment of pot is the “White Widow” strain, “Skunk Number One,” “Super Silver Haze” or another of the more than 25 types of marijuana that she’s genetically mapped.
The DNA analysis can let cops and federal agents trace the marijuana from a single bud or seed found in Connecticut back to its source, as long as they can get ahold of samples to match.
They can find out whether it was grown in Mexico and formed part of a drug cartel’s shipment. Or maybe the dope was part of a crop from northern California’s “Emerald Triangle” and sold at a freewheeling Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary.
Coyle says this system of genetic fingerprinting could also be used to offer states a foolproof way to control and regulate medical pot programs.
And it just so happens that Connecticut officials are right now wondering about exactly that sort of issue as they consider passing a medical marijuana law here.
Coyle is a 46-year-old “forensic botanist” and an associate professor at UNH since 2005. Before arriving at the university, she spent seven years working at the Connecticut state forensics lab in Meriden.
A forensic botanist helps cops solve cases by identifying and analyzing samples of plants taken from crime scenes. If this sounds like the cool shit that happens in TV crime dramas, you’re exactly right. It’s not much of a surprise to learn that Coyle is a fan of those shows.
“’NCIS’ is one of my favorites,” she says, smiling.
There are only about four or five forensic botanists working in the United States at the moment, according to Coyle, who is part of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at UNH.
She began her research into pot DNA in 2008 with a grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The money to keep the program rolling has also come in from the feds’ National Marijuana Initiative and the National High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, adding up to about $100,000 a year.
The marijuana database and DNA sequencing is essentially basically the same science used for human DNA testing.
Coyle and her students have gotten marijuana seed samples from federal agents who’ve bought them over the Internet. Nearly all have come from outfits in Amsterdam and Canada with names like “Sensi Seeds” and “Mr. Nice Seeds.”
Ashley Hertzman, a UNH senior from Long Island who is working on the pot research program, says it’s illegal for those seed suppliers to sell to the U.S., but many do it anyway. Lots of them use “stealth packaging,” Hertzman says, hiding the seeds in the lining of otherwise innocent packages or concealing them within other products. The seeds can cost anywhere from 10 to 100 Euros for 10 to 15 seeds, or around $7.40 to $74.
The DNA sequences from those seeds are then put into the data bank, and that information can be matched to samples sent in from the field
To simplify the process for cops and field agents, Coyle and her team have developed a special “collection card.” A cop can take a sample leaf or bud from a pot bust, rub it onto a card, and then mail it to UNH’s lab. A small portion of the card is punched out, put through the DNA sequencer, matched against the database and voila — your “Shark Shock” is identified.
Since the project is still in the research phase, Coyle says they aren’t currently handling evidence to be used in actual criminal cases. “We’re getting in position to use it in court,” she adds.
Tommy LaNier, director of the San Diego-based National Marijuana & Public Lands Initiative, calls the DNA pot system extremely effective against bigtime marijuana growers and dealers. “It’s very effective in getting numbers of people to plead [guilty],” he says. LaNier says a DNA match between marijuana sold by two different pot dealers can link them in a conspiracy case, for example. “You’ve got hard evidence and they can’t dispute it.”
One of Lanier’s targets in this whole pot thing is the huge amount of dope being grown on public property. Some experts believe as much as 65 percent of all the grass being grown outdoors in the U.S. is planted on state and national forests and parks and other public land.
Coyle believes pot DNA can be used by states to put strict controls over medical marijuana programs. She says a state could order licensed growers to use a specific type of marijuana plant, and that only that particular pot could be sold in state-licensed dispensaries.
A simple DNA test would let state officials easily check if someone with a prescription for medical marijuana was selling or giving the dope to others. One of the complaints often heard concerning California’s messy medical pot industry is that it’s nothing more than a front for people peddling grass.
“As long as you can enforce the policy or legislation put in place,” Coyle says, “there’s nothing wrong with allowing therapeutic marijuana for terminally ill patients.”
She has a different opinion about decriminalization of pot, arguing that it could allow drug cartels to move in and offer them “an opportunity to get more people to use it.”
Coyle’s determination to use DNA science to go after the big cartels and growers hasn’t gotten in the way of her professional admiration for the expertise of many marijuana cultivators.
“They’re very good at what they do,” she says, pointing particularly to some in California’s Emerald Triangle, an area that is now producing an estimated $40 billion worth of pot a year.
“The very, very high-end growers are very good at genetics.”
Write to email@example.com
Copyright © 2013, WTXX-TV