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DNA Testing Goes To Pot

marijuana leaf closeup
AP
State forensic scientists are taking the war on drugs to the molecular level.

Researchers are compiling a database of DNA from marijuana seized by authorities in an attempt to track the nation's pot distribution network from grower to smoker.

Over the past three years, scientists at the state Forensic Science Laboratory have mapped the genetic profile of about 600 marijuana samples taken from around New England.

Forensic experts believe efforts like this represent the future of forensic science, which for years has been focused on the analysis of human evidence like blood, semen and hair.

Using a single marijuana bud seized anywhere in the world, police would be able to quickly deduce whether a suspect is a homegrown dope dealer or part of an international cartel.

"We don't know all of the frontiers yet," said Kenneth E. Melson, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the U.S. Attorney for Virginia. "As our experience and capabilities increase, forensic science can be used in any number of areas we haven't even thought of yet."

The use of the technique is built upon two guiding principles: Genetic material does not lie, and drug dealers always try to grow the most potent marijuana possible.

Waiting for marijuana seeds to grow into plants takes too long for high-level dealers who move thousands of pounds at a time, police say. Instead, dealers usually plant cuttings from their most potent plants.

That results in a shorter growing period and ensures top-quality drugs in every harvest. But it also means an entire marijuana crop is comprised of just a few plants, cloned over and over. Genetically, those plants are identical.

An officer who makes a drug bust in Connecticut might normally have no idea, however, that the pot came from the same harvest as a load seized on a California highway. DNA pot profiles can help make those connections.

But not everyone is convinced that marijuana dealing should be the cutting edge of forensic science.

"It's a huge, monumental waste of taxpayer dollars," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director that National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws Foundation.

Law enforcement officials, however, believe a genetic database could give police another advantage over creative drug dealers, who have concocted some ingenious growing and trafficking techniques.

"Certainly, if they're able to do enough fingerprinting to tell that this load came from same field as another load, we can begin to show patterns and trends," said Michael Turner, special agent in charge of the San Diego's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office.

"If they could do it, it'd be one more tool in the arsenal."

The database being developed in Connecticut is not nearly large enough to begin tracking marijuana nationwide. But Heather Miller Coyle, a Connecticut forensic scientist, said if the state's $340,000 federal grant is renewed next year, she hopes federal agencies will begin sending their samples for analysis.

Officials hope the effort will pay off in the courtroom. A court case pending in Connecticut Superior Court will be the state's first attempt to get marijuana DNA admitted as evidence. Police have not laid out the details of that case, but scientists say DNA data suggests that two drug operations were actually part of one organization.

There are hurdles. While a genetic match can nearly guarantee that a suspect was at a crime scene, a plant DNA match does not by itself prove that two growing operations are related. When combined other evidence, however, officials hope DNA data can help eliminate reasonable doubt.

The DNA mapping technique cannot be used to track more dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin. Though both are plant-based narcotics, organic material is eliminated during their synthesis.