- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

MERIDEN, Conn. (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 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 local 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 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 composed 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 of the 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 the same field as another load, we can begin to show patterns and trends,” said Michael Turner, special agent in charge of the San Diego Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office.

“If they could do it, it’d be one more tool in the arsenal,” he said.

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.

Research assistant Eric Carita is responsible for bringing the genetic signatures into a searchable database. On his computer screen each sample looks like a stock market chart, punctuated with distinct peaks and valleys.

A computer program converts that plot into a long, unique string of ones and zeros. If the computer matches that number to one already in the system, the samples are identical.

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