In three years scientists at the state Forensic Science Laboratory have mapped the genetic profile of about 600 marijuana samples taken from around New England. As the database expands, scientists foresee a new way for investigators to trace the drug from grower to smoker.
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.
The success of the DNA database hinges upon a cultivation technique drug dealers use to keep only the best, most potent marijuana on the street.
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.
While small-scale marijuana operations are local, top-level drug cartels are international. Breaking up a basement drug business is often as easy as getting one buyer to confess. Infiltrating a major drug cartel is not so simple.
"It’s next to impossible, unless you have a good informant, to know the size of that kind of an organization," said Sgt. Lilia Gutierrez, a narcotics officer in El Paso, Texas, where authorities in February seized 12,000 pounds of marijuana coming across the Mexican border.
A few months before that bust, federal agents in San Diego, Calif., seized 10 tons of dope in what is believed to be the largest marijuana bust in history.
"Relatively few of the drugs that cross into San Diego remain in San Diego," said Michael Turner, special agent in charge of the city’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office. Turner said marijuana that crosses the California border can turn up in cities like Detroit and Chicago.
The database being developed in Connecticut is not nearly complete enough to begin tracking that effect. But Heather Miller Coyle, a Connecticut forensic scientist, said the state plans to request a renewal of its $340,000 federal grant early next year. If the grant continues, she hopes federal agencies will begin sending their samples for analysis.
"We are seeing correlations," Coyle said. "Correlations between individuals and correlations between locations."
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.
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.
Coyle said she hopes that courtroom acceptance of human DNA evidence will make it easier to introduce plant DNA data. Scientists can even print out the DNA plots from Carita’s computer and show a judge or jury that two samples are identical.
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.
"If they keep cloning (pot plants), there’s no way around this," Coyle said.
The DNA mapping technique cannot be used to track more dangerous designer drugs like cocaine and heroin. Though both are plant-based narcotics, drug synthesis isolates the mind-altering chemicals and the organic material is eliminated.
Forensic experts believe efforts like this represent the future of forensic science, which for years have been focused on the analysis of human evidence like blood, semen and hair.
"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."
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 Turner, the federal agent.
"If they could do it, it’d be one more tool in the arsenal."