Friday, July 25, 2003 Print This | Email This     

Pot prints: Making a database of marijuana DNA

By Lori Silverstein, Court TV

(Court TV) —

DNA evidence is no stranger in the modern courtroom. To make their cases, lawyers have used blood and semen samples. They have used fingernails, skin and saliva. They even have used dog hair.

And soon the list will include dope.

Forensic scientists have been working to expand the scope of scientific evidence by researching how to use DNA technology to identify strains of marijuana, and then putting the information into a database.

"Marijuana DNA is just a new technology in fighting crime ... Many times the victim's pocket will have a trace of marijuana ... [and you can] find where that batch comes from," said Dr. Henry Lee, director of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory and one of the nation's foremost forensic scientist. "This is going to have a major impact for the future."

Fingerprinting plant DNA has been around since the mid-1990s when scientists in the Netherlands developed it as a way of patenting strains of rice, according to Heather Miller Coyle, criminalist and research coordinator at the Connecticut lab.

The major difference between human and plant DNA fingerprinting is that each human fingerprint is unique. However, many plants have the same DNA because identical clones can be created through a process of cutting leaves and stems and then putting them in a hormone solution to encourage root growth. Growers often use this method to perpetuate potent strains of dope.

"What they're doing is making it easier for us to trace them," Coyle said.

Plant DNA has already made its way into the courtroom. In the 1990s, Arizona authorities successfully connected Mark Bogan to the strangling death of a woman after matching seed pods found in his truck to a Palo Verde tree at the scene of the murder. Bogan was sentenced to life in prison, and in 1995 an appeals court upheld the conviction.

"It's not new or different that plant DNA can be used," said Lisa Kreeger, a former Miami-Dade County prosecutor who now runs the DNA program at the American Prosecutors Research Institute in Alexandria, Va. "It's important for the quality of information and the quantity of information. We have developed a cynical population that no longer likes to believe people."

Because the database — which is necessary to point out the statistical relevance of matching strains of marijuana — is still under construction, marijuana DNA evidence has yet to enter courtroom testimony.

But based on the drug's role in crime, employees at the Connecticut forensic lab see a huge potential in profiling even the tiniest of samples from pot plants.

"Yes, we could do oak trees. But the reality is pretty clear that there is a plant out there with a lot of implications in the justice system. And that's marijuana," said Maj. Timothy Palmbach, an attorney and director of scientific services at the Connecticut lab.

More potent drugs like cocaine and heroin were ruled out because DNA cannot be seen in samples seized from users. These types of drugs, which cannot be grown in the United States because of climate, are distributed and used as purified chemicals extracted from plants, and do not contain intact plant material and cells like marijuana, Coyle explained.

Not only can DNA evidence support courtroom testimony, but a database of marijuana DNA could be used to connect suppliers, distributors and users across the country, Coyle said. With a database of seized marijuana, researchers in Connecticut hope to create an "information map" to illustrate just where the drug is coming and going.

"How many people are doing this? And where is it going?" said Coyle.

The database will hold the codes of marijuana strains as well as case numbers correlating with information in paper files about where and from whom the marijuana was seized. So far, the Connecticut lab, which received a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to develop the database, has collected strains from Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Wyoming, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vermont, Canada and Taiwan.

But there's no reason to spend money creating a marijuana database when there are other ways of curbing drug trade, like finding treatments for drug abusers, said Alan Silber, a member of the board of directors for the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington, D.C. and chairman of its drug law reform committee.

"How much money do we need to spend? What's the point? What's the government gain?" Silber said. "Here's another cost to try to enforce marijuana prohibition with more high-tech gadgets."

But the database information could be very effective in the courtroom by linking crime scenes to suspects and cracking down harder on drug rings, Coyle said. By matching DNA from cloned plants, the database can connect seemingly small, separate operations together, which can then bring much tougher penalties.

"If you can show they're all linked, you're showing a giant industry. The penalties are certainly more severe than someone growing 50 plants," Coyle said. "You're showing a multimillion dollar industry as opposed to a $30,000 industry."

But Kreeger warned that DNA alone cannot prove individuals share a pot-profiting business.

"It still has to be a part of an overall, comprehensive investigation. You still need traditional things like statements from people and records or something to show they made profit together," Kreeger said.

Palmbach agreed that a case is never solved simply by a DNA match. "It's a good, resourceful scientific technique that is one piece of the puzzle," he said.

And DNA-profiled marijuana can, of course, be used as a tool to disprove the prosecution's theory of conspiracy.

"There's good DNA and bad DNA. One thing the O.J. Simpson case demonstrated was how sloppy police work can be with DNA evidence," Silber said.

Collecting enough data to create a sufficient database to use in court is never a quick process, Dr. Henry Lee said.

"Your database will not happen tomorrow [The sex offender database] took us years, years to collect that data," Lee said.

Still, Coyle expects the marijuana database to be up and running by early 2004. And the lab has already received half a dozen requests "screaming" for its use in pending trials in several states, Palmbach said.

"I think it's huge," he said. "I'm not sure we know the value of it yet."