DNA fingerprinting technology might soon lay to rest any fears that
Canada's newly approved medical marijuana could easily be funnelled into
illegal street sales.

For the past few years, law-enforcement research scientists in the United
States, initially aided by their RCMP colleagues in Canada, have been
developing a way to genetically fingerprint pot.

The research, discussed in today's edition of the British magazine New
Scientist, has taken a plant gene identification technology originally
created for patenting strains of corn and rice and expanded it to identify
strains of marijuana.

"One of the things that we had thought would be a great application was if
you keep a fingerprint file of the legal stuff and then compare it to the
illegal stuff. Then you could definitely see if someone was moving it
around in a way which was inappropriate," said Heather Miller Coyle, a
research scientist with the Connecticut State Forensic Science Laboratory.

There is no way at present for officials in this country to determine when
and if medical marijuana has been sold into the illicit market, Health
Canada spokeswoman Jirina Vlk said.

The American research team is eager to remedy that by adding the DNA
fingerprint of Canada's medical marijuana to the growing database. "We
certainly would be happy to process and house the samples for our database
and return the results to Canada. And if that sounds like a solicitation,
it is, because it is," Ms. Coyle said in an interview.

While fingerprinting pot may one day be used to track the flow of medical
marijuana, there are other more immediate applications.

"I have already been asked about a case where a joint has been left at a
murder scene, and a suspect had been found with marijuana on him. . . .
With fingerprinting, you could see if they came from the same plant, and
that would be pretty good evidence for even a criminal trial," said Gary
Shutler of the Washington State Patrol's crime laboratory division.

Mr. Shutler was formerly with the RCMP's Forensic Laboratory Service in
Winnipeg where pure strains of marijuana were grown by Winnipeg police for
use in officer training.

He provided those varieties to the U.S. researchers, who used them to
perfect the new fingerprinting technology. "But the day I left [Winnipeg],
the project was shut down," Mr. Shutler said, blaming budget cuts.

Another possible application for the technology might be called criminal
epidemiology. Law enforcement officials should be able to determine how
much U.S. pot actually comes from Canada -- in particular, British
Columbia, which has an illicit marijuana industry worth between $1-billion
and $6-billion. Without a lot of hard data, it has been estimated that 10
to 15 per cent of the marijuana found in the United States is so-called
"B.C. bud."

The new fingerprinting technology is close to being applied. Earlier this
year, the scientists published a paper showing that it's possible to
extract a DNA fingerprint from a tiny amount -- one-tenth of a joint's
worth -- of pot.

"It's not in the courtrooms yet, but we are close," Ms. Coyle said.

Pubdate: Thu, 10 Jul 2003
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2003, The Globe and Mail Company
Contact: letters@globeandmail.ca
Website: http://www.globeandmail.ca/