A University of New Haven forensic scientist is setting up a national databank for marijuana DNA that will permit law enforcement to track where the drug originated when an arrest is made.
Heather Miller Coyle, an associate professor in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, is a forensic botanist. She also has developed a new method for collecting the marijuana‘s genetic fingerprint that makes it easy for law enforcement on the scene of a case to collect the samples.
The DNA mapping initiative will allow law enforcement personnel for the first time to track where marijuana came from and link it to criminal organizations such as drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, growers in Canada or gangs in the United States.
The database would be similar to the one run by the FBI for humans. That database, called CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System, allows law enforcement to collect samples from a crime scene and evaluate the DNA profile against a computerized database of samples to assist in the identification of suspects in a crime.
“Such a databank and signature mark would be a welcome tool for police and law enforcement agencies,” said Frank Limon, New Haven chief of police. “It’s probable, in some cases, that conspirators of the overall operation may escape investigation and prosecution. The link between production and distribution would aid us in establishing conspiracy cases against the whole operation – not just the dealers and buyers. This would effectively connect the dots to street level narcotics distribution.”
The marijuana database Coyle is developing would give police an investigative lead to trace the origin of the marijuana and help lead to the human sources for its distribution.
“Plant DNA is like the DNA found in humans – it retains its lifelong genetic profile,” says Coyle, whose work on the project included UNH students Lindsay Allgeier, Jennifer Nabozny, and Nicholas Shirley, among others.
Matching DNA to plants grown on public lands in California, for example, could demonstrate that the crop was planted by people with ties to specific drug organizations . “If one person has a suitcase of marijuana and another person has bags of it, we will be able to tell if it came from the same batch.”
Although DNA typing has been used for crops in the United Sates, its collection has been done in a science lab rather than in the field. Using Coyle’s system modeled after human identification system, now with plant DNA, collection now can be completed on a “collection card” or a treated piece of paper that effectively provides the lab with a smear of material to be tested. The card allows police to smear the plant on the card in the field, store it, mail it or process it. No bulk samples of the marijuana are collected and the drugs found on the scene can be destroyed.
“One major advantage of using collection cards is that it takes the marijuana sample from a usable drug form to a nonsmoking drug format, making research and storage at universities possible,” she says.
Marijuana is a controlled substance and illegal under federal laws. Some states have passed the use of marijuana for medicinal uses which allows for an affirmative defense if arrested by law enforcement. States like Connecticut where possession of small amounts have been decriminalized can be obtained for medical uses. Even though people with recommendations for marijuana can grow it at home, they still are at risk for prosecutions under the Controlled Substances Act.
Coyle’s project has been funded with more than $100,000 from the National Marijuana Initiative (NMI) and the National High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program (HIDTA). The NMI and the HIDTA work together, along with federal, state, and local law enforcement in the detection, disruption and investigations of domestic marijuana trafficking focusing on priorities such as public lands, indoor cultivations activities, medical marijuana/dispensaries, undercover internet programs and forensics.
Marijuana is the most common illegal drug used in the United States and has been linked to such health problems as dependency, lung disease, depression and other problems. .
Coyle is a geneticist who earned her Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire. She has worked both for the pharmaceutical industry in high throughput screening research and the Connecticut state forensic science laboratory Development of the marijuana DNA database allows her to combine her background and training in a new way, she says.
A leader in experiential education, the University of New Haven provides its students with a valuable combination of solid liberal arts and real-world, hands-on professional training. Founded in 1920, UNH is a private, top-tier comprehensive university with an 82-acre main campus. The university has an enrollment of more than 5,900: approximately 1,700 graduate students and more than 4,200 undergraduates, 70 percent of whom reside in university housing. The university offers 75 undergraduate and graduate degrees through the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, the Tagliatela College of Engineering and University College. University of New Haven students study abroad through a variety of distinctive programs.
By Heather Miller Coyle