Tracing the origins of cannabis just got personal.
A worker tends to cannabis plants growing at the Perennial Holistic Wellness Center which is a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, California on March 24, 2017. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
Would you smoke weed sprayed with DNA? That’s a question legal cannabis lovers may soon be asking themselves if a company called Applied DNA Sciences has its way. They want to use DNA tracking technology to help the cannabis industry fight the black market, by offering a tamper-proof tag that can verify the origins of any pot it’s applied to. The company, a veteran of the genetic tracking and security industry, recently announced a partnership with TheraCann, a major cannabis consulting firm.
Spraying pot plants with DNA tracking particles sounds freaky, but the synthetic particles they use have been verified as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), which is the FDA’s way of saying something ain’t gonna kill you, in any amount. There also aren’t that many particles, to begin with. They’re small, short sequences of DNA, and the amount that ends up on the final cannabis product is in the parts per billion.
“To put it in perspective,” said Gordon Hope, the company’s Director of Cannabis Business Development, “the chances are that if any of us had breakfast, we took in 100,000 times more DNA than we’d ever take in smoking or eating 100 lbs of [this] cannabis.”
Essentially, there’s no way you’d ever notice it. But to anyone with the right testing equipment, those tiny DNA tracking tags could be very interesting.
“If there was a drug bust and someone grabbed 10,000 pounds of marijuana, it’s going to be wrapped in anything but retail packaging,” Hope explained. “So what good is packaging at that point? The cops doing this drug bust, they would love to be able to at least test it and find out whether it’s legal or not. They could run a test for the United States tag and if it came up positive, they’d know it came from somewhere in the United States, from a legal source.”
The system Hope outlined would get even more specific than that, providing DNA tracking tags specific to individual farms. And, he noted, they’ve been able to detect the tags after processing, in products like wax, shatter, and Rick Simpson Oil. That may not be true of all processed products, like distillate, but Hope is optimistic about the tags’ survivability overall. Once applied, it would mark every part of the plant with a tag containing information about its origins.
Applied DNA Sciences’ authentication technology comes from the cotton industry, where they’ve tagged over 200 million pounds of cotton, helping ensure those fancy sheets at Bed Bath & Beyond are pure Pima cotton. But the cannabis industry, Hope says, seemed like it was especially in need of their DNA tracking technology.
“It’s begging to be used!” he said. “If it’s working in something like cotton and bedsheets, it certainly has a tremendously more impressive value proposition when you’re talking about medicines. So people know they’re dealing with a clean product if they’re putting it in their body.”
As they’ve done in cotton, they hope to roll out a “CertainT” label that tells consumers that the product they’re buying has been verified via DNA tracking to be from a legal grower or processor, and therefore has been through the state-mandated quality assurance testing. But there’s also the matter of diversion, in which legal growers sneak their products into the black market, hoping to get much higher prices in non-legal states.
As reported by Herb, Washington State just caught its first big diversion scheme. Diversion has also been an ongoing issue in Oregon. Hope was quick to point out that it’s shaping up to be one in California as well. This is where DNA tracking comes in.
“California produced 13.2 million pounds [of cannabis] in 2017,” Hope said. “By their own admission, 65 percent to 70 percent of it left the state. So do you think there’s a problem trying to control it? Duh.”
That massive oversupply of cannabis creates quite the market incentive for growers to go out of state, especially when cannabis can fetch as much as $4000 per pound in cities like Chicago. Requiring growers to tag their products with a permanent DNA tracking tag could make that a much less attractive option.