HOW TO TRACK WEED

A new tech­nol­ogy al­lows law en­force­ment to track le­gal mar­i­juana us­ing DNA.

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents - BY MATT AL­LYN

DNA al­lows foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tors to see ex­actly where strains of mar­i­juana orig­i­nated from, tak­ing us a step closer to ef­fec­tive leg­is­la­tion.

Mar­i­juana may be le­gal in Col­orado, but that doesn’t mean the US state has no il­le­gal mar­i­juana. A num­ber of le­gal grow­ers are il­le­gally sell­ing cannabis across state lines, and il­le­gal grow­ers can forge a pa­per trail to en­ter the le­gal mar­ket. It’s be­com­ing a prob­lem for law en­force­ment, which needs to com­bat this grey mar­ket to keep the state’s ±R18.8 tril­lion cannabis in­dus­try on the right side of fed­eral com­pli­ance.

Start­ing this year, the state could be able to iden­tify all above-board cannabis. Us­ing tech­nol­ogy pre­vi­ously em­ployed to fol­low pre­mium Amer­i­can cot­ton from gin to shirt, grow­ers spray their le­gal plants with DNA that acts like a mol­e­cule- sized en­crypted bar code. By bond­ing to the plant – but not chang­ing its DNA – the tag with­stands pro­cess­ing, and even shows up in re­fined prod­ucts such as oils and ed­i­bles. Dis­pen­saries and lo­cal law en­force­ment can then feed a tiny bit of a prod­uct into a reader, the Sig­nify, which con­firms the farm, strain, and per­mit num­ber.

Biotech com­pany Ap­plied DNA Sci­ences pro­duces the tags. ‘ Think of the DNA as a con­tent car­rier,’ says Jim Hay­ward, com­pany CEO. The tags are en­gi­neered to em­bed up to 250 bits of iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion in the se­quence of DNA nu­cleo­tides. This al­lows for bil­lions of po­ten­tial DNA sig­na­tures for plants and man­u­fac­tur­ers.

To avoid harm­ing or af­fect­ing the plants, the tags are dis­solved in wa­ter and mea­sure in the parts per tril­lion, and the spray uses min­i­mal mois­ture to min­imise the risk of mold.

When a sam­ple is placed in the Sig­nify, the de­vice uses a poly­merase chain re­ac­tion ( see right) to re­pro­duce the tags for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Be­cause the con­tents of the tags are se­cure – Ap­plied DNA em­ploy­ees can ac­cess only por­tions of them – they can’t be copied.

This means coun­ter­feits sim­ply can’t be made, and fewer il­le­gal prod­ucts can make it into a le­gal sys­tem.

The outer fins cre­ate a heat sink for the hot- cold poly­merase chain re­ac­tion ( ex­plained right) that mul­ti­plies the DNA tag.

Cannabis sam­ples are fed into Sig­nify’s 16 tubes. If a DNA tag is present, it will be repli­cated for easy iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

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