Researchers at the Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have developed a new technology that can instantly determine the THC level in cannabis plants. Or rather, they’ve adapted an old technology to a new industry. Now, in as early as two years, both police officers and hemp farmers may be able to simply scan for the presence of THC instead of waiting weeks for confirmative lab results.
An Old Technology Learns a New Trick
According to a recent press release, scientists at Texas A&M have engineered a way to quickly spot THC in cannabis plants using light. And with close to 100 percent accuracy to boot. The technique is known as Raman spectroscopy, which uses a non-invasive device to shine lasers at plant material. When the laser beam makes contact with vibrating chemical compounds, some light scatters in a distinct pattern while other light is absorbed. These patterns of scattering and absorbance can experimentally be observed, recorded, and graphed, almost like capturing an abstract photo.
A Texas A&M team led by Dmitry Kurowski, Ph.D., had the wherewithal to test this technique on cannabis plants, both hemp and THC varieties. THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the primary intoxicant in cannabis.
To be fair, this technology is already used in other industries. For example, scientists use Raman spectroscopy to identify nutrients in foods, as well as viruses in plants. The team at A&M has also already used portable Raman scanners to analyze these types of compounds. But, Raman analysis is new to the cannabis industry.
Right now, laboratory analysis is the gold standard for determining whether or not a cannabis plant produces THC. Raman spectroscopy offers a fast alternative, potentially allowing both law enforcement officials and farmers to quickly determine what type of plants they have.
To adapt this technology to the cannabis industry, the A&M team had to scan dozens of cannabis plants to ensure that they could find an exact “THC fingerprint.” Much to their amazement, they did. And with surprising precision.
“Our colleagues, [hemp] farmers, were positively surprised that we could identify the [cannnabis] variety with 98% accuracy,” said Kurouski. “That blew them away.”
Kurouski and his team published their findings in RSC Advances.
A Much-Needed Technology in a Confusing Legal Landscape
This Texas A&M achievement couldn’t come at a better time. The U.S. Agricultural Marketing Service is in the middle of finalizing regulations for hemp production, and states all around the country are regulating hemp production for the first time. In order to legally cultivate hemp, all plants must produce less than 0.3 percent THC.
But, issues like potential cross-pollination with adult-use or medical cannabis, difficulties in seed sourcing, and phenotypic differences in cannabis cultivars means that it’s sometimes tricky for farmers to ensure that they have the right plants in the first place. Being able to quickly eliminate THC-containing plants via proper channels will likely save farmers time and money in the long run.
More efficient farming isn’t the only advantage of this new technology, however.
Perhaps the biggest benefit is in law enforcement. Right now, law enforcement officials also rely on laboratory testing to separate legal hemp from THC-cannabis. In some cases, lab testing is simply too slow to prevent accidental arrests and other hardships for hemp farmers.
The case of Aneudy Gonzalez offers the perfect example. In December of 2019, Gonzalez was pulled over outside of Amarillo, Texas by a state trooper. He was hauling 3,350 pounds of legal hemp.
The big problem? To the trooper, it looked like a whole lot of “marijuana.”
Thanks to this error of perception, Gonzales spent a month in jail while awaiting the results of a lab analysis that proved that he was, indeed, carrying legal hemp. No doubt a tragic mistake that can have a substantial impact on a person’s life—a month of legal fees, a month unexpectedly away from family, potentially a month without income, not to mention the psychological burden of being unfairly incarcerated.
The potential of Raman spectroscopy in this industry is undoubtedly great. This is a technology that police officers can use in their cruisers and hemp farmers can have on-hand on their farms. But, it may be a while before this technology is readily available. Check back in two to three years.
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