Matthew Wooller is an Alaskan-based biochemistry professor with a controversial side-project.
He’s mapping marijuana grow-ops.
By vapourizing pin-head sized samples of stems, leaves, or buds from the popular recreational plant, Wooller and his trusty mass spectrometer are able to discern the ratios within of isotopes of four common elements, and thus the probable location — hemisphere, country, valley, or even subdivision — in which the pot was grown.
The first real-world application of Wooller’s findings has been to verify what the University of Alaska Fairbanks police knew only from hearsay and informed guesswork: that marijuana seized on and around the campus was coming from a range of locations within and outside Alaska.
It’s not exactly rocket science, and Wooller freely admits it.
“This is just taking modern plants and using the isotope signatures to say something about the environments that they were grown in,” he says.
“The potential here is to actually have a quantitative and objective way of classifying marijuana instead of basing it (where it’s from) on anecdotal data.”
Though his reefer profiling is a straightforward extension of his regular gig, which involves analyzing isotope signatures in fossil floral and fauna in order to learn about past environments, Wooller’s development of an isotopic marijuana map is garnering him infinitely more attention.
He traipsed to Belize to research mangrove food chain, and traced the roots of East African grasslands.
He had been published in journals since 1995.
He married in New York in 2004, and this year achieved tenure as an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — and all to little fanfare.
Within the course of a month the British ex-pat has gone from operating fully under the media radar to being sought out as an expert by Alaskan and Yukon reporters, cannabis-advocates, and the Discovery Channel.
“My wife’s a scientist too and she jokes about it,” he says.
“This is a side project compared with a lot of other projects I have going on. The world is not interested in any of those — and I’ve been working on those projects for years!” Wooller exclaims.
The project began innocently enough two years ago when Wooller applied, on a lark, for a small $5,000 university-administered grant.
Fresh back from New Zealand and a keynote conference speech on isotopic fingerprinting and world movements of microbes, currency forgeries and dangerous chemicals, he had been inspired.
Having worked already with fossil plants, Wooller thought of trying to trace the growing environments of a modern botanical: a plant that was grown across the world, a plant that travelled and a plant that people cared about.
Now in pursuit of so-called popular science, Wooller finds himself continually practising any successful scientist’s true talent: battling the minds of those who just don’t get it.
As one would expect, the big batch of dissenters are concerned pot-purveyors.
Wooller spends a lot of time at home these days in the haze of new-daddyhood, which is where both the Yukon News and a vocal critic reached him.
“We ended up getting a crank call at home after that press release,” he says.
“I’ve ended up being a little cautious.”
The new father spent some time reading blogs and comments on online articles.
“They were full of accusations: “You’ve turned into some narc, this is bogus science, who’s funding this crap?” he says.
One commentator on the Cannabis News website alleges that Wooller joined the war on drugs, like countless others “because (he) failed in the real world.”
“I’m not pro one or the other,” Wooller says in his defence.
“I’m a stable-isotope biogeochemist, and this is a neat stable isotope application — I’m not law enforcement,” he insists.
In fact, more discerning cannabis consumers rose to Wooller’s online defence, arguing his work can be used to their advantage.
Those deep in the marijuana market know that, as with real estate, quality and price are often tied to location, location, location.
Being able to verify the source of seeds or of a bundle of bud means marketers could begin charging premiums for desired and certifiable product, except for one catch.
“It’s a little tricky because most pot growers don’t have a mass spectrometer for them to kind of check,” Wooller chuckles.
And though Wooller does operate a commercial lab at the university, “it would be illegal for them to supply us samples to test.”
It was illegal even for Wooller to supply himself with samples.
“You can’t just go out and collect your samples, which is what you’d do for other plants,” he says.
Despite the benefits that Wooller’s marijuana isotope map promises to bring to policing intelligence, acquiring permission to begin any studies took him almost two years.
The US Drug Enforcement Agency slapped onerous requirements on the lab’s operation.
Wooller had to install a safe.
Protocols for handling the samples and a strict chain of custody had to be religiously adhered to, to satisfy the agency’s paranoia that samples might be “diverted.”
Once the agency was onside, Wooller thankfully had the full co-operation of the University of Alaska Fairbanks local police detachment.
At first, Wooller got his hands on samples of unknown origins: pipe residues, the dregs of dime bags.
After that, through the agency, the scientist was given samples from known locations: grow-ops in Fairbanks and Alaska’s Matanuska Valley, BC, Mexico, the lower 48 States, and Brazil.
“Basically he was looking for enough to prove his theory,” says Wooller’s primary police contact Stephen Goetz, and investigator with the university police department.
Goetz is optimistic that the ability to trace a sample of marijuana to where it was grown will help law enforcers target local streets and homes.
“That’s one thing that we can use this information for, to tie growers to sale and distribution,” says Goetz.
“Long range, if the study continues, at some point hopefully we’ll be able to essentially almost fingerprint it,” he says.
But the ability to pinpoint marijuana to an exact residence is closer to science fiction than science.
“You’re never going to be able to do that, and really that’s not the aim,” says Wooller.
Though the analytical precision of mass spectrometry is incredibly good, Wooller doubts that any isotopic evidence would hold up in court.
“You would have four different variables to be able say, ‘You know what, within analytical precision we could say, yeah, its isotope signature is consistent with the isotope signature of a particular grow,’” he says.
The signature elements are carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen. The ratio of their stable isotopes — atoms with different numbers of weighty neutrons — varies with geography.
Isotope ratios in carbon will differ if the plant is grown indoors our outdoors. Nitrogen isotopes can be matched to types and sources of fertilizers used.
Ratios of isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen are determined by rainfall patterns.
Most weather patterns originate near the equator and then spiral outwards.
Water containing heavier isotopes tends to fall out first, resulting in a gradient leading to lighter water as you travel to higher latitudes.
“In terms of the big picture, Canadian or high-latitude marijuana would be completely different isotopically to Mexican or Brazilian marijuana,” says Wooller.
A real use for law enforcement, he says, would be to analyze street seizures in a particular location over time and generate a map of changing traffic patterns.
Beyond the realm of just drugs, the marijuana map might also pinpoint lapses in port or border security.
While Wooller is getting all the samples he needs — the University of Alaska Fairbanks police are diligently collecting and cataloguing samples for him to analyze — what Wooller really needs is money to hire a post-doc to churn through the backlog.
“There’s life, there’s life!” Wooller exclaims as his newborn wakes up and begins to fuss towards the end of the interview.
As you can see, he’s already got his hands full.