Prospective hemp farmers in Maryland may have celebrated after Congress removed the plant from the federal government’s list of controlled substances in the 2018 Farm Bill.
The reaction from crime lab workers across the state, however, was a little more complicated.
The legislation surprised police departments in Maryland and upturned their process for lab testing of suspected marijuana. Before the legislation, agencies such as Maryland State Police and the Baltimore County Police Department, used machines that simply identified in a plant the presence of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana and, to a much lesser extent, hemp, both of which are strains of cannabis sativa.
But the Farm Bill redefined hemp by assigning it a strict THC percentage — 0.3% or less. (Marijuana’s THC can top 10%.) The shift rendered equipment at Maryland crime labs, which couldn’t quantify the compound, obsolete. Now, those departments are scrambling, said Rachel Lucas, who manages Baltimore County’s crime lab. Some have received grant money to update their equipment while they outsource testing, and some testing simply isn’t being done at all, she said.
Lucas’s staff is now working through the process of updating its equipment, including asking the county council to receive and distribute their grant money and approve the purchase of a new testing machine that will likely cost up to $300,000.
“These are some of the more time-consuming and resource-consuming things that a lab does,” she said.
In the interim, both Maryland State and Baltimore County police are sending their testing samples to NMS Labs near Philadelphia. At about $100 per test, Baltimore County police have spent about $8,000 since May. Still, the lab can’t afford to test everything it typically would, Lucas said.
“Right now, the county is footing that bill,” she said.
Maryland State Police have sent 469 samples to the same company over the last six months at a cost of about $300,000, said Daniel Katz, director of the agency’s forensic sciences division. It also received a grant — $349,000 — from the U.S. Department of Justice in December to upgrade its equipment.
“It will take several months to procure the equipment, implement the new procedures and train our scientists before the new technology is brought online for casework,” Katz said. “We also plan to use the instrument to quantify other drugs, such as fentanyl, so we will have other uses for the instrument in the future.”
The legislature was ignorant of the Farm Bill’s consequences on policing, Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery County, told the Baltimore Sun this month. He is a key supporter of the state’s new hemp industry.
“No, we didn’t talk about this. It just didn’t come up at all, not with all the experts in the room and all the testimony,” he told the newspaper.