State taps CSU-Pueblo expertise for marijuana bill

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Dr. Nebojsa Jaksic, professor and mechatronics program director (right) discusses 3D printing technology using hemp with Institute of Cannabis Research Director Dr. Rick Kreminski.

A bipartisan Senate bill will tap the expertise of the Institute of Cannabis Research at CSU Pueblo to develop marijuana tracking technology for the state.

SB18-029 “Development of Marijuana Tracking Technology,” sponsored by Sen. Kent Lambert and Sen. Leroy Garcia with Rep. Dan Pabon and Rep. Yeulin Willett, was introduced Jan. 10.

“The intent of this is actually to protect our legal marijuana growers, both medicinal and recreational, against the very, very large percentage of illegal gray and black market marijuana growers,” Lambert told a meeting of the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee Feb. 7. “This would give new tools to [the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment], [the Department of Revenue] and our local police forces to be able to identify whether something is … in Colorado legally.”

The bill, which requires the development of novel technologies for marijuana tracking, has met with pushback based on misunderstanding, Lambert said. At the Feb. 7 committee meeting, he requested SB18-029 be postponed indefinitely, to allow work on a new, refined version of the bill that will better communicate what it will and will not do.

“It would not, for instance, release any toxic substances within the marijuana plants,” Lambert told the committee. “We’ve spent millions of dollars to protect consumers in Colorado who are buying legal marijuana, either medicinal or recreational marijuana, to make sure that things like toxic pesticides are not being used in that production. This certainly would not change that.

“It would also not introduce anything into the marijuana plants that would be in any way harmful. So I think we need to strengthen that part of the bill.”

SB18-029, as introduced, reads in part: “The bill requires the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University-Pueblo (institute) to develop marijuana tracking technology (technology). The technology must include an agent that is applied to a marijuana plant, marijuana product, industrial hemp, or industrial hemp product and then scanned by a device. The scan, at a minimum, would indicate whether the marijuana or hemp was cultivated, manufactured, or sold by a licensed marijuana business or registered hemp cultivator.”

Sponsors need to clarify the message of the bill, Lambert told the Business Journal, “because it was clearly taken out of context and frankly people didn’t understand it.

“We even had companies coming in saying, ‘We’ve already done this,’ — no they haven’t. They have no idea what we’re really talking about,” he said. “To a certain extent you have to protect the secrecy of what your law enforcement are going to be doing, so we don’t want to say too much about how it works — but we do want to say enough to show ‘Here’s the benefit of what it will do.’

“You kind of don’t want to have sources and methods discussed, so that does create a situation where not everybody’s getting the right information. … We need [to work on] communicating what it is we’re really trying to do because we have to be a little bit guarded about how we say it.”

Dr. Rick Kreminski, director of the Institute of Cannabis Research, echoed those concerns.

“It’s a little tricky because some of this involves intellectual property, so I have to speak in generalities…” he said. “Just in general, talking about [marijuana] tracking, there are multiple approaches. Some involve DNA and some involve looking at the chemical composition, the isotope ratios, then another approach is cannabis in particular has a lot of different chemical compounds within it, called cannabinoids, and there’s also terpenes. You could look at the ratio of all those; those are going to vary” depending on where the plant is grown, and between individual plants.

For decades, scientists have been tracking cocaine and heroin via isotopic ratio tracking, which is based on the varying atomic weights of naturally-occurring isotopes in oxygen.

“You might have heard of radioactive carbon dating: How do you find out how old this bone is, from this mummy, or from the Ice Man that they find in the Alps? [This is] still the same kind of thing — but it’s a different isotope of carbon. … So in the case of the tracking, you can tell a little bit about where something came from based on the water that was there, and that’s the oxygen, or the nutrients that were pulled up.”

As for the marijuana tracking technology required by SB18-029, Kreminski said, it lies somewhere between work ICR has already been doing and projects that will need to be started from scratch.

“We have a lot of different projects underway and a lot of faculty working on these projects, and that includes with partners,” he said. “So we have been thinking about this tracking issue for a while, and we have done some preliminary work so we are aware of what possible options there are.”

The technology will be different to anything that’s out there. The heroin and cocaine tracking equipment used by Drug Enforcement and Administration is “very expensive — it has to be very sensitive to tell the difference in weights of these compounds…” he said. “That’s not what this bill is talking about. This bill is saying you need to come up with something that can be identified in a very cost-effective way, quickly, and probably in the field.

“It would have to not impact human health …  but it also would have to be something that could be stable, because the bill referred to edibles, so that means it’s processed plant,” he added.

At the Institute of Cannabis Research, faculty and students are exploring blockchain solutions for recording data in cannabis tracking.

Kreminski also pointed to CSU-Pueblo’s work relating to the data recording section of the bill, which requires the use of a distributed ledger or blockchain.

A new and revolutionary technology, blockchain is a distributed database that verifies transactions in chronological order, using a unique cryptographic signature for each record, forming a permanent ledger on a peer-to-peer network. It is exceptionally secure: Once information is stored on the blockchain, no one can revise or tamper with it.

Another Senate bill introduced Jan. 17, Cyber Coding Cryptology for State Records (SB 18-086), co-sponsored by Lambert and Sen. Angela Williams, aims to spur research into uses for blockchain in state government.

“Blockchain is of great interest now nationally and internationally,” Kreminski said. “There’s a lot of hype about blockchain but there’s also a lot of real genuine interest, and I have students working on a blockchain project right now. They understand it’s loosely connected with this cannabis tracking; they don’t know the details of what would be in the tracking because we don’t know yet, because there is no bill yet that’s been formalized.

“But I’ve instructed the students that these are, generally speaking, the kinds of things that we’re thinking of, so these are the kinds of data elements you’d have, and who would have read access and who would have access to write to the blockchain … . So they’re working on it, and it’s pretty neat — I mean they’re college students and they’ve got a working blockchain, and there’s a lot of security components to it.

“It’s not like we have a blockchain solution already,” he added, “but we’re exploring that. And that’s one of many projects that we have underway at the ICR. So we have … biochemistry and biology looking at tracking, possible tracking agents, and we have students and faculty looking at a possible blockchain. So we’re doing some work even though [the bill] is not [finalized].

“I think some of the issue with the bill is just educating people on what it really means,” he added, “and bills are amended all the time.”

Lambert said there’ll be a refined version of SB18-029 this legislative session, that will better explain how marijuana tracking will protect legal businesses, tax revenue, marijuana consumers and the industry itself.

“On the business side of it, we had legal marijuana growers saying, ‘We don’t want to be regulated with this substance.’ That’s not the intent at all,” he said. “As a matter of fact, if the federal government comes down and says, ‘We need to shut down marijuana production in Colorado,’ the only bargaining chip we have is to prove that it’s actually regulated and that the stuff out on the market is actually legal — and that’s what this bill will try to help do. … It’s going to be awfully hard to prove to the federal government that we’re actually regulating things effectively when between 50 to 65 percent of the marijuana sold is illegal.”

Consumer protection comes with the ability to verify that the marijuana has “gone through the scrutiny of the state in terms of the pesticide control,” Lambert said. “It should be a positive public health factor to know that you’re actually buying the real product that’s been regulated by the state; otherwise you take your chances with all sorts of ill effects.

“If you want to make a legal product, there is no FDA standard for this. There is no purity standard of inspections or anything else from the federal government. … So whatever you’re doing to protect the health and safety of the people of Colorado has to come from Colorado, because the federal government’s not going to help you out here.

“We’ve put millions of dollars into just the safety issues on this,” he said. “You have to make this safe and taxable, and that was part of the whole plan here.”