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September 8, 2020
The Houston Forensic Science Center has adopted a testing method to differentiate
hemp from marijuana, providing the courts with information needed to more easily
enforce existing marijuana laws for the first time in more than a year.
The method launched Tuesday by HFSC’s seized drugs section can measure whether
delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC,) the controlled substance in the cannabis plant that
causes a “high,” is above or below 1 percent. This will allow the laboratory to
differentiate illegal marijuana from legal hemp.
The Texas Legislature sent marijuana enforcement statewide into upheaval in June 2019
when it legalized hemp by defining it as a cannabis product with 0.3 percent or less
Crime laboratories statewide did not have the capability to measure the amount of THC
in any cannabis products, making it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for
prosecutors to prove whether a seized plant material was marijuana or hemp.
As a result of the new law, some district attorneys, including from Harris County,
requested that law enforcement agencies provide lab reports showing the evidence is
marijuana as that information is key to any prosecution for possession of marijuana.
Since public crime laboratories in Texas have been unable to do this testing until now, it
meant law enforcement agencies had to decide when to spend hundreds _ and
sometimes thousands _ of dollars to send evidence to a private laboratory. Often, these
resources were dedicated to only the largest felony caes.
As a result of the analysis method launched Tuesday, Houston prosecutors will now be
able to use public laboratory test results to prove in court whether a seized plant
material is marijuana.
“This new method will address the vast majority of the cases, though only for plant
material, not products,” said James Miller, manager of HFSC’s seized drugs section.
This means the method developed cannot be used to determine the THC concentration
in oils, waxes, edibles and other non-plant materials. Seized drugs analysts will
continue researching whether the method can be used on these products going forward.
However, the method is limited in scope since it will measure THC concentrations at 1
percent or more although the law defines any item with a THC concentration of more
than 0.3 percent as a controlled substance. As a result, HFSC will require stakeholders
to acknowledge the limitations of the testing in an end-user agreement. HFSC will also
note those limitations on all final reports.
“We hope that with the implementation of this method we will be able to provide
stakeholders with the scientific information they need to deal with at least some
suspected marijuana products,” said Dr. Peter Stout, HFSC’s CEO and president.
“This has been a successful collaborative effort with other crime laboratories in the state
and we hope that the consistency in our analyses will be beneficial,” he added.
The Texas Legislature passed H.B. 1325 in 2019, a law intended to allow for the
commercialization of hemp and its byproducts, such as popular CBD merchandise.
H.B. 1325 defined marijuana as anything with more than 0.3 percent THC and hemp as
anything with a lower percentage.
Marijuana is a controlled substance under Texas and federal law. Texas based its hemp
legalization law on a 2018 federal law that legalized hemp and its byproducts.
HFSC is a local government corporation that provides forensic services to the City of
Houston and other local agencies. HFSC is overseen by a Board of Directors appointed
by the Mayor of Houston and confirmed by the Houston City Council. Its management
structure is designed to be responsive to a 2009 recommendation by the National
Academy of Sciences that called for crime laboratories to be independent of law
enforcement and prosecutorial branches of government.
HFSC operates in seven forensic disciplines.
Ramit Plushnick-Masti
Director of Communications/PIO
713-703-4898 (cell)
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