Pubdate: Thu, 07 Jun 2007
Source: Anchorage Press (AK)
Copyright: 2007 Anchorage Publishing, Inc.
Author: Casey Grove
Photos: from the weekly newspaper
Cited: Alaska Stable Isotope Facility
Bookmark: (Marijuana)

The High Road:


The B.C. bud came across the border to Alaska hidden under wooden 
boards covering the frame of a long flatbed trailer, the kind you 
might use to haul around some heavy equipment.

One big bust in April of 2006 by the federal Drug Enforcement 
Administration filled up about 10 large cardboard boxes with 308 
pounds of British Columbia pot. Subsequent arrests ended six years of 
smuggling for the drug ring, but not before they transported roughly 
2,200 pounds of marijuana worth $10 million, law enforcement 
officials estimate.

It wasn't the absolute highest quality, say local pot smokers, but it 
was good. Good enough to compete with the high-quality Alaska-grown 
pot and flood the market. Law enforcement officers have long 
suspected that Alaska is both an exporter and an importer of 
marijuana. Alaska's black market, once thought to be awash in its own 
excellent marijuana, seems to in fact be a crossroads for some of the 
best pot in the world.

When cops seize marijuana from drug smugglers, such as the ones using 
the flatbed trailer, they have a better chance of tracking down where 
it came from. When they seize it at the source, the grow room, they 
know exactly where it came from.

But plastic baggies of marijuana buds sit hidden in the pockets, 
backpacks, automobiles, and homes of millions of Americans. And when 
this pot gets intercepted during traffic stops and other 
officer-to-person contacts, often its origin is unknown -- even to 
the pot smoker.

What Alaska law enforcement hasn't had -- until now -- was a 
quantitative way of telling how much of the state's pot was grown 
here and how much was grown Outside. Nor could they pinpoint the 
geographic area in which a particular bag of pot was from. Now, 
researchers and police at the University of Alaska Fairbanks might 
have a way to find out exactly where in the world those buds grew.

Inside the lab at the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility in the Water and 
Environmental Research Center at UAF, bulky gray boxes with digital 
displays are connected to each other with venting ducts and bundles 
of wires that run up to the ceiling. A radio set to a classic rock 
station is playing somewhere. It's an attempt to mask the whirring, 
clicking and popping of the spectrometers and all the noise created 
by their peripheral devices. They also have the radio on "to keep the 
instruments happy," says Dr. Matthew Wooller, an associate professor 
at the university and one of the marijuana study's principal investigators.

The facility, which is part of the Institute of Northern Engineering 
at UAF, analyzes the stable isotopic signatures of thousands of 
samples, including water, glacier ice cores, animal fur, and bird 
feathers. And, most recently, they've been looking at marijuana.

This is how it works: Elements like oxygen and hydrogen have 
naturally occurring isotopes, which are simply variations in the 
number of neutrons in atoms of the same element. The more neutrons, 
the heavier the atom.

Because of the tilt in Earth's axis, the planet's weather patterns 
tend to originate in the tropics and spiral northward. As that 
happens, isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen (the building blocks of 
water) with a greater atomic mass tend to fall out of the atmosphere 
closer to the equator. A proportionately higher number of lighter 
isotopes stay in the atmosphere longer and make their way farther north.

"By the time precipitation has moved up here" Wooller says, "it is 
proportionately rained out."

The result: "Up here in Alaska, we live in a pretty unique isotopic 

"Plants take that [isotopic] signature up," Wooller says. There are 
about a dozen office plants sitting behind him. "They take that water up."

His computer screen shows a global map of hundreds of sites where the 
isotopic signature of local water has been analyzed. "It's that very 
subtle difference in mass that yields this type of map for water," 
Wooller says.

Wooller points out his office window to the Alaska Range. Mountains 
also cause heavier isotopes to fall out, he says. Because Interior 
Alaska sits in the rain shadow of both the Alaska and Brooks ranges, 
the isotopic signature of Fairbanks water is even more unique.

Stable isotope analysis has allowed wildlife biologists to track 
animal migrations and paleontologists to reconstruct ancient 
ecosystems or scrutinize dinosaur remains, among many other things. 
It's proven to be especially effective at analyzing organic compounds 
in plants, even plants that are millions of years old, Wooller says.

It can even be used to track people. While his wife (now also a UAF 
professor) was living in Boston, Wooller frequently traveled between 
there and Fairbanks. He saved his fingernail clippings from these 
trips and sampled his own hair. The isotopes present in the hair and 
nails were consistent with the isotopic signatures of wherever he was 
at the time they were collected -- Boston or Fairbanks. Armed with 
those results, Wooller and his wife co-authored a paper, which was 
recently accepted by Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, the 
premier academic journal in his field.

So Why Not Pot?

That was the question posed by Wooller and his fellow researchers, 
Tim Howe, Norma Haubenstock and Melanie Rohr. In October 2005, they 
wrote a proposal to the University of Alaska Foundation President's 
Special Projects Fund. The proposal was titled, "A novel application 
of stable isotope techniques to 'fingerprint' the origin of Marijuana 
in Alaska."

"Alaska's a great place to do that, because it has such a wide 
isotopic variation just across the state," Wooller says. "It also has 
marijuana being grown in numerous locations, and that's great." Great 
for the study, he means.

Getting funding can be difficult, especially with complex, highly 
regulated projects. Wooller's proposal succeeded in winning that 
support, but the real work began when the proposal was accepted. The 
DEA must regulate all controlled substances, and an agent had to make 
sure there were controls in place for the marijuana study.

"It took us about a year to get the red tape out of the way," Wooller 
says. With help from the UAF Police Department, Wooller's team began 
the laborious process of getting authorized by the feds to handle marijuana.

Every last bit of pot must be accounted for and logged. The lab had 
to be outfitted with a tiny safe, which was bolted to the floor. To 
handle the marijuana, Wooller, Howe and Haubenstock had to undergo 
background checks. Deadbolts were added to doors entering the room 
where samples were weighed. Two people were required to observe the 
measuring in an adjoining room, in case something went wrong. "It was 
kind of overkill, in my opinion," Wooller says. But they jumped 
through the hoops.

The DEA, the UAF police, and the university's Office of Research 
Integrity checked off the changes to the lab. There was just one more 
obstacle, one that would be familiar to plenty of pot smokers: 
getting some weed.

"They said all they would need was a visible sample," says UAF Police 
Officer Stephen Goetz while sitting at the UAF Police Department. 
He's holding a small vial containing about a hundredth of a gram of 
marijuana. "If you could see it, that was enough."

At first, most of the samples came from traffic stops and officer 
contacts on or around campus, Goetz says. He catalogued each of them, 
wrote a short summary about when and where it was collected, and 
wrote the case number and date on the vial.

At UAF, most of the officers specialize in a particular area of law 
enforcement. Goetz's specialty is drugs. He often assists the Alaska 
Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement in and around Fairbanks with 
busts of meth labs and marijuana grows.

Goetz started to get the word out about Wooller's marijuana study. 
Through his contacts with ABADE, they started getting samples from 
agencies outside of UAF, including many from the Alaska State 
Troopers in Fairbanks and the Soldotna Police Department.

UAF police were happy to help, because the project fit well with what 
they believe is their role in the community.

"We see this police department here, on a college campus, as wanting 
to do more," says UAF Police Chief Sean McGee. "How can we work with 
the students and faculty as law enforcement to make this a better community?"

"Otherwise, I think you're just sticking your head in the sand if you 
just go out there and write tickets," McGee says. "There's a bigger 
picture here."

But it was sometimes difficult to depend on other departments, Goetz 
says. They might have been overstretched, and they weren't invested 
in the project in the way UAF police are. For example, after a big 
bust somewhere, an agency might forget to collect a sample, or they'd 
forget to do a summary, Goetz says. "It was a pain in the ass," he says.

Then he got in touch with the evidence custodian at the Trooper post 
in Fairbanks. Goetz did most of the extra legwork of cataloguing the 
seized evidence as samples for a science experiment.

"She had just piles of evidence down there," Goetz says. He 
catalogued about 40 samples, to add to the body of data yet to be analyzed.

The isotope lab's tan and silver-colored combustion unit -- a 
three-foot by three-foot box that burns marijuana, among other things 
- -- is attached to an equally plain-looking mass spectrometer. At 
first, listening to Wooller explain how it works, the setup seems 
like it could be the world's most expensive bong.

After the tiny bits of pot are freeze-dried and weighed, they get put 
in a tin capsule and into a circular tray that has 50 slots. Those 
trays get stacked on top of the pyrolysis unit -- so called because 
it burns the sample without additional oxygen. (Introducing oxygen to 
the sample would affect the results, Wooller says.) As the circular 
trays turn, samples are dropped into the pyrolysis unit.

Once the samples are weighed and prepared -- and they're continually 
being prepared -- the machines can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The small pulse of carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide from the pot is 
cleaned up by the machine and placed into a constant stream of 
helium, an inert gas. Helium doesn't affect the samples, explains 
Wooller: "It's called the 'carrier' gas."

The gas and the sample enter the stable isotope ratio mass 
spectrometer. "The carbon monoxide is excited inside the mass 
spectrometer," Wooller says. "[Then it's] sent through a flight tube 
that passes in front of what's essentially a huge magnet," he says, 
making a sweeping motion with his hand across the front of the spectrometer.

The magnet pulls on the isotopes proportionally to their relative 
atomic mass, Wooller says. Just as the isotopes fall out of the 
atmosphere proportionally, they also get yanked out of the stream of 
helium as the magnet pulls on them. Lighter isotopes get pulled off 
course more easily than heavier isotopes, which make it farther down 
the flight tube. Various collector cups line the inside, and sensors 
inside the cups register when they are hit with a stable isotope.

A sample might register a relatively heavy isotopic signature if 
enough atoms bang into the farthest cups down the tube -- or it might 
register as a light signature, which is consistent with water from 
northern latitudes.

With the global database of isotopic signatures showing the 
signatures of water from locations all over the planet, and plenty of 
their own data, the researchers are able to create two maps. One 
shows marijuana migration patterns into Alaska, and another, 
marijuana migration patterns into the Lower 48.

What it shows is that the marijuana sampled in the study had taken up 
water with an isotopic signature consistent with various well 
locations around Fairbanks, including Water Wagon, a water delivery 
service. Some of the pot also appears to have been grown in Juneau 
and British Columbia. Some was consistent with signatures from as far 
south as Mexico.

The findings surprised Goetz, he says. If more data could be 
analyzed, and further study proved their early conclusions to be 
correct, he says, "maybe there needs to be a shift in interdiction techniques."

"If we find that more really is being shipped in," Goetz says, "then 
you'd have to look at how that's getting by you."

Still, Goetz and others recognize that plenty of that pot is coming 
from local growers.

"I couldn't see the profit margin for shipping pot into Alaska when 
there's so much already here," Goetz says. "I can only conclude that 
the demand [for pot] is greater than publicly suspected."

Goetz has helped bust marijuana grows, and he's seen a lot of pot in 
his day. But so has Harvey Goehring, DEA Assistant Special Agent for 
Alaska. The fact that pot comes to Alaska from somewhere else isn't 
news to Goehring, who's been with the DEA for more than 20 years.

"I would ask, 'Why do you have anybody living anywhere buying dope 
from somewhere else?'" says Goehring.

While stationed in Colombia for two years during the '90s, Goehring 
says he once saw a shipping container full of pot -- 20,000 pounds of 
it, plus some coffee -- at the Port of Cartagena. Colombia's cocaine 
routinely makes its way through Mexico, and into the Lower 48 and 
Alaska. A lot even gets shipped to Europe, Goehring says. So it's not 
surprising that some pot comes here from far away, he says.

"We do have a lot of marijuana coming in [to Alaska] from Outside," 
Goehring says. "As the DEA, we know that."

Alaskans are a very diverse bunch, Goehring says, and for those 
who've moved here and are seeking drugs, the easiest way to get them 
is sometimes through contacts back home. It could come in a FedEx box 
or a flatbed trailer, Goehring says.

The hookup in British Columbia made millions of dollars for the 
criminal marijuana smuggling ring that was busted in 2006.

"That street level person, he didn't know it was B.C. bud, but there 
were several links back to Canada," Goehring says.

While the study might not be a surprise to Goehring, it is valuable, he says.

"Intelligence is always a great thing," he says. "If somebody hands 
me a piece of intelligence, I'm not going to say, 'Oh we don't need 
that.' That's crazy."

"Whether that's going to be used in court ... I couldn't honestly say 
for sure," Goehring says. Several guilty pleas have been entered for 
suspects in the flatbed trailer ring, but a couple of the suspects 
are still awaiting adjudication.

Continued funding for Dr. Wooller's study is currently pending. But 
he doesn't think most pot smokers have much to worry about.

"They're not trying to pinpoint some smalltime grower," he says, 
"They're trying to pinpoint bigger, organized crime-type growers."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake