Tech by VICE

Colorado Wants to Track Weed With Chemicals and the Blockchain

Some dispensary owners have called the bill, SB 18-029, 'fucking crazy.'

by Troy Farah
Jan 24 2018, 2:00pm

Image: Shutterstock

Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would explore “marijuana tracking technology” that can be added to the plant itself to allow law enforcement to trace a plant back to its grower.

The bill would require a local cannabis research school to develop this marijuana-tracking technology, using either chemical agents, isotopes, nanotechnology, or other biological identifiers. It could even implement a distributed ledger or blockchain to encrypt it.

“The applied agent must contain identifiers that are traceable using distributed ledger technology to store records that can distinguish whether the marijuana is legal medical or retail marijuana or industrial hemp,” the bill reads.

The idea sounds straight out of a pothead conspiracy theorist manifesto—“The government wants to spray chemicals on our weed, man…”—and not surprisingly, this proposed legislation has raised a few eyebrows.

Some dispensary owners have called the bill, SB 18-029, “fucking crazy” while others have more eloquently expressed safety concerns over chemical agents added to herbs that are often smoked or ingested.

Read More: The Big Business of Making a Sativa Surveillance State

The bill is ostensibly aimed at helping law enforcement identify weed cultivated from legitimate agriculturists, versus weed grown outside the system in the so-called “gray market, produced by unlicensed growers, which is often shipped outside the state.

So far, the bill is vague on details—after all, the school, the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University-Pueblo, still needs to develop the technology. But it would potentially address the state’s black market marijuana industry, which some believe is problematic.

“We have a whole system, it works pretty darn well, it should be a model for the other states,” Lambert said, despite his personal opposition to legal marijuana. “But when people just go around the system and don't follow the law, then the state doesn't get the revenue, and there's no guarantee that this stuff isn't tainted.”

Like many states with legalized marijuana, Colorado has a system to track each cannabis plant with an RFID chip, from the moment it sprouts to the moment someone buys it. Dispensaries can use their own commercial business software to track inventory, but it all needs to be uploaded to something called called Metrc. Since December 2013, Metrc has registered more than 20,000 users, tracked more than 5,000,000 plants and 3,800,000 packages.

But this type of tech is easily circumvented, and tracking weed isn’t easy.

In 2016, the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division collected at least $683,500 in fines from allegedly law-breaking dispensaries, many of which skirted the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system. High taxes on weed encourage some pot smokers to avoid dispensaries, not to mention state law allows patients to grow 24 cannabis plants in their home in some cases. The Drug Enforcement Administration has described these residential grows as “the new meth labs.” But this new tech could tell you where your cannabis originated.

Patrick Vo, CEO of BioTrackTHC, manages the largest seed-to-sale technology company in the cannabis industry, operating in five countries and 28 states, including Colorado. He says he isn’t at all surprised by this pot-tracking bill, but he has more questions than answers.

“The bill, as I understand it, is to answer the question, is this technology possible?” Vo said in a phone call. “And what I'm asking is does this technology make sense for cannabis?... Assuming it is possible, what are the actual incremental benefits?”

“The proposed technology here is the plants maybe are sprayed with a chemical agent or absorb water with an unique isotope,” Vo said, based on his interpretation of the bill. If such an isotope readily absorbs into a plant, it would likely do the same to your body. “Even assuming it's harmless, I am now a walking beacon stating that I consume cannabis…Does that violate HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a data privacy law for medical records], at least on the medical end? Now my personal health information is readily available to anybody with an isotope scanner.”

Lambert said, “There's a lot of misunderstandings about what the bill does and what it doesn't do… one thing it does not do is not intended to have some sort of tainting of the plant… the intent is to it go through the same kind of stringent screening from the Health Department before any of this sees the light of day.”

But there are other questions, such as how difficult would the tracer be to spoof or dilute? Will the cost of this tech raise the price of weed, further incentivizing black market sales?

“There are a number of different scientific technologies that could be used, but you're never going to be able to tell until you have the actual equipment,” Lambert said.

Cannabis tracking of some sort has been discussed for decades, according to Dr. Rick Kreminski, the Executive Director of Research and Sponsored Programs and Director of the Institute of Cannabis Research. Since the bill was announced, he said he’s been fielding many calls and emails brainstorming different approaches to this tracking tech, but said he couldn’t share more details about these approaches because of potential copyright conflicts.

“I'm excited about the bill,” Kreminski said in a phone call. “Whether or not there are certain details in there that make complete sense, to me, it's innovative…We would have to be talk to a lot of people to make sure whatever we're proposing is practical…and we would want to ask the exact same questions [about safety.]”

The bipartisan bill will likely be revised before it’s voted on, Lambert said. It is also sponsored by Colorado state legislators Sen. Leroy Garcia (D), Rep. Dan Pabon (D), and Rep. Yeulin Willet (R).