LINCOLN — A vexing law enforcement problem is finding a solution.

As of Thursday, there are now two crime labs in the state that can discern between illegal marijuana and recently legalized hemp.

Previously, none of the three crime labs in the state had tests able to determine the amount of THC — the compound that makes someone high — in the green leafy plant.

That had caused confusion in law enforcement circles, and prompted some counties to suspend prosecutions of small marijuana busts because of the expense of obtaining out-of-state tests.

But Thursday, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office announced that its crime lab, which serves about 20 law enforcement agencies in the Omaha area, now has a validated process to determine whether a cannabis sample contains at least 1% THC, thus making it illegal. A spokesman for the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which provides crime lab tests for the Omaha Police Department, also said Thursday that the med center’s crime lab had developed a test.

It was a good day for law enforcement, said Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov, whose office uses the Douglas County lab.

“Now with testing, we have something to take to court,” Polikov said.

The World-Herald, back in August, first reported that several Nebraska prosecutors, including those in the state’s second-largest county, had suspended prosecutions of small amounts of marijuana. They cited the lack of in-state tests, and the expense of obtaining tests, and court testimony, from labs outside the state.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.

On Thursday, Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon said his office is still holding back on prosecuting cases involving small amounts of marijuana and pot residue. But he said he plans to look into what the Douglas County lab has to offer.

Lancaster County, like most law enforcement agencies outside the Omaha area, uses the Nebraska State Patrol’s crime lab. A spokesman said Thursday that the state crime lab was still working to validate a THC test that could be used in court.

The dilemma first arose a year ago, when the U.S. Congress passed a new farm bill allowing states to legalize the cultivation of hemp for industrial uses, as long as the hemp — which looks and smells just like marijuana — registered at below 0.3% THC.

In May, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a bill passed by the Nebraska Legislature allowing hemp cultivation in the state. That presented a new problem for criminal prosecutors — they now had to prove, via a test, that the cannabis seized in a drug bust was really illegal marijuana that tested above the 0.3% THC level, and not legal hemp.

Christine Gabig, a chemist with the Douglas County Sheriff’s forensic services bureau, said that the crime lab worked overtime to develop and validate its THC tests. Beyond the internal validation, the tests complied with accreditation standards of the ANSI National Accreditation Board, a national organization for forensic labs.

“We knew this was important for law enforcement,” Gabig said. The lab performs testing for law enforcement agencies in the Omaha area, including the sheriff’s offices in Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties, and suburban police departments, like those in Ralston, La Vista and Papillion.

She said the Douglas County lab performed hundreds of tests to validate their testing procedures, which were based on a method used by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Gabig said the test is “fast and easy” and won’t overly delay other testing required at the crime lab.

Typically, she said, marijuana contains between 15% and 28% THC content, so a test that shows at least a content of 1% THC was deemed adequate by prosecutors. Gabig said it remains to be seen whether more precise tests will be needed in the future to discern THC levels below 1% and down to 0.3%.

If there’s a need for it, she said, the lab would seek to perform such testing.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
0
0
0
0
0