TBI crime lab inundated with marijuana vs hemp tests, agents want more resources and regulations

Becky Campbell • Nov 3, 2019 at 6:50 PM

The hemp industry in Tennessee has effectively eliminated law enforcement K-9 officers to make probable cause determinations in the field when they suspect someone of possessing marijuana, according to a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab scientist.

Scientists and agents at the TBI forensic lab in Knoxville talked to the media last week about issues surrounding marijuana vs. hemp and lack of resources to handle the huge influx of requested testing.

Mike Lyttle, assistant director of the forensic services division, made the bold statement last week during a media event at the TBI Knoxville office. His frustration was echoed by two other TBI agents — Special Agent Tommy Farmer and Special Agent Jim Williams — who both see the problem but don’t know how to fix it.

“The crime lab has provided hemp samples to K-9 handlers for them to experiment with, and they confirmed what they feared which was their dog simply cannot tell the difference between hemp and marijuana,” Lyttle said.

With the legalization of hemp growing, many farmers across the state are changing over their various crops to grow hemp, which is more profitable. But in the field, when officers pull someone over and there’s evidence the person has marijuana, K-9s will alert on hemp just like they do marijuana. Field tests also react the same way when the leafy substance is tested.

To truly determine if the material is hemp or marijuana takes a three-step color process that must be done in the lab setting. As a result, all three TBI forensic labs — Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis — are inundated with material law enforcement has asked to be tested. The first color test takes more than a few minutes as does the second one. But the third test is more complicated for lab agents and can create a backlog of evidence waiting to be tested.

All three agents said their enforcement and lab resources are stretched to the maximum, and without more space, agents and scientists there will continue to be a lengthy wait time for test results.

Lyttle said the Knoxville lab is equipped to test about 22,000 cases per year, but he expects by year’s end scientists will have received 34,000 samples for testing.

“To do 50 percent more testing, we are going to need more people, more equipment and more laboratory space,” he said. In the Knoxville lab, there is room for 14 scientists to work, but it’s not just marijuana and hemp that’s being tested.

The opioid epidemic as well as other deadly drugs that are making a strong comeback, particularly heroin which is now often laced with fentanyl, have made for more testing.. Meth is also still big in East Tennessee, but the issue is not so much meth labs as it is more pure methamphetamine making its way to the U.S. from Mexico. Mexico and China are also big suppliers for the synthetic fentanyl that has become so prevalent as a “cutting” agent for heroin.

Vaping material sent for testing has also soared, the agents said. According to Farmer, agents are seizing shipments of THC vape cartridges that are 99 percent pure.

“That’s incapacitating,” Farmer said. 

There are new ways for law enforcement to do more complicated field tests, but the kits are not widely available yet and there is only a couple of suppliers. While many citizens say legalizing marijuana would cut down on the drug trade, the agents disagree and would like to see more regulations on how hemp is regulated. Farmer said the state needs to develop and implement more regulations on the industry to not only help law enforcement, but the hemp farmers as well.

Michael Bleakley, TBI forensic scientist supervisor at the lab, said the agency needs 10 to 20 new positions across the state to keep up with the demand for testing.

“It’s so new not everyone (law enforcement) knows about it,” he said. “We have a multi-month backlog of kits to work through. The number of cases coming in is more than we can handle at this point,” Bleakley said. And it isn’t just plant material scientist receive in marijuana cases. THC vaping vials are even more complicated to test, he said.

Johnson City Press Videos