How do cops spot the difference between legal hemp and marijuana?


Hemp. The familiar green plant that is nearly indistinguishable from marijuana contributes to a vast array of products throughout the United States. And over the last few years, it has been legalized throughout nearly every state in the country for pilot and research programs.

But what happens when a truck full of a truck of illegal-looking plants is pulled over by a member of law enforcement?

In January, Idaho State Police pulled over a driver transporting nearly 7,000 lbs. of plants that looked like cannabis. After bringing in a K9 unit to inspect the truck, the officer concluded that it was marijuana and arrested the driver.

Flash forward a few weeks, and the substance turned out to be completely legal hemp, as the driver had originally claimed. The felony trafficking charges against the driver are reportedly set to be dropped; however, the company who owned the hemp is suing.

Back in 2015, Senator Mitch McConnell helped pass a bill that would allow for hemp plants to be cultivated in the agriculture sector.

“I want to make sure our legal hemp producers can safely transport their crops between states, including to states that maintain processing facilities, so they can fully capitalize on the commercial potential for this commodity,” said McConnell.

Last year, the 2018 Farm Bill changed federal policy regarding industry hemp, including the removal of the plant from the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp contributes to products like dietary supplements, skin products, clothing, and more.

This change in law ultimately means more hemp plants being cultivated, which leads to more plants on the road. For these plants to be considered ‘legal,’ they must not contain more than 0.3% THC, the active compound in cannabis that gets users ‘high.’

To the untrained eye, hemp and cannabis plants can be nearly indistinguishable.

How do cops spot the difference between legal hemp and marijuana?
To the naked eye, legal hemp and illegal cannabis are difficult to tell apart. (Pixabay)

Greg Giuntini from DetectaChem Inc. specializes in detection of dangerous narcotics and explosives, and believes police officers needs to be equipped with the right tools in order to handle scenarios like these. 

“Bulk transporting marijuana can be a Federal charge while transporting the same amount of hemp has no current legal ramification. Currently there is nothing that can be done if a law enforcement officers stops a tractor trailer full of certified hemp.”

And the difference between a legal act and a felony comes down to very specific numbers.

“The legal concentration differentiating hemp from cannabis is the THC content remaining under 0.3%. Law enforcement can benefit from something like the MobileDetect trace THC pouches as an inexpensive tool to differentiate hemp from marijuana.”

Giuntini also says that the plants aren’t completely harmless, and can play a role for dealers.

“The big concern is that THC extraction methods can still be performed on hemp to yield hash oil. Hash oil, shatter, etc. is highly pure THC and can be used in a variety of highly profitable ways.”

Marbet Lewis of Spiritus Law is an expert on the ever-changing laws behind the cannabis industry.

“Law enforcement officials are faced with the greatest risk in these murky areas because legality with respect to individual use and possession is so unclear. It’s very difficult for law enforcement officials to go through the lengthy analysis on legality during a routine traffic stop.”

“Currently, there are very few checks and balances on bulk transportation of hemp,” Lewis went on to say. “Individual cultivation for personal use was not the aim or intent of the 2018 Farm Bill. So, the legality of individual production, use or sale is largely left to state legislative efforts and regulation.”

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