Forensic scientists blast State Police crime lab THC policy as man fights to get son back

Jan 18, 2016

Max Lorincz and his wife Erica Chittenden outside their home in Spring Lake in Ottawa County. The couple has been fighting to be reunited with their son Dante since Max was charged with possessing synthetic THC – a charge some forensic scientists say is absurd.
Credit Rick Pluta / MPRN

Maxwell Lorincz lives in Spring Lake near Lake Michigan with his wife and their six-year-old son. At least, they did live with their son, until a year and a half ago.

They lost custody of him after Lorincz was charged with a felony for possessing synthetic THC. He’s a card-carrying medical marijuana patient. But that hasn’t helped in his fight to get his son back.

So for now, the family gets unsupervised visits for a few hours every week.

“Normally after he leaves we pick up his room. But the last few times, he’s gotten a little upset when we do, so we’ve been trying to leave his characters right where he left them every time he leaves,” Lorincz says as he and his wife Erica Chittenden stand in their son Dante’s bedroom, which is messy with toys strewn all over the place.

Lorincz says taking marijuana in concentrated oil form is the best way to help his severe back pain, the result of a work-related accident.

In 2014, Chittenden needed medical attention, so they called 9-1-1. A police officer arrived with paramedics. The officer found a lid in their home with a small amount of residue from marijuana oil on it.

“He picked it up and asked what it was. And I told him. He took it and said that they were going to take it for testing,” said Lorincz.

The way the State Police crime lab handled that sample is one reason Lorincz is having a hard time getting his son back.

In 2013, the Michigan State Police quietly changed a policy at its crime labs.

It instructed its lab technicians to change how they handle samples containing THC. That’s the chemical in marijuana responsible for its psychological effects.

It used to be that if it was obvious that a crime lab sample came from a marijuana plant, the lab report would say that. Now, unless there’s visible plant material in the sample, the lab must say the origin is unknown.

That’s important. It means prosecutors can pursue felony charges because they can argue in court that the drugs police found are synthetic. Possessing synthetic THC carries tougher penalties than possessing marijuana from a plant. It’s the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor.

The Michigan Public Radio Network first reported on the policy change and Lorincz’s case in October.

The Ottawa County Prosecutor’s office has not responded to multiple requests for comment about Lorincz’s case.

A number of forensic scientists are now speaking out against the policy, saying there’s no way most or any of the samples in question contain synthetic THC.

“It is unreasonable to make any qualifying statements that this stuff might be synthetic. It is not a reasonable scientific conclusion that one could reach,” said Dr. Jay Siegel, a professor emeritus of forensic science at Michigan State University who has worked in crime labs across the country.

Sigel also instructed many technicians in the State Police crime lab, including its current director who oversaw the implementation of the THC policy.

He says samples that come from marijuana hold obvious clues – such as other chemicals that come from marijuana plants. He says those would be extremely difficult if not impossible to create in a lab – and there’s no reason anyone would want to.

Siegel says the only explanation he can come up with for the policy change is political pressure.

“And if that’s the case, that’s deplorable. All the things I ever taught those students was that you have to be a scientist here. You have to be true to the science and not the political or any other kind of pressure,” he said.

The former director of the state crime lab agrees.

“You’re really getting into an ugly area that really gets into professional ethics as far as the reporting of testing results. And my understanding is, having looked at this, is that that line was crossed,” said John Collins, who is also a former student of Siegel’s.

Collins says he quit as head of the crime lab in part because of what he calls “tremendous” pressure from prosecutors to present evidence in a way that’s beneficial to them.

“There are some that really I think view forensic science as being a prosecution business as opposed to a science business,” he said.

Lorincz’s lawyer and several other criminal defense attorneys have formally requested a federal review of the crime lab policy, and hope it will be struck down.

“The lab specifically changed their policy to report these things in a way that they could arrest patients or caregivers, instead of honoring the protections of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act. And that is what this case turned into,” said Michael Komorn, who is representing Lorincz in both his criminal and child custody cases.

Komorn uncovered State Police e-mails through a Freedom of Information Act request that show internal debate about whether to adopt the policy. His associates provided the documents to the Michigan Public Radio Network in October.

Some lab technicians were adamantly against the policy switch.

"It is unreasonable to make any qualifying statements that this stuff might be synthetic. It is not a reasonable scientific conclusion that one could reach."

“This could lead to the wrong charge of possession of synthetic THC and the ultimate wrongful conviction of an individual. For the laboratory to contribute to this possible miscarriage of justice would be a huge black eye for the Division and the Department,” said Lansing crime lab Controlled Substances Unit Supervisor Bradley Choate in an email to colleagues.

Choate pointed out in an e-mail that the lab’s guiding principles state "that 'Conclusions are based on the evidence and the reference material relevant to the evidence, not on extraneous information, political pressure, or other outside influences.’"

Many others in the correspondence appeared to back the policy change.

“…other cannablnoids [sic] *can* be manufactured synthetically, just as THC can be,” wrote Inspector John Bowen with MSP’s Quality Assurance & Technical Development division.

“Is it likely that someone went to the trouble to manufacture THC and two other cannabinoids, mix them up, and bake them into a pan of brownies? Of course not. That doesn't mean we should change the results to show we found Marijuana. We didn't, because Marijuana is a plant, and we didn't find plant parts.”

"I'm just hoping to get this law clarified and get our son back."

  When asked for comment for this piece, a State Police spokesperson said the department did not want to “dignify (the) allegations with any interviews.” But she said the policy change was needed to create consistency between all of its labs across the state. And she said it’s up to prosecutors to decide which charges to pursue.

The documents uncovered by Komorn show clearly that an employee of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM) offered advice in favor of the policy switch. But PAAM says it did not direct or pressure the lab to adopt it.

Meanwhile, Max Lorincz and his wife say they just want the whole ordeal to be over.

“I’m just hoping to get this law clarified and get our son back.”