John O'Brien

John O'Brien

John currently works as a Global Biological Policy Intern at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. He holds a master's of science in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases from Georgetown University and a bachelor's of science in bioengineering from George Mason University. His research interests include health security policy, counterterrorism, emerging biotechnology, and machine learning in health. John also received news that his project submission was accepted for the USDA/ABSA biosecurity and biosafety symposium in February. The submission was based on a project he did for Dr. Parker's MICB 520 agroterrorism class, which is a core course required for our program. The abstract for his ABSA poster is shared below. 


Poster Title: The Threat of Agroterrorism to the Emerging U.S. Cannabis Industry

Objectives: Several indicators project the US cannabis industry to become an important agricultural commodity over the next decade. A majority of US states (33 and DC) have legal marijuana in some form.  With recreational sales taking in over $9 billion and employing 121,000 people in 2017, the economic significance of cannabis is evident. The legal cannabis industry alone (not including medical and hemp) in the US is expected to have a value of $47.3 billion by 2027. For comparison, the projected revenue in 2027 from corn and soybeans in the US is $75 billion and $46 billion respectively. If federally legalized, estimates project the industry will generate $132 billion in tax revenue and create 1 million jobs over the next decade. Given the rapidly impending importance of the industry, it is imperative to evaluate its vulnerability to agroterrorist threats for maintaining biosecurity and biosafety.

Method: Three focal points can be leveraged to evaluate the veracity of an agroterrorist threat.

1) Who would be motivated to carry out such an attack, or what would their motivations be?

2) How could crops be contaminated and how could that threaten biosecurity?

3) How is biosecurity typically handled in the industry and what are the vulnerabilities?

Results: 1) Potential perpetrators include those formerly supported by the black market, right-wing extremists, the financially motivated, and conventional terrorists attempting to exploit a popular commodity.  Black market personnel may retaliate due to the lost territory, lost profits, and lost way of life. Right-wing extremists who hold a negative view of cannabis may have reason to retaliate given its rise in popularity in recent years. Given the economic significance of cannabis, those wishing to do harm to the economy or engage in theft for personal gain must also be considered. ISIS has been reported to burn cannabis farms because of their negative views towards drugs. Contrastly, they have also reportedly used cannabis as an economic resource.

2) Over a hundred potential contaminants exist to eradicate or severely lower crop yields and/or cause illness in the consumer. Fungi and viruses are among the most economically harmful. Fungi such as B. cinerea and Cladosporium pose the largest threat to human health being able to cause a fatal aspergillus infection. There are 88 species of fungi that target cannabis, 9 species of nematodes, 2 genera of parasitic plants, 11 viruses, 4 species of bacteria, and several abiotic contaminants that also affect growth and production. There is also the possibility for a bad actor to replace natural marijuana with synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 or Spice. Between 2010 and 2015, there were 456 recorded cases of unintentional K2 consumption which often results in severe stomach bleeding and potential death. In 2016, there were 33 cases in Brooklyn. In 2017, there were 102 overdoses in Pennsylvania.  In April of 2018, there were 56 cases of severe bleeding in Illinois along with 2 deaths.

3) The biosecurity and biosafety practices of the industry are fragmented due to no federal oversight. Vulnerabilities include a lack of standardized testing for contaminants, a lack of basic farm security due to no regulation, outdoor grows subject to easy contamination, and a lack of countermeasures available in the event of a crop outbreak. In 2017, an immunocompromised patient died due to a fungal infection resulting from the use of medical cannabis acquired from a medical dispensary. This event triggered deeper investigations and the results found that of the 20 different samples from different medical dispensaries, 90% contained pathogens infectious to humans. A stark difference from the previously estimated number of only 20-30%. Only 5% of cannabis products in California are even tested for safety due to the fact that there are only 19 testing labs in the entire state to accommodate 50,000 cannabis farms which has negative implications for biosurveillance and biosecurity.

Conclusion: There is a threat to the security of the emerging US cannabis industry due to a lack of regulatory oversight governing  biosecurity and biosafety standards. There are not enough labs to test the safety of the products which is crucial for immunocompromised medical patients. A lack of countermeasures compounded with an existing pool of potential bad actors makes this an issue in dire need of addressing.

Outcomes: Regulation at the state and federal level is required to set universal security and quality control standards. Government may need to step in to take over lab testing procedures until the private market can support the demand of the industry. Federal regulation would require federal legalization. This would lead to regulatory involvement from the FDA and security monitoring from federal law enforcement. It would also allow for marijuana to fall under the scope of, and receive support from, several biosecurity and biosafety initiatives for improving agrodefense. Grow facilities and farms must bolster their security by switching to indoor grows, improving lab tests and screening procedures, requiring background checks, implementing gates and barriers to the facility, employing armed guards, and seeking support from the local police department. Additionally, there is a need for research exploring novel countermeasures to the aforementioned contaminants and pathogens in order to stymie the effects an outbreak could have on crop yield.