A quietly spoken police officer, dressed in trademark black boots and blue-on-blue is hunched over a lab table examining a huge fist of cannabis.
Kent Onesemo is one of 10 forensic police officers in Samoa. But the father of three has big dreams of making changes in his field of expertise.
For the past two years, Onesemo has been living in central Auckland, studying the potency of New Zealand and Samoan cannabis with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research’s [ESR] drug chemistry team.
His landmark thesis, which aims to create a baseline for future research to build upon, might just be what Kiwis will soon need to make an informed decision in the upcoming referendum to decriminalise cannabis.
He also wants to improve the reliability of forensic evidence in Samoa and increase its use in courtrooms.
To do that he has left his family, and his job behind. He’s also had to import cannabis into New Zealand, which was no easy feat.
POTENCY, PROFILES AND POLICE WORK
Onesemo speaks so demurely it’s hard to hear what he is saying. But he laughs out loud when asked if he brought the Samoan cannabis samples to New Zealand in his carry-on.
The 27-year-old’s research is funded by a Science Support Award and represents a collaborative effort between Samoa and New Zealand police, the University of Auckland and ESR.
One of his aims is to pinpoint the origins of different strains of cannabis and if it can be traced back to a specific location by using what is called elemental profiles.
He and his thesis supervisor Cameron Johnson, who is a senior ESR scientist, wanted to be able to compare cannabis varieties from the Pacific Islands with samples collected by New Zealand police during national operations.
So in July last year, Onesemo flew home to the Samoan island of Upolu and spent several weeks convincing the head of narcotics, and then the commissioner of police, to source the samples and sign the paperwork.
After some back-and-forth sorting out samples and licenses, Onesemo got his wish.
“That was a big win for my thesis – and also for Samoa.”
Then he waited patiently for it to arrive at the ESR’s Auckland lab, where he has been studying for the past two years.
“It took a while, but I got there.”
Cannabis is illegal in both New Zealand and Samoa, and Onesemo hopes his research will help his fellow police officers identify suspects and their products more efficiently.
He says cannabis is one of the most common drugs in Samoa although grow operations aren’t that sophisticated and other, harder drugs, aren’t that prevalent.
Currently, possession and cultivation of a prohibited plant carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment under the Samoan Narcotics Act. The act was amended in 2009, effectively doubling the maximum sentence.
In New Zealand, a raft of cannabis reforms could change how we think about the pungent green stuff.
According to police, penalties associated with cannabis currently range from a $500 fine for possession to 14 years imprisonment for its supply or manufacture.
However, late last year Justice Minister Andrew Little announced the Government would hold a referendum on personal cannabis use at the 2020 general election – and the result will be binding.
The Green Party negotiated the referendum during Confidence and Supply Talks to form the Government, and recent polling on the issue suggests the referendum will see cannabis decriminalised.
CANNABIS ORIGINS AND CHEMICAL FINGERPRINTS
Onesemo says there is a lot of research into the health effects of high potency cannabis, but his research is the first time the spotlight has been turned on Samoa.
It’s also updated information about New Zealand cannabis gained 10 years ago. One finding he can share is that Samoan cannabis is not as potent as New Zealand varieties.
“Changes to the normal baseline would mean a new strain of cannabis has been introduced into the country or a change in the growing operations carried out by cultivators,” he explains.
“This kind of information is important with police investigations as it sort of shows that cannabis growers are learning and adapting; therefore police have to keep up.”
His research also looks at ways to determine the origin of cannabis samples using something called elemental profiles.
He says the concept behind the origin determination analysis is that a plant will incorporate things such as nutritional elements from its environment as it grows.
So if there is something specific about a location a plant grows in, for instance, contaminants from a nearby factory, then it will be present in the plant’s elemental profile, making it different from plants grown in other areas thus giving it a unique chemical fingerprint.
Along with improving the reliability of forensic evidence in Samoa, Onesemo hopes his research will lead to more collaborations with ESR, New Zealand Police and “any other agency” to fortify the forensic capacity of the Samoan Police.
He says there is an accredited lab called the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa, the country’s ESR equivalent, but he’s unsure how they conduct their testing.
Onesemo would also like graduate students with a background in chemistry and biology to see there are career options outside the health sector.
“The forensics division with the Samoa police allows another career avenue for students who can use their knowledge to help with police investigations and furthermore increase the standard of forensics in the Pacific,” he says.
NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell says New Zealand has lacked Onesemo’s type of research for a very long time.
He says we also lack critical data which is needed to one day establish a regulated legal cannabis market so that regulators would be able to specify what kind of cannabis is allowed to be sold.
Ross reckons this research can ultimately lead to decisions being made on whether you can put a cap on how potent cannabis can be or, for example, would you tax really potent cannabis more highly than mild cannabis just like what is done with whiskey compared to beer.
“We have a whole lot of baseline information we really need to get done now, so that if we were all going to vote yes at the referendum and created this regulated market, then we could start tracking the effectiveness or otherwise of those changes,” Bell says.
Meanwhile, University of Auckland’s head of chemical sciences, associate professor Gorson Miskelly, says Onesemo’s research is very useful because it is going to be important to be able to discriminate between different types of cannabis if it’s decriminalised in this country.
DISCUSSING SCHOLARSHIPS WITH A MECHANIC
For Onesemo, his narrowing area of specialisation grew out of an undergraduate interest in forensic toxicology. He was given a report to do on cannabis, and after he nailed it, he realised he could have found his niche.
After graduating from university, he joined the police, skipping frontline duties to work in the forensic division.
Onesemo says he is still a sworn officer, so if he were to come across a traffic accident in Samoa, he would have to switch from being a forensic officer to a police officer.
Only ten forensic officers have to cover all of the islands, so on any given day, an officer could be called to burglaries, traffic accidents, homicides or drug raids.
The burly Samoan’s current journey started one evening after work several years ago when he stopped by his cousin’s house to get his car fixed.
His cousin, a police officer who is a mechanic in his spare time, told him about a scholarship to study in New Zealand. The only hitch was applications closed the following day.
“[I] got all the forms done, and I think about one month later I found out I was shortlisted,” he says.
“And the funny thing was that my cousin also applied – he got dropped, and I got chosen, so he was pretty p….. about that.”
The slight was fixed when his cousin was awarded a scholarship the following year.
Onesemo says he once again had the opportunity to study cannabis when he looked at his Master’s research options.
He says getting back into academia was daunting and required all his attention, which is why after two years he still hasn’t visited extended family in south and central Auckland.
“I don’t really have much life out of my [city] apartment,” he says.
He has however seen his brother Henry, who also lives in Auckland city and is a chef with the social enterprise Eat My Lunch.
Thesis supervisor Cameron Johnson describes Onesemo as an “exceptional, motivated student” who has been very proactive about creating opportunities to learn and upskill.
He says this is the first time someone from the Samoan police has come across to do the Masters programme.
“It’s probably the first time that any external agency has gone through what Kent has gone through.”
Johnson says if it wasn’t for the collaboration between the Samoan and NZ police, and them, “the project really wouldn’t have got off the ground”.
According to him, Onesemo will now be in a position to improve his island nation’s forensic capabilities by being able to do a full range of drug analysis. This can then be added to a report that he can present in court during a criminal case.
“Upskilling your lab work and your practical skills is one of the best skills you can bring back,” Johnson says.
Meanwhile, the past couple of years haven’t been easy on Onesemo’s personal life.
He laughs and says “no” when he is asked if he would relive it all again in pursuit of a PhD.
After a few final tweaks to his thesis, he’s finally heading home to reconnect with his family – and island food.
In two years, Onesemo has only been home three times.
He says his wife, Isabella Tuala, gave birth to their youngest daughter during his first here in New Zealand, which he missed because of his studies.
“And I missed out in the second year, on her first birthday. So I’m not that popular.”