Is Cutting-Edge Marijuana Lab the Future of Legitimate Pot?
At downtown Oakland's Harborside Health Center, the hairy green buds have numbers. The new nomenclature beckons viewers from within seven gleaming glass display cases. Antiseptic white placards boast authoritative black digits. Each stands erect next to a Petri dish of high-octane "White Rhino" or "Afgooey Super Melt." They read: 7 percent, 11 percent, 18 percent, or 21 percent. Even 80 percent.
"80 percent THC?" asks a potential customer. He's referring to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol — the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
"That's a concentrate," reminds Stephen DeAngelo, proud owner of the three-year-old collective. DeAngelo's facility boasts 20,000 members and grossed more than $10 million last year. Even amid the recession, lines are a constant phenomenon and DeAngelo is looking to double his space. Hundreds of new customers sign up monthly, attracted partly by the immaculate facility: its savvy, well-paid "budtenders" and $40, eighth-ounce pot dosages. But part of the appeal is the new placards — the result of a disruptive new service by Harborside's partners at the Analytical Laboratory Project.
"For the first time in the 3,000-year history of human cannabis consumption, consumers will be provided a scientific assessment of the safety and potency of products prior to ingesting them," DeAngelo announced in December.
In the months since, DeAngelo's patrons have enjoyed mankind's most detailed product information thanks to the country's first commercial marijuana lab. Arrest and jail remain a constant worry for him and the lab's two owners. But they believe that if pot is truly medicine, it needs quality assurance and dosage information. The Analytical Laboratory Project wants to be the source of that information. The lab's ultimate goal is to provide testing for half of the 300 dispensaries in California.
Behind DeAngelo, a cross section of the East Bay shuffles in and out of the pot club's well-lit main floor. They buy briskly and nonchalantly, as though it's a bank or a pharmacy. Powerful, normative forces have begun to transform the $65 billion domestic black market in ganja. DeAngelo and his partners want to be the custodians of that transformation.
Indeed, positive hits for pathogenic mold are already changing grower operations. "You smoke ten random samples of cannabis and you've most likely smoked aspergillus [mold]," said Dave, one of the lab's two founders. "It's in there, often at unacceptable levels. Now it's up to the industry to respond. We also are not in a position where we want to make enemies and piss people off. We want to see it happen in the best way for the movement and the industry to kind of just naturally evolve."
While the distributed nature of California's cannabis supply network obviously benefits mom-and-pop growers, it doesn't encourage quality assurance. Consequently, Dave and his peers believe that some pot consumers are in danger.
"It's expensive to test every single thing that comes through the door — that's the price you pay with a decentralized supply system," Dave said. "But that's what you've got. You've got five pounds coming from here and two from there and one individual. I mean, a dog walks in the grow room, and wags its tail — anything can be coming off that dog's tail. It's gross. Fertilizers with E. coli. Compost teas that they don't make right, anaerobic tea that has elevated levels of E. coli and salmonella. It has to come. There's no way that this is sustainable. All it takes is one story of immune-compromised people dying from aspergillus infection. The myth that cannabis hasn't killed a single person in 3,000 years is allowed to go on. Well, it's not cannabis that kills people, it's all the shit that's in it."
Talk about a buzz kill.
Backstage in the bowels of Harborside, the air is thick with terpenoids — the pungent, unmistakable odor molecules of cannabis. Rick Pfrommer, Harborside's hefty linebacker of a pot buyer, mans the "intake" room where the collective's 400 growers wholesale to the club in eye-popping one-, two-, or five-pound bags. Everyone from mom-and-pop operators with their dogs to professional growers from Oakland warehouses wait daily in an antechamber before being ushered in one at a time.
It is here, surrounded by file cabinets, computers, and posters featuring holographic closeups of buds, that the medicine begins its long road to the sales counter. It starts with paperwork and a small plastic-bagged test sample. Analytical Laboratory Project cofounders and operators Dave and Addison usually show up in the afternoon to pick up the day's new samples to test. Both are in their early thirties, and dressed casually. They have a mentor-student relationship with DeAngelo, who is sort of a legend in these parts.
"He's older and he's this personality," Dave said. "We take a lot of guidance from him."
DeAngelo is in his fifties and wears a long-sleeve shirt, tie, and corduroy pants with two gray ponytails peaking out from underneath a little fedora. The Washington, DC-born drug reformer and charter member of Americans for Safe Access moved out West in 2000 after founding and selling the industrial hemp company Ecolution in the '90s. After the passage of Prop. 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California, DeAngelo grew medical cannabis but was shocked at the thugs running dispensaries.
"They seemed to have more in common with buying drugs down an alley in a bad city than it did with going into a medical facility and getting medicine," he recalled. So after Oakland cracked down on such facilities, DeAngelo decided to lead by example. "I couldn't think of anything more important to advance the cause than to provide a model of safe, affordable cannabis distribution that would be respectful not only of the patients but also of the neighbors and the community as a whole."
In 2005, DeAngelo began the process of complying with Oakland's rigorous new permitting process. He spent $400,000 over eleven months and received one of only four coveted permits. Harborside opened on October 3, 2006, the very day the federal Drug Enforcement Agency was raiding pot clubs in San Francisco. "I always expected I might face that moment of truth, but I didn't expect it five minutes after we opened," he said.
However, the cops never came to Harborside, and DeAngelo's facility thrived. The place was well on its way to doubling in size and scope when DeAngelo met Addison and Dave at a National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) conference in Los Angeles in October 2007. Addison was a young grower, dispensary operator, and activist with a wife, two kids, and a rap sheet. Dave grew up in New York, went to Columbia University, dropped out to trade stocks and bought land in Northern California. Jaded on hedge funds by 2001, Dave took a vision quest to Alaska and ended up in Eugene, Oregon before being lured south by medical cannabis. Both consider themselves black sheep of their families. "Nothing surprises them from me anymore," Dave said.
The two friends wanted to make a living by making a difference. DeAngelo wanted to give his patients better information, start self-regulating medical cannabis, and break new ground in research.
"We were entrepreneurs looking for a good idea and something that's not totally fucked," said Dave, who concedes no formal training as a chemist. "This seemed like a really good fit."
But the work is still highly illegal, despite the Obama administration's recent announcement that it will not raid cannabis clubs in states that have legalized medical marijuana. Law enforcement raids continue on the West Coast and publicity could draw unwanted attention. But DeAngelo, Dave, and Addison believe in their mission and say they have nothing to hide. They want to make a bold statement and gain customers, even though the lab's two operators are only willing to provide their first names at this time.
"The attorneys that I've spoken to have expressed a level of concern about the safety of the lab and strongly advised us to keep it very hidden," DeAngelo said. "Simply the process of collecting samples and taking that to the lab and analyzing them — there's several federal charges that could be placed against somebody. The feds might very well, if they find out the location of our lab, come and raid it, close it down. In order to stick it in the gas chromatograph you have to handle the cannabis itself. And handling cannabis whether or not it's in a medical form or not is illegal under federal law. They also consider, if you publicize the potency of a particular controlled substance, they consider it a marketing effort for the controlled substance. Then you're aiding and abetting the distribution of an illegal substance."
Addison and Dave wanted to go though with it anyway. "I've lived the last ten years on the tip of the spear," Dave said. "This is a different flavor."
DeAngelo sees it as a crime of necessity. "If cannabis is going to become an accepted mainstream medicine, this is a necessary type of step," he said. "It has to happen. When the three of us met, it was kind of a fortuitous meeting. And I agreed to do everything that I could, and everything Harborside could, to help facilitate the project. My belief is that cannabis is not only going to be an extremely important medicine but a source of other extremely important medicines. I think that this is going to change everything from the way dispensaries intake medicine from people. It's going to change the way that we sell medicine to people, it's going to change the way that patients evaluate and make their purchases. It's going to change the way that scientists look at this substance."
After all, it's already changing the way that growers look at it.
"Most are happy to hear about it," buyer Pfrommer said. "I've had to refuse to take from current batches of stuff until people could clean their room and go through a new run, and we got a couple of people in that process now. The THC ratings are big, but it's already a big competition amongst vendors to get their medicine in here. For those of us that have been doing this for four decades, this is extremely exciting. We've moved past the Cheech and Chong era of being treated a certain way to recognizing the economic and scientific impact of cannabis."
DeAngelo recently arranged for a tour of the small, garage-size facility today as it ran gas chromatography, flame ionization, and mass spectrometry tests on local pot.
Addison and Dave packed up little samples in a Tupperware container and talk about getting a coffee on the way to the lab for the night's work. While Addison weaved his rusted '80s minivan through Oakland's surface streets amid heavy afternoon traffic, Dave details the history, methodology development, and hurdles of opening a pot lab. They spent a year boning up on organic chemistry, talking to Ph.D potheads in the medical underground, buying gear, and practicing.
"Everyone was talking about, 'Oh, you can't do it', or, 'We've been thinking about that forever'," Addison recalled. "But no one had done it!"
Harborside provided the test medicine to calibrate the pair's off-the-shelf lab equipment. First they had to learn how to set up the equipment and run it. After a friend mentioned problems with contamination in tobacco, they also added a test for mold. The duo did not borrow any methodology from government labs, because cannabis research tends to be locked away. "None of this came out of the literature," Dave noted.
The East Bay's first pot lab looks like a bachelor pad with a locked room in the back. The building is of recent construction with high ceilings and stained carpets, mismatched furniture, and a congenial guard dog, belonging to Addison.
It's a little cooler in the locked back room. The place hums like the inside of a busy copy store. The lab's centerpiece — the gas chromatograph — squats on a work bench in the back studded with yellow samples in a carousel feeding into an auto-sampler. Inside the device, a flame ion detector and mass spectrometer offer two different snapshots of the prepared samples. Underneath, an $80,000 hydrogen generator hums a steady supply into the chromatograph. Tanks of oxygen and air also feed the device. Off to one side, a monitor flicks line graphs. Books from Agilent Tech, Sigma Life Sciences, and Aldrich Chemistry line the bookshelf.
Dave runs through the process of documenting and preparing the sample. The gas chromatograph needs just a microliter-size sample to test; less than a rain drop. So the lab's main methodology turns the sample packets of green bud into a diluted liquid extraction. First, the lab tech does the paperwork, and dons gloves and gear. Addison chops up a half-gram under a sterile hood and places the sample in a vial, then adds a controlled amount of Hexane — a special-use solvent.
The mix goes into a sonicator, an ultra-sonic jeweler's tool. It vibrates at a high enough frequency to rupture the cell membranes of the plant. The liquid is then diluted to just hundredths of a percent and an extraction is loaded into a little test vial.
Rows and rows of vials are then fed into the gas chromatograph on a timer. Inside the machine it's like CSI — but for ganja.
"A gas chromatograph is not a detector — it's only used for separating compounds," Dave said. "The way it separates compounds is it uses heat." The finely controlled oven can increase its temperature by just a single degree Celsius over the course of fifteen minutes, which makes it possible to measure the exact temperature at which a compound degrades. Different compounds vaporize at different temperatures, where they can be detected by the flame ionization detector and mass spectrometer.
The mass spectrometer is way more sensitive and expensive, requiring a library that you buy from a chemistry supply company to even decode the results. This step took the longest, Dave said. "It wasn't too difficult, you just have to socially engineer your way through a chemical company," he said. "And it's hard to open any new chemical accounts after 9-11."
The run takes ten minutes while agar plate cultures for mold will take at least 48 hours. The whole process costs $100 per sample and the nightly work of preparing samples and cleaning proves tedious. Lab tech positions start at $15 per hour. "Mass spectrometers do not like to smoke pot," Dave said. "They don't. They can, but it takes a lot of maintenance."
Back in the front room with Addison's dog, wall maps of California are marked with dispensary locations. The two have big plans for their lab — the first of which is to move it. But their process has several flaws: cleanliness, trust, scalability, industry acceptance, and scientific validity.
First off, Addison's dog cannot be on the premises, especially if they are going to tut-tut growers about allowing dogs in their grow rooms. The lab also has carpeting, which can be a vector for mold. Someone from the canonical Journal of the American Medical Association might rip their methodology to shreds, starting with the sterility of the intake at Harborside. Addison and his peers say that about 5 percent of the supply is contaminated with mold. But getting people to believe their findings and change their ways at the cannabis sales counter will be an uphill battle.
"We need a new lab space," Dave conceded. "We need more lab coats. We need equipment that will make our methodology bulletproof. And that all costs money."
Dave says that a respected yet anonymous chemist at Lawrence Livermore Labs — "a triple Ph.D" — validated their methodology and process three different ways. "It all came in very, very accurate. Commercial labs operate with — believe it or not — a 30 percent variance. We've gotten ours down to 5 percent, plus or minus, and it's appropriate for medical applications."
Like most forensics, it gets the job done but it's not canonical science.
"Ultimately we need accreditation," Dave said. "We can only do it to the best of our ability. We don't have literature to really stand on. It's all an exploration and the best you can do. Generally, the THC results can vary but not that much. Top-tier stuff doesn't come up in the bottom tier.
"We're sort of like whistleblowers a little bit. Even though we're friends and work with all of the other people, we don't know where that's going to lead us. The industry itself is having an identity crisis. Competitive forces are going to drive it to being an industry. But that's going to drive it toward regulation, control, making sure that the products are safe especially since they are being distributed under medical auspices. And there's a lot of concerns."
Back at Harborside, in the fading twilight, supplies are running low but the lines remain strong. Customers of every age, race, class, and creed buy, peer at the data in bound notebooks, and sign racks of petitions at the activism station. Others write letters to imprisoned drug felons — aka "POWs" — or members of Congress. Free yoga and acupuncture classes are beginning in a few minutes.
Elan, the dispensary floor director who asks to be identified by his first name only, said most people choosing a strain of pot ask, "What's the best?" He typically replies that it depends on what your needs are medicinally, economically, and preferentially. Anxiety? Chronic pain? How much do you have to spend? Concentrate or bud? The lab results have become yet another tool for consumer choice.
"This is the sharpest tool in the workbox now and this is all alpha phase," Elan said. "This isn't even beta. This is first draft all the way around."
Elan said patients are using the new information to get less high and more mellow, drawing correlations between the main psychoactive ingredient THC and other non-psychoactive cannabinoids cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN).
"We're finding out CBD has an extremely medical effect but a non-psychoactive effect, and a lot of people really want that," Elan said. "A forty-year-old businessman doesn't want to get high. He needs the pain relief. They're able to do that with the books behind the bar."
Will, an East Bay resident in the advertising industry, said he met the lab's results with a skepticism that's been conquered by time. "I have more faith in this place than I do in peanuts right now, and I'm becoming less of a pothead."
The 32-year-old Will is a closeted toker who came in a year ago for migraines and because he liked pot. He found Harborside clean and less pricey than many thugged-out places in Los Angeles. "I thought, literally, 'I'm in Entourage. This is the cleanest pharmacy I've ever been in. It's nice, clean, safe, and well-lit."
But trial and error with some of Harborside's wares left Will super-baked at inopportune moments. So when the numbers showed up, "I was like, 'Oh, what's this? Really cool. Is this for real? Are these real percentages? How did you get these percentages?' And it helped me quickly pick my price range. A lot of times you want a lower-price medicinal marijuana that has a higher THC. I was questioning it for a little bit but as I kept coming back and saw the numbers kind of stay legit and not shift and things like this, I thought, 'Oh, this is really nice.' I felt comfortable. It makes it easy. You have such a selection that you want to look at it all and smell it all and it helps you narrow it down."
"Ford," a longtime local grower, patient, and activist who was writing letters to men and women in jail at the activism station, said the lab is changing people's habits. He's growing a strain of pot known as OG Kush and shows off pictures of his "babies."
"I'm thinking about bringing in my next batch for testing, 'cause I'm curious."
Ford said there is a lot of the marijuana equivalent of bathtub gin out there. He believes that testing will cause growers to take more care. "I've been involved and dropped out of bad operations," he said. "You can't have your dog near the plant, man. Dogs and plants don't mix."
In the final analysis, it's hard to think of any system more antithetical to the closed US drug-development system than contemporary US cannabis production. Bringing the two in line means the annihilation of one culture or the other. Which will win?
"Those two worlds are going to come together," Dave said. "The DEA has to accept it, and we as an industry have to go to a model that is more acceptable, more palatable for mainstream society."
The Analytical Laboratory Project is in the process of writing custom software for a lab management system. "Ultimately, this stuff will end up getting published, I think," DeAngelo said. "People are dying because of a lack of research."
Within the next month or so, Dave said the lab intends to branch out to thirteen Bay Area clubs. "If I had ten customers like Harborside, I'd be a rich man," Dave said with a laugh. "We know them all, and they want to do it." After that, he said, the lab will seek a special license from the City of Oakland.
An independent certification system consisting of specific labels and stickers is being developed for participating customers. Participants will also have to consent to undergo occasional audits, in which an undercover shopper obtains samples so that the lab can ensure that its labels haven't been copied or swapped.
Dig it: Analytical Labs wants to drug test pot clubs.
"If you want to be part of the testing program, that's what you have to do," DeAngelo said. "Because it's not just a marketing thing, it is about collecting this research. So the research has to be valid, we have to take these steps to make it valid."
Within a few years, the goal is to have tens of thousands of potential research subjects reporting coded results on surveys, the testing of tinctures and edibles, pesticides tests, and strain profiles correlated to effect and illness.
The Center and the lab fit into broader plans for legal change. The nonprofit Harborside Health Center gives thousands of dollars each year to activist groups like NORML. A fraction of every lazy, pothead dollar is being funneled into an engine for legislative reform.
"If every dispensary in the state of California would give the proportion of the money that they take in to the movement as Harborside does: the job would be done by now," DeAngelo said. "I want to see the law requiring cannabis to match the reality of what this plant is."
Ultimately, DeAngelo and his partners seek to fundamentally alter the consciousness of cannabis use in America.
"No commercial research is allowed on cannabis before it can be considered a safe/effective medicine but then the government will not allow that door to open," DeAngelo said. "So we're just going to do an end run around them. We've got the cannabis, we've got the patients, and now we've got the scientific expertise. This is too important."