Pubdate: Wed, 04 Mar 2009
Source: East Bay Express (CA)
Copyright: 2009 East Bay Express
Author: David Downs
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


If Pot Is Truly Medicine, Shouldn't It Be Standardized? Analytical 
Labs Wants To Test The Potency And Safety Of Cali Cannabis.

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."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom