The Manhattan Project of Marijuana 

If pot is truly medicine, shouldn't it be standardized? Analytical Labs wants to test the potency and safety of Cali cannabis.

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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.

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