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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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).

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