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.

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.

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