Turning Pot into Medicine 

Marijuana strains that provide medicinal relief without getting you stoned are rising in popularity, thanks to the groundbreaking work of cannabis testing labs.


On Monday, June 25, at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, thousands of cannabis aficionados — some of them medical marijuana patients, others just fans of the herb — will cheer the winners of the 2012 High Times Medical Cannabis Cup for Best Sativa, Best Indica, and Best Hybrid. The 38-year-old magazine uses a secret panel to judge entries from the best dispensaries around the Bay Area, but, unlike in years past, one judge won't be human.

This year, all entrants into the 2012 Bay Area Cup — from the OG Kush to the Space Bomb — will be lab-tested for potency and safety. The Cup's organizers also will factor each entry's lab results into the final score. There will even be a special award category based solely on lab scores.

For some at the Cup, the fact that lab-testing will now help determine the winners of a 25-year-old weed contest will be greeted with a shrug. It's a testament to the normalization of lab testing in the Bay Area, which is remarkable, given its relative infancy.

The Bay Area is just three years into mainstream consumer testing of pot for potency and pathogens, and the practice is causing a rapid evolution in cannabis science and culture. The number of labs has blossomed over the last three years, from just one to at least a dozen in California alone. In 2009, just one medical cannabis dispensary, Harborside Health Center in Oakland, had its pot tested. Now, dozens of California dispensaries advertise that their weed undergoes examination.

Many of California's estimated one million qualified cannabis patients now refuse to buy untested weed. And in a stark rebuttal to prohibitionists who still claim that the medical cannabis industry is just a smokescreen for people who want to get high, patients are increasingly using lab results to find weed that will reduce pain, ease nausea, relieve anxiety, and counteract a host of other medical problems without causing euphoria.

Lab testing also is affecting marijuana breeding, catalyzing a search for the most medicinal strains of pot that don't get you stoned. In fact, the days when pot was judged soley on how strong it was appear to be ending. Cities like Richmond have begun mandating that dispensaries test their products. And labs themselves keep innovating. One in Oakland has a patent pending on technology that cuts potency screening time from three days to three minutes.

All the people involved with testing — from growers to dispensary buyers and operators to lab personnel — know that one day they may wake up to a federal agent's gun pointing at them. But the eight-month-long crackdown by US attorneys in California has not yet targeted labs. Nonetheless, the labs' customers — dispensaries — are falling one by one. On the morning of June 11, the operators of El Camino Wellness, a Sacramento club that sends its cannabis to a lab for testing, were awakened by armed federal agents in their homes.

The federal crackdown also has coincided with a revolution in the medical cannabis industry — a time when marijuana, thanks to increasingly sophisticated lab techniques, is finally fulfilling the promise of Prop 215. Sixteen years after California voters legalized cannabis for medical use, marijuana truly has become medicine for many people. And yet the crackdown, billed as an effort to snuff out the illegal use of weed, appears to be also slowing down the adoption of scientific analyses that allow patients to select specific strains and products best suited for their legitimate medical needs.

It also has become clear, however, that the clock cannot be turned back. After five thousand years of cannabis use, humans are finally, and rapidly, quantifying every aspect of the plant, down to its genetic code. And the winners in the race to measure weed get more than a mere Cup. Sometimes they get their lives back.

Harborside Health Center has the ambience of a crunchy yet well-run bank. During a recent visit, parking attendants directed traffic as motorists pulled off the Embarcadero along the Oakland Estuary. The metal-detector operator smiled. It was busy, but the receptionist was attentive. The line in the main room is sometimes frustratingly long with patients, who represent the East Bay's cultural diversity — blacks, Latinos, whites, and Asians, plus seniors, hipsters, gangstas, and soccer moms. Every day, thousands of them stream into the largest dispensary on the West Coast.

Jason David, a 35-year-old single father from Modesto, showed up at Harborside in June 2011, desperately looking for a new treatment for his son. Jayden, now five and a half, has Dravet Syndrome, a severe, rare epilepsy sub-diagnosis that affects infants and children. When he was four months old, he started having seizures. Anything could set them off, including laughing and playing. "When he'd see a bounce house," David recalled, "he'd get so happy he'd have a seizure."

Only about eight hundred children in the world are thought to Dravet. By the age of four and a half, Jayden was having three hundred to five hundred myoclonic seizures per day. He also was taking 22 different medications, including powerful anti-psychotics and anti-seizure drugs that are dangerous even for adults. "When you look at the side effects you think — pardon my language, but — you think they're fucking safe? No fucking way. Half of them read: 'committing suicide, dreams, yelling, screaming, going crazy, pain, suffering, seeing things, delusions, hallucinations.'

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