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.’

“My son would be crying and laughing at the same time,” David continued. “I have video of him screaming and tripping out of his mind. We had to get his liver tested every six months. The medicine was killing him. He’d had a grand mal seizure that lasted an hour and a half. He’d been in an ambulance 45 times in the last year. Seeing your son in an ambulance — it just kills you. I lost my ex-wife, my car, my business, my family, my life.”

David told his story to Andrew DeAngelo, the younger brother of Stephen DeAngelo, founder of Harborside. Andrew DeAngelo is a manager at Harborside who leads a monthly support group for seniors and families using medical marijuana. Jayden’s doctors at UC San Francisco had referred David to Harborside. “They told me, ‘Yeah you should try medical marijuana,'” David said. He was one of many parents quietly being referred to Harborside by UCSF for treatment of serious illnesses and symptoms that don’t respond to modern medicine.

Mainly, it was for appetite stimulation for kids with cancer, and pain management in paraplegic children, Andrew DeAngelo recalled. There’d be no smoking or vaporizing for the kids, of course. DeAngelo recommended edible cannabis or tinctures — extractions of the plant in glycerin or alcohol. Kids need just a drop. Many of the tinctures are barely psychoactive. DeAngelo started seeing parents who had kids with epilepsy, or autism, or a combination of both. “When I met Jason, he was the parent that was suffering the most out of all the parents I had met so far,” DeAngelo said.

Harborside gave David a tincture that was supposedly high in cannabidiol. Abbreviated as CBD, cannabidiol is produced by pot plants and has a multitude of medicinal properties. It’s anti-inflammatory, for example. And the federal government has patented it as a neuroprotectant for strokes. But it hasn’t been developed by pharmaceutical companies. You can’t buy a CBD pill at Walgreens.

Marijuana that contains CBD seems to modulate the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis — that is, an internal balance. It’s been used since biblical times to treat nervous disorders like epilepsy. It’s thought to help restore balance in the nervous system as well as the immune and digestive systems. According to lab research, CBD dampens the activity of the human nervous system at the site of what are called the “CB1” and “CB2” nerve cell receptors. These receptors are spread throughout the body’s nervous system.

Marijuana with high levels of cannabidiol also worked for David’s son. CBD is thought to act like a precision-guided warm blanket, calming Jayden’s overactive nervous system at key receptor sites. “Jayden had a seizure every day of his life, until the first day I gave him CBD,” David said. “It was the first four days in his life that he had went seizure-free. I was crying. I was happy crying instead of sad crying, which was new.”

The tincture worked for four months, but the second batch from the same tincture-maker didn’t work. “For two months my son started getting bad,” David said. Jayden’s doctors thought it might be a case of “honeymoon stage”: Some mainstream drugs are known to quell seizures for a month or two, and then seem to lose effectiveness.

But David had another idea. What if Harborside tested the tincture to make sure it was the same one as before? “I had done my research,” he said. “I knew they tested.”

In fact, it was one of the few places in the world where such a thing was possible.

Oakland’s Steep Hill lab is at the center of cannabis testing in the Bay Area and California, and is now recognized as a world leader in medical-marijuana research. Steep Hill’s current location is shiny, clean, and huge, with room to grow in a large, gated, one-story office space across Interstate 880 from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It’s a long way from the dog-hair-ridden, one-bedroom Emeryville apartment where Steep Hill started in 2008.

Thought to be the first of its kind, the marijuana-testing project was launched by David Lampach, a young, self-taught grower, and Addison DeMoura, a fellow cannabis science enthusiast. The two convinced Stephen DeAngelo to personally invest in what would be called Analytical Labs.

DeAngelo, a 54-year-old, Washington, DC native, believes that if cannabis is medicine — as it is by law in California — it should be tested like any other medicine. Harborside backed the two young men, who rented an apartment in Emeryville and bought a gas chromatograph. The expensive lab device can determine the chemical composition of many substances. Lampach and DeMoura taught themselves how to use it with the help of local chemists.

The Dutch had already published a method for using a gas chromatograph to assess cannabis’ potency. Lampach and DeMoura adapted it, and began sampling Harborside’s weed. The process involves making an extract from a sample of the strain in question, say, a couple pounds of primo OG Kush. Flowers are picked, ground, agitated in a solvent, and an extract is fed to the gas chromatograph. The process can take three days. Analytical Labs also began conducting tests for mold and bacteria, which take a week.

By spring 2009, numbers were appearing next to the display buds on Harborside’s countertops: “23% THC .01% CBD,” a sample might read. Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short, was among the first molecules found in pot to affect the nervous system, and it’s commonly thought to cause pot’s euphoric effects. A THC percentage in marijuana is similar to the idea of an alcohol percentage in adult beverages, with 23 percent THC at the top of the range for flowers. It would be akin to a strong whiskey, perhaps, and thus not recommended for new patients.

Skeptics questioned Analytical Labs’ in-house methodology and credentials, yet the lab added other Bay Area dispensaries as customers. One of the few economic growth industries during the height of the Great Recession, dispensaries bloomed in 2009, and so did labs. The Green Rush was on. And Analytical Labs moved out of the Emeryville apartment and into a proper lab space in East Oakland, with a new name, Steep Hill, and a new CEO, AnnaRae Grabstein.

By the summer of 2010, High Times had tapped DeMoura and Lampach to test herb for the magazine’s first San Francisco Medical Cannabis Cup, but it wasn’t part of judging scores yet. A number of new local competitors entered the market as well, including CW Analytical and Pure Analytics, and, later, Halent Laboratories in Davis.

DeMoura had become the salesperson and Lampach the scientist, and they added technicians with degrees in chemistry, along with new equipment, including a high-pressure liquid chromatograph. Even more sensitive than a gas chromatograph, it could detect the presence of THC acids, which were undetectable with the older technology. In short, Steep Hill had gotten much better at testing cannabis flowers, brownies, hash, and even tinctures.

With Steep Hill’s help, Jason David discovered that the first tincture he had given Jayden didn’t have the same CBD potency as the second one. It was much higher. Lack of CBD appeared to explain why his son’s seizures had returned. From then on, Andrew DeAngelo personally worked with David and Steep Hill to find, test, and supply Jayden with a tincture not only high in CBD, but also high in its ratio to THC.

The molecule CBD never appears alone. It’s just one of dozens of molecules made by cannabis that are called cannabinoids. CBD actually works in concert with THC on the human brain. Scientists call it the “entourage effect.” A high CBD ratio to THC indicates high CBD potency. Jayden needs a tincture with at least a 10:1 ratio of CBD to THC, but 12:1 or 17:1 is even better, David said. “I’ve gotten as good as 20:1, or 95 percent CBD, five percent THC,” David said. “It’s amazing.”

With a steady supply of high-CBD tincture, Jayden is almost completely seizure-free, and he has begun to normally interact with others. He can go in a bounce house without seizing. He can laugh without seizing.

David also is slowly cutting back on Jayden’s daily pill intake, down from 22 pills per day to five. The prescription drugs were stunting his learning and making him a zombie, David said. But weaning Jayden off pills hasn’t been easy; the boy has suffered from withdrawal. “Ever seen someone on crack coming off crack?” David asked. “That’s what it looks like right now. If you read the medication labels you’ll shit your pants. Read about Topamax. It’s nicknamed Dopamax. They were giving my one-year-old ten pills of that a day.”

It’s been a little more than one year since David came to Harborside; he keeps track. Jayden is now comprehending things, making eye contact, and has learned more in the last month at school than he did in two years. “I used to ask him one hundred times to kiss me or hug me; he wouldn’t even make eye contact,” David said. “Now, he kisses and hugs me. He wants to talk. My goal is to get him to say, ‘I love you.'”

David personally knows about forty parents who have their kids on CBD after they saw Jason and Jayden appear on the Discovery Channel documentary Weed Wars, which was filmed at Harborside and aired last year. One parent in Colorado found him via Facebook, and said her daughter had Dravet Syndrome and that she was going to die within a week from the seizures. The mother of three was ready to commit suicide out of despair. “Her daughter had the most aggressive seizures I’ve ever seen a four-year-old have,” David said. “It looked like her limbs were going to break. She said, ‘Listen, I’m going to commit suicide today. I’m worn out. I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to give up on life. I need CBD right now.'”

David tried contacting a Colorado dispensary, but the woman lacked a mandatory state ID card for medical cannabis, and the dispensary refused to help her. David then contacted the dispensary’s tincture vendor directly, who agreed to help in any way possible. The next day, David received an email. “She wrote, ‘It’s the first time I’ve slept in forty days,'” David said.

The woman’s daughter is now on CBD, and is part of a growing support group in Colorado that mirrors one in California. David has seen CBD help kids with autism, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. David gets calls from parents in non-medical marijuana states and in foreign countries. Some are moving to California.

When he was young, David had tried smoking pot. And before coming to Harborside, he was ambivalent about marijuana. But the ravages of Dravet Syndrome and the relief that CBD tinctures provide for his son have made him an activist. He wants pot to be treated like the medicine it clearly is. Federal marijuana policy, as well as the policies of some states and counties — even in California — is depriving kids and parents of treatment that works, he said. “Parents are going crazy,” he said of those who have children with illnesses that don’t respond to prescription drugs. “It wears out your body and your brain. You don’t want to go on.”

Ignorance also has compounded the problem. Earlier this year, cops arrested Jayden’s tincture-maker and confiscated his supplies. “My main guy that makes my son’s CBD got pulled over with it in a jar,” David said. “The police thought it was hash oil and took it away from him. That was Jayden’s CBD. That was $2,000 worth of CBD. They don’t know a thing.

“If I don’t have CBD, my son is going to go back to being a zombie again,” he continued. “Not just a zombie, but being in pain all the time. I used to see my son cry for twelve to fourteen hours a day. He’s already lost four years of his childhood. I don’t know how else to say it — that fucking sucks. Now that I’ve had a year, it’s been the best year of my life.”

David said the dispensaries outside the Bay Area are “garbage” and “don’t know shit” about medical marijuana. Federal policy is closing good clubs, and harming the professionalization of the lab industry as well as dispensaries. At the same time, kids are increasingly being given prescription drugs that not only don’t work, but can often prove to be fatal. “We live in a country that gives methadone to children,” David said. “I know parents that have kids on methadone — four-, five-, six-, seven-year-olds. They’re on Oxycontin, they give out all these different medications to children. About 106,000 Americans died last year from pharmaceuticals. Zero died from marijuana. It’s a plant. That’s what’s killing me.”

The search by Jason David and other parents for high-CBD tincture also is affecting cultivation of the plant. Cannabis labs have led to the creation of the Berkeley-based Project CBD, which tries to identify strains high in CBD, and other cannabis plant molecules like cannabigerol and cannabivarin.

Lab research shows that over the years the black market had bred almost all CBD out of pot, precisely because it limits the euphoric effects — the feeling of being stoned — of THC. Now, plants that were once trashed for not getting people high enough are among the most-coveted medicinal strains. The High Times Medical Cannabis Cup 2012 has a “High CBD” award to highlight the best ones, said organizer David Bienenstock, who also is a senior editor of the magazine. “We’re getting strains that test 10- and 11-percent CBD. It’s great.”

But there’s still a long way to go. For example, Southern Humboldt County cultivation reporter Kym Kemp said that, in the Emerald Triangle, growers still view lab testing as nascent and not yet reliable. The same plant can yield wildly different results at different labs. “I know some growers who shop around to get the best results so they can give those to the dispensary buyers,” Kemp said. “Nonetheless, some of the best breeders I know are using the information to choose which seeds to plant and breed to. Overall, I think we are in the early days of the science, and growers are still exploring how to use it to improve their product.”

David Goldman, a medical cannabis patient in San Francisco who organizes for Americans for Safe Access, said the rise in labs has led to very smart patients who are embracing CBD and smoking lower-THC pot. Halent Laboratories, based in Davis, recently gave a lecture to San Francisco ASA members on the importance of other pot molecules like CBG, CBV, THC-V, as well as terpenes — the aromatic molecules in weed. All are thought to create an “entourage effect” responsible for pot’s palliative properties. Halent Laboratories now tests for eight terpenes and fifteen cannabinoids. “I think CBD is the wave of the future,” Goldman said. “They’re finding THC-V is good for bone growth. It also provides a soaring high without paranoia or jitteriness. It’s seen in Durban Poison, Dragon’s Breath, and Jack Herer. I think all cannabis should be tested. More dispensaries need to do so.”

But the federal crackdown has shut down many clubs that sent their cannabis to labs for testing, including the Divinity Tree in San Francisco, which was just starting to test. Robert Martin of CW Analytical Labs in Oakland and spokesman for Association of California Cannabis Labs said the feds have “rattled us,” and the Green Rush of 2009 is clearly over. “The DOJ really hurt us, and the industry has not yet recovered,” he said. “A lot of people lost a lot of business that hasn’t come back. A lot of operators have gone into the dark and remained in the dark. A lot of growers I know are burying money again.”

Closed bank accounts, lack of credit, high rent, landlord evictions, and murky dispensary laws are also slowing down lab progress, said Jeffrey Raber of the Southern California lab The Werc Shop. “The last few months have been tumultuous,” he said.

Dispensaries in battleground counties like Los Angeles and San Bernardino have been using the crackdown as an excuse for not testing. “They say, ‘I want to grab the last of it that I can. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I’m not going to make any strategic moves for the long-term,'” Raber said.

At the same time, labs need to meet higher standards, Raber said. They’re totally unregulated. And some are fly-by-night operations. While potency is popular, safety screening is paramount. About 25 percent of samples sent to The Werc Shop are contaminated with some bacteria, mold, or fungus.

Yet even with the federal pressure, there have been breakthroughs. This summer and fall, Steep Hill is rolling out its new, rapid potency estimator known as QuantaCann.

When I visited the lab recently, David Lampach was grinding a couple grams of weed and loading it into a clear container the size of a hockey puck. The puck was then slotted onto a machine the size of a small printer that sits on a countertop.

In three minutes, the results popped up on the touchscreen, indicating the sample has 13.5 percent THC, plus or minus 1.5 percent sample error. This process used to take three days.

Since Steep Hill was the first cannabis lab, it was also the first to realize that testing takes too long, Lampach said. “The huge issue has always been the turnaround,” he said. “Dispensaries can’t wait five days for their product. Other dispensaries aren’t Harborside. They buy it and it’s out on the shelf in five minutes. We realized this was going to be a challenge with the industry at-large.”

Lampach, ever the autodidact, looked into near-infrared sensing. Where feasible, near-infrared sensing is used in agriculture because it’s fast and cheap. An infrared sensor can detect the telltale light wavelengths reflected by spider mite residue in a field of wheat from as far away as a plane flying overhead, and thereby estimate crop loss to the pests. Modern climate satellites use powerful infrared sensors to detect minute differences in the heat levels on the ground from several miles up in space.

Lampach reasoned that a near-infrared sensor could be trained to look closely at pot and see what wavelengths are absorbed and reflected. Steep Hill tried to correlate experimental infrared scan data with potency data from conventional methods, but failed at first. “We investigated it once and we thought it didn’t work,” Lampach said. “We realized months later we had made a mathematical error. So we went back and got a machine again and it worked.”

The QuantaCann machine monitors 1,200 data points in the infrared band at the spectrum of 1,800 to 2,400 nanometers. After eighteen months of comparing regular lab data with additional infrared scanning, Steep Hill found the correlation. “It was pretty exciting,” Lampach said. “You realize pretty quickly it’s working.”

Steep Hill built up an immense reference library for its QuantaCann, and now the calibrated machine can scan and identify levels of THC and CBD in any sample of pot, accurate to within 2 percent. “It’s also super-accurate for CBD,” Lampach said.

Steep Hill then designed and created a scanning hardware/software product for rent to dispensaries for $5,000 per month, which is still lower than a big dispensary’s current testing costs. “I think Steep Hill has a big hit on their hands,” said Harborside manager and herb buyer Rick Pfrommer. “It’s super simple. I think QuantaCann’s the next evolution. I think this is the biggest innovation to come along since the beginning of the lab.”

Pfrommer also said he prefers a QuantaCann to traditional gas chromatograph testing. “We’ve used it extensively, not only in getting flowers at the end of use, but continually throughout the grow cycle to find the highest CBD level,” he said. “There’s problems with getting enough CBD-rich material. We’re seeing a large amount of CBD present in the growing leaf.

“In the future, people may grow some plants just for the CBD-rich trim,” he continued. “So it’s already altering the product development cycle.”

QuantaCann has also enabled Harborside to push outdoor-grown weed, which is less carbon-intensive and produces far fewer greenhouse gases. A QuantaCann scans all herb that comes into Harborside, and outdoor-grown weed that tests higher than 16-percent THC is earmarked for the shelves. Some people think outdoor isn’t as strong as indoor. But 16-percent THC is plenty strong for most, whether it’s grown indoors or outdoors. QuantaCann has helped triple the sales of sungrown weed this year, Andrew DeAngelo said, going from 5 percent of flowers sold to 15 percent. Sungrown weed is generally cheaper, and some say its effects are more wholesome than indoor, like the difference between an organic and nonorganic tomato.

But labs have a lot of work ahead of them. They need to find faster ways to test for pathogens, which still takes seven days, and they must develop new methods to screen for pesticides. There are hundreds of commercially available pesticides, and it currently costs a fortune to screen each batch of pot for all of them.

Up until the federal crackdown happened, Steep Hill and other labs had begun moving up the supply chain to test growers themselves, which is similar to what happens in the retail produce industry. Whole Foods, for example, doesn’t test its organic apples for pesticides. Instead, organic farms must meet standards during inspection. But cannabis grower- and farm-certification programs driven by labs have been stymied by federal interference. It’s slow going in 2012.

Steep Hill is optimistic, however. The lab has nine QuantaCann machine at dispensaries in California, Michigan, Washington, and Colorado, with many more coming online. The weed samples never cross state lines, only the data.

Just over the horizon, data mining is coming to cannabis.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the first tincture Jason David gave his son Jayden was lower in CBD potency than the second one he gave him. We meant to say it was higher in CBD. This version has been updated to reflect the change.


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