Once the dream of two tokers in a dusty Emeryville apartment, Oakland's Steep Hill Cannabis Analysis Laboratory has emerged as the premier pot analyzer in California. Now, the East Bay corporation is poised to grow even more rapidly in 2011 — not only by serving up massive amounts of data to an otherwise nebulous, unregulated, billion-dollar market, but through a new partnership with police to inspect legal pot farms in Mendocino County. After a seventy-year dark age, pot is again medicine in modern America, meaning it must be tested for safety and potency. In the absence of any federal or state regulations, Steep Hill has become the de facto industry testing leader.
Founded in December 2008 with help from the West Coast's largest dispensary, Harborside Health Center, Steep Hill has gone from three employees to twelve, and from serving three clubs in the Bay Area to 200 throughout the state. What started in a two-bedroom apartment guarded by an amiable dog has now moved behind a hefty steel door in a 2,500-square-foot former paper company in industrial East Oakland.
Each day, Steep Hill is abuzz with callers seeking quotes, growers dropping in with samples, and salespeople at work. On the lab side, a chemist runs an average of forty samples per day through a series of tests for potency using gas chromatography and high-performance liquid chromatography. The machines figure out how much psychoactive THC and therapeutic cannabinoids CBD and CBN are in each sample.
While cannabis is relatively non-toxic, potency testing ensures patients don't take too much. "People don't have to be confused anymore that sometimes they are going to eat a cookie and they're going to get really high from it and sometimes it's not going to do anything," said AnnaRae Grabstein, Steep Hill's CEO.
Pot samples are also cultured for mold and bacteria, which takes up to a week as the lab sees whether bugs grow on the plants, including aspergillum, penicillium, cladosporium, and E. coli. According to a December 2010 Steep Hill white paper, inhaling certain mold spores can cause allergies and cancer. Bacteria such as E. coli can cause infection and potentially kill people with compromised immune systems due to AIDS and cancer.
In 2010, Steep Hill also added testing for the five most commonly used pesticides in pot production: organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids, and avermectins. Exposure to these pesticides can cause ADHD, Alzheimer's, asthma, and allergies, the white paper stated. As co-founder and grower Dave Lampach said: "Pot never killed anyone; it's the stuff that people put on pot that can kill you."
Two years of Steep Hill tests have shown that there are sometimes pesticides in dispensary weed, and, according to the white paper, "about five percent of medical cannabis samples contain unsafe levels of microorganisms, according to USDA guidelines for agricultural products."
Unsurprisingly, customers have flocked to tested weed in hit clubs such as Harborside, SPARC in San Francisco, and Magnolia in Sacramento — where every bud, brownie, and hash chunk is safety-screened and comes publicly rated with percentages for THC, CBD, and CBN, just as wine and beer list their alcohol content.
As more clubs open and market competition takes hold, testing has joined price and selection as a key factor in determining where people shop. Steep Hill said its own survey showed 119 out of 150 patients think safety-screened weed is more valuable than unscreened pot, and 99 out of 150 would pay more for it.
Steep Hill brand name recognition and expertise are two of the reasons why High Times made Steep Hill its official tester for its Medical Cannabis Cup. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office also has certified Steep Hill labs as one of three official pot farm inspectors for the county.
Steep Hill staffers routinely go with cops to certify medical marijuana gardens of up to 99 plants for safety, security, siting, and environmental rules. Growers who are certified won't be bothered by police, and the sheriff's office has kept seven deputies on its payroll with the proceeds from the county's new pot program. "The sergeant in charge of the program says he's learned more about cannabis in the last six months than he has in his life," said Lampach, who conducts the checks.
Humboldt County is said to be considering a similar program — part of a wave of local governments in California setting safety standards for growing and selling pot. Steep Hill expects to certify one hundred Mendocino grows in 2011, which dovetails into its larger agenda: its "SafeCannabis" program.
According to Addison DeMoura, Steep Hill's co-founder and vice-president of sales, pot is the only agricultural product that is tested at the retail level. Everything else is tested from the source, and pot should follow suit.
To that end, Steep Hill has begun enrolling growers in its SafeCannabis program, which includes testing, along with special bags and stickers to prevent tampering and diversion. Forty major growers are in the program, with the goal of expanding to three hundred.
Growers who bring in pounds of shiny, vacuum-sealed SafeCannabis will have an edge in dispensary vendor lines, DeMoura said. "Nine out of ten times [dispensary buyers] are going to purchase it just for the packaging it's coming in," DeMoura said. "Never mind it's coming into the dispensary pre-tested, this cannabis has more information on it than anything else coming into that collective. The rest of it is bullshit. This is fact."
Grabstein added: "We'd love to have all the growers in California doing this type of packaging."