Sergio Ramirez, a scientist at Golden State Collective Cannabis Laboratories, demonstrates how the new lab tests the qualities of medical marijuana. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

EASTSIDE — When a medical marijuana patient walks into a dispensary to purchase some pot, they are most likely not going to speak with a certified pharmacist, but rather a 20-something with glossy, blood-shot eyes who probably got high hours or minutes before.

Instead of hearing about possible side effects and reactions that have been well documented in clinical trials, the patient will hear such terms as “stoney” or “body high.”

Richard McDonald wants to change that. A patient himself (McDonald is legally blind and has used marijuana to fight off the destructive forces of glaucoma), he opened Golden State Collective Cannabis Laboratories on the eastside of town earlier this month.

The lab, housed in an old brick building near Olympic Boulevard and Centinela Avenue, specializes in testing medical cannabis for levels of the psychoactive ingredient known as THC and a few other compounds, as well as for contaminants like mold, bacteria and pesticides.

The commercial lab caters to growers and dispensaries and is one of a dozen or so that have opened in the last few years in an effort to bring some legitimacy and consistency to the medical marijuana industry. McDonald’s goal is to provide patients like himself with as much information as possible so they can make educated decisions about which marijuana to purchase to treat their ailments.

“The way it works … is someone literally knocks on the door [of a dispensary] with a Hefty bag [filled with marijuana] and drops it on the floor,” McDonald said of how dispensaries typically get their medication. “Who knows what kind of pesticides this [grower] may have been using or the quality of it.

“From the patient’s perspective, anything somebody ingests in their body, you want to know if it’s copacetic.”

Just as someone suffering from depression wouldn’t start popping pills without first consulting their doctor so they know the side effects and how the drug functions, medical marijuana patients shouldn’t be ingesting different strains of cannabis without first knowing how much THC and other cannabinoids are in a bud. Some strains are better at treating pain or relieving stress, while others that are not grown properly or are exposed to air and become oxidized can contain more CBN, a cannabinoid which makes those who ingest it paranoid or anxious.

“Until it’s tested, it’s all on the word of a stranger,” said McDonald, a former accountant who spent time as the chief financial officer for Trident Dental Laboratories before opening his own lab.

Testing marijuana can help dispensaries better market their medication, giving patients the opportunity to shop around for the most potent strains. Those dispensaries that carry them can bring in more business, McDonald said.

Testing is also required. In Los Angeles, there are rules requiring all dispensaries to have their marijuana tested by “independent and certified labs.” Long Beach followed suit two months later. (Santa Monica city officials do not allow dispensaries to operate within city limits.)

Neither city specifies who is supposed to certify the labs. The federal government doesn’t seem willing. After all, marijuana possession is still illegal under federal law. (One lab in Colorado that tried to get certified by the Drug Enforcement Administration was promptly raided by that agency.)

That makes it harder for labs like the one in Santa Monica to set up shop and gain the trust of their clients. There are stories of some people opening up gypsy labs, testing marijuana out of their homes or vans, and without the proper equipment. That leads to confusion.

“Half the labs are horrible,” said Dr. Allen Frankel of GreenBridge Medical in Santa Monica. Frankel has been testing the marijuana he recommends to patients for years, sometimes sending out multiple samples of the same strain to various labs to see which ones are credible. He also makes his own tinctures and needs to know exact levels of various cannabinoids so that his concoctions provide the desired effect.

“Some labs give completely unreliable results, which is worse than having no information at all,” he said. “That is the biggest problem new labs are going to have. They need to show me and other people who care about this that they are reputable and their results are correct.”

McDonald understands there are skeptics. But he is confident that once clients come through his doors and see the operation, their concerns will fade.

During a recent tour, McDonald was proud to introduce his two technicians. Veridiana Noriega has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cal-Poly Pamona and also took advanced courses in plant anatomy and physiology at Oaksterdam University. Sergio Ramirez is a Gates Millennium Scholar who earned a bachelor’s in biology and anthropology from Harvard University. He previously worked for the United States National Park Service studying invasive plant species in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“What we do here is very scientific,” McDonald said. The lab is a member of the American Chemical Society and McDonald said it adheres to the strict standards and protocols recommended by the society.

Holding a vial filled with small pieces of marijuana — the Grape Ape strain — soaked in alcohol to draw out the various compounds, Ramirez ran a sample through the lab’s chromatograph, a sophisticated and expensive piece of equipment the size of a mini fridge. Within a few minutes the test was complete and the results appeared on a computer screen. The test, which can run as low as $60 for THC only or $155 for THC, pesticide and mold, revealed that the sample of Grape Ape was in line with what was expected using results from previous tests of the strain and others like it. Ramirez gave his stamp of approval — and never once took a hit.

Following each test, a detailed report with various graphs and charts is completed and e-mailed to the client. The report includes the testing result as well as those from similar species like Blue Dream, AK-47 or Kali Mist. Growers names are listed as well so a dispensary owner can track who is providing them with the best medication to sell. The report also includes a brief description of how the drug effects the average person, helping dispensaries recommend the right strain for their patients.

The technicians also input the results into a database that tracks more than 50 strains. The idea is to build a reliable master list that can be shared with other labs in an effort to self regulate since the industry currently is wide open.

And because of that, labs like McDonald’s are in a precarious position. At any time they could be shut down by the feds, or fined by City Hall since the laboratory is operating without a proper business license, according to city officials. The lab is located in an area of the city that is zoned for laboratories and McDonald has applied for the business license, but City Hall has been awaiting word from the feds on whether or not the lab can be in possession of marijuana before signing off on the business.

“It is a unique case,” said city planner Amanda Schachter.

City Hall is currently conducting an initial investigation into the lab’s operations and has not levied any fines.

“If we find probable cause that a business is being conducted without proper planning permits or business license we will diligently pursue that violation as we would with any violation of the municipal code,” said Joe Trujillo, manager of code compliance at City Hall.

McDonald, who chose the Santa Monica location because it is close to his home and the clients he serves, is quick to point out that the lab is properly zoned, far enough away from schools and child care centers and does not sell or grow pot. He also mentioned Santa Monica’s law, approved by voters in 2006, that makes adult, personal marijuana use the lowest law enforcement priority of the police department.

And because of that he is confident the lab can continue to operate without interference on the local level.

“There’s no doubt that the city has scrutinized our application and we have been very frank with them,” McDonald said. “If the city has a problem, we are going to have a problem with the city. And it’s going to be a big problem. All I’m trying to do is provide a service to businesses that the law says I must provide.”

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