Wait, How High Am I?
Now that I-502 has legalized marijuana, there are a few enterprising chemists out there who want to help us all get stoned with confidence. (Okay, and educate us along the way.)
Keep it together.
Keepittogetherkeepittogetherkeepitogether. KEEP. IT. TO. GETH. ER.
Those are the only words that I remember running through my head the first time I got high. Which was at about 8:30 at night on December 10, 2012. Which, if you’ll recall, was four days after possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use became legal in Washington state for anyone 21 years or older. Oh, plenty of abstract ideas zipped around in the suddenly vast space that opened up between my ears after I took three hits off of a glass pipe: What would it be like to have feet where your hands should be? How long would it take to row a boat to the moon? If a sandwich could talk, would it be mean to eat it? But those three words I recall specifically because I could see them rolling through my brain on an endless loop as I paced my backyard barefoot for 10 minutes—I’m still not exactly sure why—wearing a hole into the grass until I was so overcome by the thought of my neighbors watching me through their windows as they called the closest psychiatric hospital that I ran back inside my house and hid in the basement.
I was hiding from narcs and straitjackets, but in a way I was desperately searching for a grip on reality, too. Because that’s what this little experiment was supposed to be about, back before it turned into the comically cliche, after-school-special version of Reefer Madness. A couple weeks earlier, during a story-pitch meeting, I’d floated the idea of finally trying pot and writing a user’s guide for first timers who I naively assumed had always wanted to get high but were just as scared of breaking the law as I was. (Or am.)
When Washington voters approved Initiative 502 by a 56-to-44 margin last November 6, they set in motion a process that will ultimately lead to the opening late this year or early next year of privately run stores dedicated to selling marijuana. And a study by the Washington State Office of Financial Management predicts that industry could bring in nearly $2 billion over the next five years. That’s a lot of built-up demand, so while it’s still technically illegal to buy, I told myself there had to be plenty of wannabe tokers out there anxiously Googling “how to find a dealer.”
Honestly, though, this was about more than just an altruistic act of service journalism. I’m 35 and have a three-year-old son. I stopped getting drunk about the time he was born and stopped drinking altogether not long after that. I go out to dinner maybe twice a year, and most nights I’m in bed before 9:30. It’s safe to say I was having a pre-midlife crisis, and, as embarrassing as this is to admit, smoking pot was my version of buying a Porsche. My wife, an unrepentant stoner in college, thought it was hilarious that her teetotaling husband was suddenly itching to get high, especially after the years of good-natured grief I’d given her for her bong-ripping past. But she gave me her blessing, so long as I smoked after the kid was asleep and promised not to “do anything stupid, like barge into his room and sing him a Dave Matthews song or something.”
Over Google chat I relayed my plan to my younger brother, who’d smoked occasionally in his 20s, and asked what to expect. He promised a mellow high. “Do it at night, chill for an hour or two, then go to bed,” he wrote. “You’ll sleep amazingly.”
ME: No hangover, right?
HIM: Not at all. Man, now I want to go buy an eighth.
That sounded awesome. But this? There was nothing mellow about it. Once I’d stopped pacing and ducked back into the house, I poured myself into a leather chair in my basement living room and tried to ride out my freak-out while watching SportsCenter. But two warring factions in my brain wouldn’t shut up long enough to let me enjoy highlights of what looked like football players trying to run through honey. There was the rational, Zenlike side, voiced by Jeff Bridges: Dude, relax. You’re just a little paranoid. Let go of whatever’s tethering you to Planet Stress and enjoy the high, man. And then there was the wildly irrational side, straight from a Gilbert Gottfried rant: STOP TALKING ABOUT PARANOIA, YOU SON OF A BITCH. YOU’RE MAKING ME PARANOID. WAIT, WHY IS THE TV STARING AT ME LIKE THAT?
The panic intensified for an hour—made worse by the fact that my field of vision narrowed so drastically that it felt like I was looking at the world through a toilet paper roll—until I finally stopped fighting with myself and passed out. And when I came to 12 hours later, every bit as nauseated and run down as I’d ever felt after getting blackout drunk on liquor, my “Smoking Marijuana for Dummies” idea had lost its appeal. Now I just wanted to figure out what I’d smoked.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone having an experience quite like that. Where did you get the stuff?” That’s Ed Stremlow, co-owner of Analytical 360, a laboratory that specializes in testing the potency and medicinal properties of marijuana currently grown for patients. I’d called him in early January hoping he could help me understand my high, and at first he wondered aloud if I’d just been unprepared for the effects. No doubt that was a contributing factor—I’d expected to feel loose and a little giddy, not see product logos in TV commercials change color and come to life—but more than that I was blindsided by the pot’s power.
My wife had saved me the embarrassment of clumsily asking coworkers for a hookup by getting me a sample from a friend whose wife has a medical authorization. And when she caught me peeking around corners in the basement, she called her friend to ask what he’d given me. As it turns out, he hadn’t checked with his wife before grabbing the first thing he could find in her stash, which, he’d since discovered, just happened to be an exceptionally high-grade medicinal strain. In other words, even if I’d been aware at the time of pot potency studies like the one conducted by the National Center for Natural Products Research, which showed that the average strength of marijuana doubled
between 1998 and 2008, I still knew nothing about the strain I got before I smoked it. As I recounted my experience to Stremlow, his soft baritone morphed from bemused to intrigued. I’d piqued his interest to the point that he asked to test a sample of my green tormentor just to satisfy his own curiosity.
We met the next night in Analytical’s modest space, and as lab techs in knit caps and North Face fleece jackets surveyed samples that had come in during the day (“Did you smell this Maui Wowie?” “Yeah, it’s really doughy”), Stremlow broke down the science of pot.
A given varietal strain of marijuana contains several compounds called cannabinoids. There are the well-known ones, like tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produce the psychoactive effects typically associated with pot. But then there are others, like cannabidiol (CBD) or cannabichromene (CBC), which have been shown to alleviate everything from pain to nausea. (THC has medical benefits, too.) “And each strain has a different potential and potency for whatever cannabinoid it focuses on, whether it’s THC, CBD, or CBC,” Stremlow explained, pointing to a color-coded chart of CBDs and their medicinal uses, in a three-ring binder of information he takes on sales calls to local dispensaries.
Given the thousands of strains that exist today—thanks to decades of selective breeding—there are any number of cannabinoid permutations available. Which is a good thing for patients for whom traditional pharmaceuticals offer no relief or produce side effects worse than their symptoms. But despite the fact that marijuana for medical use has been legal in Washington state since 1998, for more than a decade qualified growers or providers weren’t required to test their product to determine what was actually in it. Which meant that patients had to choose their meds to treat specific symptoms based on recommendations or trial and error. And once they found something that worked, they had to hope its potency remained consistent from one batch to the next. Stremlow compared the unpredictability to the variations in a vintner’s wine production from year to year. “A guy might give you something with 18 percent THC this time, and his next crop might be 10 percent,” he said. “Some years you have good crops, and other years you have bad crops.”
That inconsistency started to change—though not without a few hiccups—in January 2011, when Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Democratic state senator from Seattle, introduced Senate Bill 5073. Kohl-Welles hoped to clarify the state’s existing medical marijuana laws, which up until that point were vague and noncommittal in their support of the industry, by establishing protections for dispensaries. But she went further, proposing rules for inspecting the “condition, cannabinoid profile, THC concentration, or other qualitative measurement of cannabis intended for medical use.”
The bill made its way through the legislature and was even strengthened, requiring growers to submit samples of their product to independent, third-party “cannabis analysis laboratories,” which would examine the samples for potency and other yet-to-be-determined characteristics. But when it landed on then-governor Christine Gregoire’s desk that summer, she vetoed most of the bill—including the testing language—for fear that it would cause the state to run afoul of federal controlled-substance laws.
John Brown, a longtime friend of Stremlow’s, had followed Kohl-Welles’s bill closely, and even after it was gutted he saw an opportunity. The idea of marijuana testing wasn’t new; at the time, there were similar facilities operating in other medical marijuana–friendly states, like Steep Hill Lab in Oakland, California. A couple had even cropped up in Washington, but Brown and Stremlow—along with another buddy, Brenton Dawber—had friends in the biotech industry who they felt could bring an extra level of legitimacy to the business: Randy Oliver, a chemist who used to work for Seattle-based ZymoGenetics and is now employed by a pharmaceutical company in Montana; and his wife, Laura Taubner, who’s also a chemist and has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health for her work on mad cow disease. Not only that, while other facilities conducted tests using gas chromatography, which heats up samples and—according to the Analytical crew—produces skewed results, they planned to use the more reliable high-performance liquid chromatography, which can measure a strain’s pre-smoked strength. With their methods in place, the five partners opened Analytical 360 on January 1, 2012.
When you walk into your friendly neighborhood marijuana bodega you’ll be able to make a selection based on potency numbers printed right on the packaging.
The operation is located on the Fremont-Wallingford border on Stone Way—of course it is—and the first thing that hits you when you walk through the door is how tiny the space is. Actually, no, the first thing that hits you when you walk through the door is a wave of pungent, herby marijuana aroma. But aside from the smell, you’d never guess what they do here. The tidy and spare waiting area looks like a college student’s apartment, with a low-slung white couch and two inexpensive wood chairs situated around a coffee table that’s covered in copies of Northwest Leaf, a local medical marijuana magazine. January’s cover story: Will pot replace booze on happy hour menus?
Not until you walk behind a counter where techs check in samples and examine them under a high-powered digital microscope for insects, mold, and other nasties you wouldn’t want to smoke, do you find a door that leads to the cramped lab. In here, surrounded by racks of pinkie finger–size test tubes, pot from all over Puget Sound gets dried out, pulverized, and mixed with a solvent that pulls out the cannabinoids. That solution is injected into a device that looks a little like a stack of computer servers, which, 30 minutes later, produces a cannabinoid profile. (Fun fact: They’ve since developed their own testing methods, but Oliver, the chemist, started by adopting a process established by a crime lab in Belgium.) Analytical’s founders struggled to find business early on, but now they’re processing hundreds of samples per month, from dispensaries in King, Pierce, Thurston, and Whatcom counties.
Two hours after stepping through the front door, I handed Brown a Ziploc baggie the size of a credit card. In it was a tea-green nugget that weighed less than a gram, again from my wife’s friend’s wife. It wasn’t exactly the same stuff I smoked—I’d buried the leftovers in the bottom of my compost bin weeks ago while chanting something that may have been “Be gone, green demon,” my version of a horticulturist’s exorcism—but it was the best I could do. Obviously, as Brown and Stremlow explained, there was no guarantee that the test results would reflect the strength of the original sample, but I didn’t care. Even if it was 50 percent weaker, I was positive it would measure off their charts. “Come back in three days, and we’ll have something for you,” Stremlow said.
On the walk back to my car I stumbled and suddenly realized I felt a little lightheaded. Was I…high? They weren’t smoking anything in there, but with all the pot they had, maybe it was just in the air, and some random THC particles had seeped through my pores. Or maybe it just had something to do with the fact that I hadn’t eaten in 12 hours.
Although they couldn’t have predicted it a year ago, the group behind Analytical picked the perfect time to start testing marijuana. Because, thanks to I-502, business has the potential to really pick up. Substantially. Under new laws “every licensed marijuana producer and processor must submit representative samples of marijuana, usable marijuana, or marijuana-infused products produced or processed by the licensee to an independent, third-party testing laboratory…for inspection and testing to certify compliance with standards adopted by the state liquor control board.” Not only that, the control board will establish classes of marijuana based on THC and other cannabinoid levels. What that means is that as soon as this December you’ll be able to walk into your friendly neighborhood marijuana bodega and make a selection based on potency numbers printed right on the packaging.
Of course, how exactly that will work has to be yet to ironed out. When I called Brian Smith, the liquor control board’s communications director, in January he sounded…distracted. Ninety percent of the calls he’d fielded so far in the new year had to do with the implementation of I-502, and the department was days away from kicking off a series of public forums on the subject across the state. Testing was just one of the issues his office was considering. “We’re in uncharted waters,” he said. “Where in the world does a comprehensive system of growing and processing and retailing marijuana exist? There are pockets around the world, of course, like in Amsterdam, where it’s commonly available in certain ways. But nowhere do you have a system of farming it and processing it and retailing it.”
Take a second to consider that last point. When you buy a six-pack of beer, the alcohol content—or more accurately, the alcohol by volume—printed on the cans was calculated by the brewer. It wasn’t verified by anyone because no agency, state or federal, requires it, but even if there were a national testing lab that did that kind of work, it wouldn’t help in the case of pot because it’s still considered illegal at the federal level.
As a result, the responsibility for basic quality assurance falls to the State of Washington, and it will have to build the entire apparatus from the ground up. Nothing like it exists, and the only thing that comes close is a lab in Yakima run by the state department of agriculture for the purposes of testing the quality of hops for brewing. In fact, the job of regulating and selling pot will be so huge that the liquor control board sent out a request for proposals earlier this year for consultants with expertise in the previously underground industry. In case you’re wondering, experts in product quality standards and testing had to have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, biology, or agriculture, or five years of testing experience.
One reason no laws exist for testing the alcohol content of beer may be the fact that we have decades (and decades, and decades…) of commonly held institutional knowledge about the relative effects of everything available at a liquor store. So with marijuana, for which information about chemical makeup and potency isn’t even remotely as widely disseminated, testing and labeling will no doubt provide a consumer safety function. “If I wanted to start drinking today, I don’t think I’d go straight to the 100-proof liquor because I know better,” Stremlow says. “But if I didn’t know there was a difference between beer and 100-proof liquor, it would be a harder decision to make and I might just buy the first thing I saw on the shelf.”
Ultimately people within the industry predict that testing will have the unintended consequence of opening the public’s eyes to the benefits of marijuana beyond the buzz—assuming it’s not focused exclusively on THC content, of course. James Andren runs Mountain Medicine Clinic, a collective garden in Puyallup, and he’s been testing with Analytical since last year. He laughed when I told him about my first brush with pot but got serious again when he considered how many other people may have similar freak-outs. “I have a feeling there will be several people on the recreational side that will experience green sickness”—or smoking themselves sick—“because they’re going to go into establishments looking for the highest THC,” he says. So it’ll be on the retailers themselves to educate their customers. “If the labeling includes a full cannabinoid profile, that’ll be very beneficial to the recreational users, as long as the information about what those cannabinoids do is available to them.”
In other words, if all goes according to plan, Washington won’t just be one of the first two states in the country where people can legally get high. It—and, more specifically Seattle—could be the center of an entirely new green industry. But rather than compostable clothes and high-efficiency lightbulbs, the products will be knowledge and common sense.
Three days after dropping off my sample at Analytical, I came back, just as instructed, fully prepared for Stremlow to tell me I’d been lucky to survive. The samples tested at Analytical average about 13 percent THC, but a quick peek at the lab’s site—it publishes all test results, again, to increase public awareness of what’s available on the market—reveals that you can occasionally find numbers as high as 20 percent. A sick part of me hoped mine would be even higher than that. It wasn’t a competition; more than anything I wanted to maintain what little self-respect I still had.
When I walked in, Stremlow slid a sealed envelope labeled “Seattle Met” across the counter to me, and inside was a plastic card printed with a high-resolution photo of my sample, along with three numbers: THC, CBD, and water content. My jaw fell a little slack as my eyes focused on the only number I really cared about right then.
THC Total: 10.44 percent.
Was there a number missing? Was the decimal in the wrong place? How was this possible? Stremlow tried to soften the blow by pointing out that my pot’s activated totals—a measure of its cannabinoid potency presmoking—were considerably higher than average. But in reality, that just made me sleep longer and contributed a little to my hangover. Basically, I was a lightweight. “I think a lot of your experience had to do with the fact that it was your first time and you didn’t know what to expect.” He chuckled and added, “Hey, maybe pot’s just not for you.”
Maybe. Or maybe next time I’ll know that rather than asking for the vodka of pot—or even the light beer—I’ll go for a wine cooler.