May 2 2016 04:51 PM

Fledgling lab applies scientific rigor to pot business

Garrett Saul, co-founder of KS Labs
Photo by Sebastian Montes

The first half of 2015 was a trying time for Hassan Khalil and Garrett Saul.

First there was the biotech incubator in Carlsbad. Then came the office building in Mission Valley.

Both times, their cannabis enterprise KS Labs was shooed from their lab space by city officials and nervous landlords.

Another exhaustive search followed, another non-descript space. This time, thanks to a realtor who knew of a recently vacated dispensary, they landed in North Park.

Only six months prior, Khalil and Saul were just a couple undergrads at University of San Diego running chemical analyses to understand the bitterness of hops.

When they decided to apply their newfound hops know-how to marijuana—the two plants are close genetic kin—they found a perplexing lack of scientific rigor being applied to the ostensibly medical field.

"Things were qualitative—oh, this looks good, this smells good—but there was no solid, quantitative data to measure the quality, the safety," Khalil said.

The fledgling 800 square feet they found in August in an unmarked building on El Cajon Boulevard is a far cry from San Diego's other—and much larger—pot-testing enterprise, SD PharmLab, which has been operating for five years in a cheery Ocean Beach storefront with an inviting sign out front.

Where one is polished and well established, the other is a rag-tag upstart. But both labs embody the uneven reality of operating in the pot business these days. More importantly, they are both laying the industry's scientific foundation ahead of a wave of state regulations that aim to push cannabis toward wider legitimacy.

The two labs are the only local recourse for certifying the pot potency of the exploding number of cannabis enterprises.

Potency sells. The most popular strains—today's pot du jour is Gorilla Glue No. 4—became so by testing at nearly 30 percent THC. Wax and resin concentrates exceed 75 percent.

But for all this scientific rigor, none of the testing is mandated, enforced or verified by any regulatory body.

"Right now, you can do whatever you want basically," Khalil said. "It's pretty much the Wild West, especially for the dispensary guys bouncing around every three months from shop to shop."

Those freewheeling days are numbered. Years of languishing in legal limbo will end when the state imposes the weight of its regulatory might on the medical marijuana industry in 2018—through an array of licenses and other requirements.

That will be a boon for business like San Diego's two pot labs. But some observers foresee unintended consequences from the impending regulation. Legislators are hoping pot legalization will put the black market out of business. The abundance of red tape and administrative hurdles for all but the deepest pockets, however, is already having the opposite effect in recreational states such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

"It's going to create a lot of middle men, so the price of cannabis is going to go way up—which, unfortunately, is going to create a rise in the black market again," Khalil said.

Meanwhile, they'll get back to their soon-to-be-booming business of breaking down the marijuana experience into its numerical parts—with or without a sign out front.


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