BERKELEY, Calif. (KRON) — It is being called the new gold rush, as the cannabis industry ramps up to begin selling legal weed in California next year.
While most associate marijuana with something smoked, a growing part of the industry involves turning the plant into an oil. But that process involves chemicals and can be dangerous.
KRON4’s Maureen Kelly got an inside look at a lab in Berkeley that is believed to be the first permitted marijuana manufacturing company in the state.
The chief science officer of BAS Research took KRON4 on a tour of their multi-million-dollar lab that looks like any other pharmaceutical company, complete with workers in white coats, examining and testing vials full of medicine.
Except, in this case, that medicine is marijuana.
They use the raw product, which arrives in Cheech and Chong-sized bags.
The plant is ground down and put into equipment that extracts its essence.
“And it comes out like this, in this beautiful golden substance,” Chief Science Officer Robert Sindelar said.
It’s liquid gold alright because cannabis oil is a huge part of the marijuana business in California. The value of that industry is projected at $7 billion dollars once legal recreational pot rolls out.
The sticky goo already gets into all sorts of products sold in medical marijuana dispensaries, from edibles like spaghetti sauce to topical treatments like bath products.
The same oil is also what goes into the extremely popular vape pens.
In Colorado, where recreational weed was legalized in 2012, products using cannabis extract make up 60 percent of the market versus smokable bud’s 40 percent.
Right now, these products are currently legal to buy for those with a medical marijuana card, but that market is about to get a lot bigger in 2018.
“A lot of people are going to try cannabis and more and more of these companies are going to need to get permits to do the right process, to do the right science to make the right formula,” BAS Research Founder Dr. Bao Le said.
Le is a chiropractor who got into the cannabis extract business because he was concerned about what else might be getting into his patient’s medicine.
“…We are making safe products…,” Le said. “We are making sure there are no pesticides in any of our oils.“
He’s put millions of dollars into not only the equipment that they use to test the oil for purity, but also into safety precautions.
It is all needed to secure a permit from the City of Berkeley.
Dr. Le believes they are the first in the state to get the legal blessing of their city, and in the process, may have created a blueprint for his burgeoning industry.
“Being the first is not easy,” Le said.
It is believed there are thousands of these labs already operating in California and only a handful have permits.
And that’s a problem because there are many ways to make this oil.
And some methods use easily explosive butane.
“Butane, it is basically lighter fluid,” Sindelar said.
BAS Research uses CO2, a non-flammable solvent, which was part of their agreement with the city.
But they still use a closed loop system, blast proof freezers, and specialized equipment to remove fumes.
“The police department has come in, the fire marshals have come in, different mayors for different cities have come in,” Le said. “Why? Because it’s safe to work here.”
When you are dealing with a pungent source material like pot, they needed to go beyond thinking about fire suppression and take steps to suppress the smell.
For a place that processes nearly 1,000 pounds of cannabis every month, there’s only a slight smell of weed in the air inside, and you can’t detect it at all outside the facility. That’s because they spent nearly $300,000 on special air scrubbers to get the smell out, both for the sake of their employees and their neighbors.
If the industry grows as expected, the only lingering odor will be the sweet smell of success.