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How the Cannabis Industry Came to Irvine

Irvine has always been a tough sell on both sides when it came to the cannabis industry. But now, laboratories that fit right in with the science scene of one of SoCal’s most cutting-edge communities are starting to pop up.

Despite legalization, the idea of the cannabis industry taking root in Irvine in any capacity seemed like fantasy not long ago. To get our heads around how it all went down, we reached out to one of Irvine’s newest businesses, BioCann Laboratories, who also played a big part in making it happen.  

Founder Sulaiman Masood explained his past in the laboratory space prior to getting BioCann off the ground. His other labs are across the clinical spectrum in areas that include toxicology, biochemistry, pathology and pharmacogenomics. BioCann will be his third time opening a lab.

“We were brought into the industry because we already knew how to operate. The industry wants people who know how to be professional about it,” Masood told Irvine Weekly in a phone interview. “People want to make sure their tests are run by clinical laboratory scientists. They’re getting an accurate result, and we’re looking out for the safety of the public.”

Photo courtesy of Digamma Consulting

Masood’s business partner had previously been approached a few years ago about the idea. At the time, they simply weren’t sure. Masood’s labs provide services to a lot of folks in the world of substance abuse recovery. He feared the possibility of getting involved with cannabis might give his other projects a black eye in the communities they serve.

Eventually, BioCann’s consultant Alex Mohamed would approach Irvine Mayor Donald P. Wagner to query him on the possibilities of opening the lab. Wagner was quick to say they don’t allow cannabis. Irvine, of course, has proven a tough egg to crack. The 15th largest city in the state remains one of the largest where residents don’t have access to a legal cannabis storefront locally. Mohamed would end up carrying the ball all the way to the endzone in regards to changing local ordinances and was there the day everything was finalized for BioCann, and its competitors.

Mohamed had originally made a name for himself as a political consultant. In 2011 he worked to help get former Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen elected. “We pulled off a win for an Assembly seat that was in an incumbent’s area. We had no reason to win this race, and we won it by 16,000 votes,” Mohamed said. With no money from Sacramento or endorsements, they had pulled it off, and he was now a name in SoCal Republican circles. His continued push to help the party stay as connected as possible to their Orange County voting block helped him network in Sacramento too.

Those Sacramento folks represented various symbiotic relationships for Mohamed as he worked to represent other labs and also waste management and landscaping companies vying for city contracts. This lab opportunity would arise through one of those contacts he’d made in the hazmat space.

That regulator had found himself at a conference where everyone wondered what exactly they were looking for in making sure cannabis was safe to consume. “Residual solvents? Heavy metals? Heavy metals weren’t even a topic of conversation at the time,” Mohamed said.

“He called me to pick my brain a little bit and asked if I was interested in the industry. The answer was no,” said Mohamed, citing his work in the mental health and recovery sectors at other labs. He considered anything that could be construed as promoting weed to be unethical.

Then he saw the numbers being thrown around in the cannabis industry in general and he knew someone was going to make a decent buck testing all that legal marijuana. Mohamed thought to open another lab in a scientifically prestigious city like Irvine, “a city that doesn’t scream weed, but in fact, is saying no weed.” That would make everything way more legitimate in his eyes.

“We approached the city and said we’re scientists trying to help this state regulate this industry, not weed guys trying to get their laboratory going. That’s exactly what they were looking for. Mayor Wagner had known Mohamed before getting elected, he’d even had bloodwork done at one of the labs he worked with.

“I told him it’s the same thing, it’s no different from what I’m currently doing. Just change the blood sample for weed. I said we aren’t going to have lines, I’m not looking for a green cross outside the door,” said Mohamed. He further explained the process and gained the mayor’s support. From there, it took about nine months to get the bylaws changed.

Once they got into the building, they were able to complete the state licensing process in about three months. The lab officially opened at the end of March.

We asked the pair for their general take on the state of the vibe around cannabis in Irvine. Where does it go from here?

“Shockingly and very surprisingly, I think we’ve had some great feedback from South Orange County. These areas I always thought were very conservative shock me,” said Mohamed. Part of the shock on the other side is just the idea there is a regulatory body tracking testing for pesticides he has to comply with.

“I think the consensus is people are becoming a little bit more admissible, I think the guard is down now. If we educate about what cannabis does, and what CBD does, and what CBN does. Everyone knows what THC does,” said Mohamed.

No matter the case, Irvine is now a part of the green rush. But the general aura of scientific progress could prove to be a host for the future of cannabis science. Marco Troiani of Digamma Consulting, the company that helped BioCann establish their methodology, told Irvine Weekly due to the new lax lab permitting in the city, “We’ve seen a lot of new testing labs trying to get started there, so they are lowering the barrier compared to the San Francisco area.”