As a “master alchemist” and co-chair of Commercial Extraction and Manufacturing at Oaksterdam University, Anthony DeMeo isolates prized components of cannabis in the lab and teaches others his time-tested techniques. Here, Anthony talks with OU about his background in cannabis and his vision for its future.
OU: Tell us about your background in cannabis.
AD: My dad was heavily involved in the black market, and so growing up, I had always seen these things happening around me with cannabis. He was basically a street-level dealer. He had a good connection with what I presume was the Mexican cartel. He was pretty well-liked here in Las Vegas. I interacted with these people as a kid while my dad had to work. I would hang out with their kids at home or out in the world while my dad did business. Nobody was a bad guy, though we did have bad experiences. It has been a part of my life since I was really young. My parents used it all the time, even my grandparents smoked cannabis. It was always in my household. They never hid it from me, it was completely normal. As I grew up and became a teenager, I realized cannabis was a drug.
What did you come to understand about cannabis as you matured?
I realized a lot of my family members used cannabis, and they were really successful business owners and entrepreneurs, some of them worth millions of dollars, and smoked it all the time. The traditional way of thinking about it, that it was this horrible gateway drug, wasn’t true from what I saw. But I also ended up seeing the bad side, people getting taken advantage of, getting hurt over small-level deals. I realized part of this was not intrinsically bad, but it brought in bad actors. When the opportunity for me to enter the legal cannabis industry came up, a motivating factor was that I want to take the power of this thing away from bad actors — this thing that I see as positive.
On a more personal level, my wife was diagnosed with adolescent myoclonic epilepsy and had semi-frequent seizures. Cannabis was helping her stay calm and work through her epilepsy. Her neurologist even said to continue consuming cannabis alongside her pharmaceutical meds. Then my father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and lost about 150 pounds within a very short period of time. We had read stories about cannabis saving people who had cancer but were skeptical. We decided to give him little pea-sized drops of distillate every few hours for about two months, which stimulated his appetite and helped him sleep. I don’t think cannabis is a miracle, but these personal experiences showed me the power of cannabis as medicine. This is what motivates me to push harder and continue my learning.
What is your educational background?
I went to school in Nevada, first to the College of Southern Nevada, then UNLV. I graduated with a degree in biology. My original intent was actually to go pre-med, continuing my education to become a surgeon. It was a dream of mine, but as I got older, I had a girlfriend and realized I needed to make some money. Besides that, I was distracted at the time. I had a professional video game career. I ended up getting a job at Cardinal Health.
What was your career path from there?
I started as a delivery driver. Within six months, I moved to a position as a Nuclear PET Technician, positron emission tomography. When I made that switch, I started manufacturing intravenous pharmaceutical drugs for myocardial scans and imaging cancer. I did that for a few years, and then I switched to a more focused role there doing quality assurance and analytics.
How did you get into the cannabis industry?
While I was at Cardinal, I was fortunate enough to make friends with people there. One individual, Duke Fu, a close friend now, mentioned he was starting a marijuana business here in Las Vegas. I literally told him, ‘I will come and shovel shit for you if you need me to do something.’ Within a few weeks, he told me I needed to sit in on a city meeting. I took some notes, and that’s how I entered the industry. It started with writing applications for licenses and transitioned to learning cannabis TEK (Technical Empirical Knowledge). Up to that time and further, I hadn’t consumed cannabis.
How was your experience suited to the industry?
I knew how to make pharmaceutical drugs, I understood the process, and the idea of cannabis as medicine seemed interesting to me. The team I was starting the company with was a family of two pharmacists and an E.R. physician. It just seemed like a smart thing to do, apply the pharmaceutical process and its elegance to the cannabis space. That was my motivation for wanting to be involved.
Where did you go from there?
We founded our company, Green Therapeutics, in 2014. I was a co-founder and lab manager. Australis Capital acquired Green Therapeutics, and now I work for Australis Capital as the regional production manager, which really encompasses all of the country. We are in the top 100 cannabis companies in America, publicly traded. I think we’re generating on average about $300,000 per month in revenue from just our one department. That’s just in Nevada. We are also doing business in California, Missouri, Michigan, and Oklahoma.
What does Green Therapeutics do?
We make everything. I make vape carts, badder, any product under the sun. Here in Las Vegas, the lab is focused on distillate and making edibles and vape carts because that’s what our market is demanding now. I focus on ethanol extractions and new TEK. We do hydrocarbon here as well but I am less involved in that.
What do you enjoy focusing on?
What I really enjoy is creating unique methods of delivery and products for the future. I find semi-synthetic cannabinoids really fascinating. They allow us to create a more designer product. Cannabis has great synergistic effects with cannabinoids and terpenes working together, but if we really want to focus down on medicine we need to have very specific and consistent drugs and one of the only ways I can see to get there is through semi-synthetic chemistry.
What are some innovations you’re working on now?
We’re working on CBD to Delta-9 conversions. We’re working on a lot of CBD-based conversions. HHCA, Delta-10, synthesizing CBG and CBN. We do all of that in-house but we don’t release any of those products, not yet anyway. I’m also working on a project in Portugal, for a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, and that is where we’re really going to be focusing on these semi-synthetic drugs to create consistent active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). The way it works out there, a pharma company manufactures a drug. That drug gets sold to a pharmacy, and then a pharmacist has to dose out the drug based on a doctor’s prescription. I think that’s a decent approach.
What do you think the future holds for federal legalization in the U.S.?
Here in the States, I don’t know how it’s going to go. I think eventually it will become federally legalized and I would hope it gets completely deschedualized, but that’s a pie-in-the-sky situation. I think more realistically we’ll end up with Schedule II or III and all of us small-scale manufacturers and cultivators will have to dramatically shift gears to become GACP or GMP certified and come up with some really rigorous quality assurance in-house to release anything. If it goes this route most likely it won’t be an over-the-counter drug, it will be a prescription. I hope it doesn’t go that way but we’re behind the curve on many things cannabis-related so it wouldn’t be surprising.
What brought you to Oaksterdam?
When we first started Green Therapeutics we hired Joey Ereñeta as Director of Cultivation and worked alongside him. We touched base from time to time and kept up on how things were going. After that, I worked with him on another project in Missouri. When I first met Joey I also signed up for Oaksterdam University courses here in Las Vegas. I took all the training seminars OU provided, mostly cultivation-focused and a brief extraction workshop. I really found it informative and helpful because at the time I had zero experience in cannabis so it was direct insight into how things work. Then, Joey asked me if I would be interested in speaking with Natalie Darves, OU’s Dean of Faculty.
What do you like about teaching at OU?
I enjoy sharing information. On the extraction side of things, everyone thinks they have super-secret technology. They think they’re doing it like no one else and they don’t want to share. That’s fair. But after I got my feet wet I realized nobody really does anything special. There are minor changes, but really it’s just run-of-the-mill stuff. After talking with Natalie I said I would love to share an extraction run. I’m open. I’m here to share information. Then she wanted to start a program. I gathered all of my collected knowledge from working in the pharmacy and cannabis space and put it all together. The program pulls the curtains down. There’s no more Wizard of Oz. It’s just a manufacturing facility.
How do you work with your co-chair, Stefanie Gangano?
When I was writing the curriculum, I had Natalie and Tara reviewing it and we realized there were certain things they didn’t understand. Stefanie is a Ph.D. chemist who can verify all of my claims, which is important. That’s how she got roped in. She gave what I wrote much more credibility. There are definitely gaps in my knowledge that Stefanie fills. As we were working on the curriculum, Stefanie and Natalie approached me about co-teaching. Stefanie and I really clicked. She brings a very high level understanding of organic chemistry and I like to think I bring more operational experience.
What do you love about teaching Intro to Extractions at OU?
What’s really awesome about me interacting with students is that they challenge me. Everybody in their professional career, we think we know it all. We always want to do better but it’s hard. We reach plateaus. Having students who are experts in other fields and want to learn about cannabis or are completely brand new, forces you to think in different ways and I find that helps because there’s more than one solution to every problem.
What do you stress in your classes?
I like to believe that I can teach people in a way that they can be safe operators and I think that’s really important. Most current operators really underestimate the potential for disaster that’s in front of their face, and most companies are hiring young people that have zero experience working with volatile solvents. It’s a recipe for disaster. People just get comfortable working in a lab. Even I start to lose respect for the solvent I’m handling and the next thing you know I’m choking or gagging or getting a headache. For newer operators who don’t understand what they’re using it’s far more dangerous.
What do you see in the future?
I don’t know everything, I just know what’s brought me the most success and that’s what I have to share. I love consuming information and learning as much as I can and that’s why I’ll never be telling anyone I have the best way to do something. It’s just not true. It’s the truth for today until we find a new truth. In relation to all these processes, for example, hydrocarbon extractions used to take place in a glass or PVC pipe with canned butane. All of the processes we know and do today will most likely look different in 10 years. In my time here it’s already changed dramatically. I think learning and continuous education are really critical.
Hopefully, the future brings standardization and stability to cannabis analytics. That’s a big topic that people are incredibly under-informed on. Things like 30%+ THCa in flower, or 40mg/g of a singular terpene, are very likely the result of variance in our analytical labs. Stefanie and I will tackle that in a future blog for OU.