Montel Williams among D.C.’s medical marijuana hopefuls


Williams is a budding entrepreneur (AP)

Montel Williams, the talk show host, actor and pitchman, is part of a nonprofit group seeking licenses from the city to operate a marijuana dispensary and cultivation facilities.

According to District records, the Abatin Wellness Center has expressed preliminary interest in opening medical marijuana businesses in the District. A dispensary by the same name opened earlier this year in Sacramento, Calif., with Williams as its public face.

Abatin has hired veteran D.C. attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr. to shepherd them through the process. In an interview Tuesday, Cooke confirmed Williams, who has multiple sclerosis and is an outspoken supporter of medicinal cannabis, has a major role in the group.

“He is not the managing director or the driving guy,” Cooke said. “But he is certainly at a level more involved than being a face of the organization. He knows a lot about the organization, and he speaks and gets resources. He does stuff that makes the organization go.”

Cooke said Williams visited the District earlier this year to show his interest in the city and its marijuana program. “We talked to a few people outside the Wilson Building and inside the Wilson Building. We couldn’t lobby,” he said. “It was not a full court press or anything.”

The nonprofit Sacramento dispensary seeks to occupy an upscale niche in the marijuana retail industry. One reviewer recently referred to it as the “Nieman Marcus [sic] Of Marijuana.” In a tour of the facility he gave to a local TV station, Williams said his “mother and father would be willing to walk up to the front door.” The TV reporter said it “looks more like an office for a high-end plastic surgeon.”

Under the District’s medical marijuana law, persons convicted of a felony or drug-related misdemeanor are not allowed to participate in the program. It is unclear if Williams’ January citation for possession of drug paraphernalia will complicate matters for him. (“I don’t believe that would be an issue,” Cooke said.)

Applications to operate marijuana cultivation centers are due September 16. The application period for dispensaries will follow.

UPDATE, 6:45 P.M.: I just spoke to Jonathan Franks, a Los Angeles based publicist for Williams and Abatin, who said that Williams is “absolutely the driving force” behind the group.

“This is not a spokesman-for-hire deal,” he said. “We’re very interested in helping D.C. lead the way with a common-sense medical marijuana program that works for everyone.”

Franks emphasized that Williams is “not interested in serving recreational users.”

Abatin’s Sacramento clinic, he said, looks like a doctor’s office, not a head shop. The marijuana is stored in a secure back room, not in display cases. And its customers meet with trained counselors and have their prescriptions double-checked before they’re filled.

While Abatin is not yet ready to announce the locations it might be eyeing, Franks said that the group is committed to working with neighbors and following the city’s regulations to the letter.

“We anticipate really reaching out and working hard,” he said. “We do not intend to really muscle into the community. We really intend to build community support and make our case. [Williams] feels very strongly about that.”

And, Franks added, Williams is working with D.C. Council members and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) to find community projects in the city to support. “He’s particularly interested after meeting with Council member [Marion Barry] about problems east of the river and helping with that,” he said.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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