D.C.'s pot pioneers: Seeking a piece of the medical marijuana action

Montgomery Blair Sibley, left, manager of the Medicinal Marijuana Company of America, and his partners Amber McKay and Barrett Nnoka are among those who want a license.
Montgomery Blair Sibley, left, manager of the Medicinal Marijuana Company of America, and his partners Amber McKay and Barrett Nnoka are among those who want a license. (Michael S. Williamson)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Montgomery Blair Sibley might be best known as the lawyer who defended the "D.C. madam," the infamous escort service owner who claimed to attend to the needs of Washington's elite.

Sibley has a new focus these days, one that's luring a rabbi, a waitress, a State Department technician and a gaggle of other fledgling entrepreneurs: growing marijuana and selling it to sick people in the nation's capital.

He and his partners have divined a logo ("Rx" over a pot plant) and a company name (the Medicinal Marijuana Company of America) and have found a New York Avenue warehouse at which they hope to grow enough pot to make a profit in the first year.

But the District is only part of Sibley's grand plan, which is to turn his growing operation into a national chain as ubiquitous as, say, McDonald's. "I want to be the Ray Kroc of medical marijuana," Sibley said, referring to the man behind the golden arches.

Every new industry is driven by risk-taking pioneers, and it's no different with medical marijuana in the District, where those seeking a piece of the cannabis action include an electrician from Baltimore, an unemployed administrator who lives in Southeast Washington and the owners of a hemp clothing store in Adams Morgan.

As the Gray administration finalizes regulations, some of those entrepreneurs are crafting business plans, lining up financing, and anticipating fierce competition to obtain licenses to operate five dispensaries and 10 cultivation centers. Whether motivated by the prospect of profit or a belief in marijuana as a therapeutic salve - or a mixture of both - everyone is cagey about their plans, because no one is certain who is in the hunt.

"People are hiding in the shadows," said Alan Amsterdam, a co-owner of the hemp store who is part of a team hoping to open a dispensary and cultivation center. "Then they'll strike like a cobra."

Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit group that advocates for medical marijuana, said her office had received "hundreds of calls" from people interested in opening businesses in the District. But she said the pool is sure to dwindle as they learn that banks are reluctant to lend money to such start-ups and that medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even though the Justice Department has said it's uninterested in prosecuting dispensaries.

"What ends up weeding a lot of people out is the realization that they're committing an act of federal civil disobedience by getting involved," she said. "They have to make a decision about whether they're willing to take the risk."

Cupcake cannabis

The costs can be daunting, too. A license in the District will cost $10,000. Then there's the money needed for a lease, security, staff, lighting and irrigation systems, and, of course, the marijuana to grow or sell.

"There are a lot of people who think they're going to make a lot of money," Sherer said. "They borrow money from everyone they know. They borrow from their kids' education funds, and then they find out it's not that profitable."

Still, they can dream.


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