Any one of these people could soon be your pot supplier: a former daytime TV talk show host, a competitive bass fisherman, a billionaire’s son or a Chinatown businessman.
More than a year after medical marijuana became legal in the District, the competition to secure one of the 15 licenses to grow or sell cannabis is finally underway. This week, the D.C. Department of Health is slated to name more than 50 contenders that have been greenlighted to apply. The District plans to announce the winners early next year.
Gone is the sound technician who wanted to sell cannabis-infused cupcakes. And gone is the hydroponics supply store owner who once named a strain of pot after the Potomac River. They are among at least a dozen would-be medical marijuana entrepreneurs who took themselves out of the running because they found the city’s regulations too restrictive or the start-up costs too high. And in the past week, at least five more dropped out because of a recent change in the regulations that they fear increases the likelihood of federal prosecution.
The contenders that remain range from medical-cannabis veterans to complete novices whose qualifications for cultivation consist of “a green thumb.”
Many have gone the A-Team route and gathered an assortment of people with different specialities: doctor, CPA, horticulturist.
One of the most polished entrants is the nonprofit Abatin Wellness Center, the brainchild of former television talk show host Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis and has long supported legalizing medical marijuana. Abatin opened a dispensary in Sacramento this year that one reviewer dubbed “the Neiman Marcus of Marijuana.”
Intent on expanding eastward, Abatin hired veteran lobbyist and longtime Marion Barry lawyer Frederick Cooke Jr. to represent it in the District. In July, Cooke escorted Williams around the Wilson Building to meet local pols.
Williams said he hopes an Abatin outpost in Washington will help change perceptions about medical marijuana on Capitol Hill. He agrees with critics who complain that in some parts of the country, loose regulation has turned medical marijuana into little more than state-sanctioned drug dealing.
“It has gotten out of control and hijacked by people that only want to make some money,” Williams said, adding that if there were an Abatin center in the District, “members of Congress can come over and take a look at how this can be done correctly.”
Others jockeying for the 10 cultivation and five dispensary licenses include a bartender, a duo of administrative assistants, and an Alexandria man who in a letter to health department officials touted his five years in the security business and a desire to “help people AFTER something bad happens.”
In many cases, the relevance of a prospective applicant’s work experience to medical cannabis is somewhat relative.
There are the insiders, who know the workings of city government. Johnnie Scott Rice, a former aide to D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At large) falls in that category. She’s part of a group of older women seeking both cultivation and dispensary licenses.
There are a few medical pros, including a urologist from New Jersey, a psychiatrist from Los Angeles and an opthalmologist in Bethesda.
There are experienced entrepreneurs, such as the former chief of a successful medical device firm, the owner of an alternative-medicine clinic in Friendship Heights and the proprietor of a spa in Clinton.
Then there are those who see parallels between giving people the munchies and serving them: Sticky Rice co-owners Joey Belcher and Jason Martin, Brookland Cafe owner D’Maz Lumukanda and Chinatown businessman Tony Cheng.
Some are prospectors who see a chance to make money, even though the District’s regulations likely will make it tough to match the profits of medical cannabis purveyors in Colorado or California.
Others are driven more by personal experience. Jonathan Marlow, a competitive bass fisherman known as the Bass Hog, has watched his mother struggle with multiple sclerosis for nearly 30 years. She was diagnosed in 1983. By 1987, while still in her 40s, she needed a walker. She now lies in a special hospital bed designed for quadriplegics.
Marlow said he believes medical marijuana could help alleviate his mother’s suffering: “The federal law should be changed to at least allow patients with a doctor’s recommendation to grow their own medicine.”
Other potential applicants were tight-lipped about their plans and intentions, including Ben Bronfman, a son of billionaire Edgar Bronfman and the fiance of rapper MIA, who has been approved to apply for a dispensary license. But the wallflowers won’t be able to hide much longer. In what might be likened to the talent portion of the competition, the applicants will have to make their case later this year to advisory neighborhood commissions, which have a say in choosing the winners.
Who comes out on top might boil down to an appetite for risk. Until mid-August, when health department officials amended the regulations, applicants had to sign a statement saying they understood growing and selling marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Under the revised regulations, applicants also have to “recite verbatim” that they understand that having a city-issued license doesn’t “authorize” them to break federal law, and that if the federal authorities go after them, the District government isn’t liable.
Montgomery Blair Sibley, who has been approved to apply for a dispensary and a cultivation license, interprets the new wording as a Get Into Jail For Free Card. He recently filed suit against the District over the new requirements, arguing that they violate applicants’ fifth amendment rights against self-incrimination. He further contends the courts have yet to settle the question of whether federal drug laws supercede state and local laws legalizing medical marijuana.
In the District, the legal confusion is even murkier because Congress, which must approve District laws, essentially gave its blessing to the city’s medical marijuana program by not killing it when it had the chance.
City officials say their intent was not to alter the legal meaning but to make the warning label for applicants bigger.
“It really doesn’t change anything. We still are very committed to moving the program forward,” said Department of Health Director Mohammad Akhter. “Everybody involved with this should come into this with open eyes.”