A company dubbed the "Walmart of Weed" is putting down roots in America's capital city, sprouting further debate on marijuana — medical or otherwise.
Just a few miles from the White House and federal buildings, a company that candidly caters to medical marijuana growers is opening up its first outlet on the East Coast. The opening of the weGrow store on Friday in Washington coincides with the first concrete step in implementing a city law allowing residents with certain medical conditions to purchase pot.
Like suppliers of picks and axes during the gold rush, weGrow sees itself providing the necessary tools to pioneers of a "green rush," which some project could reach nearly $9 billion within the next five years. Admittedly smaller than a big box store, weGrow is not unlike a typical retailer in mainstream America, with towering shelves of plant food and vitamins, ventilation and lighting systems. Along with garden products, it offers how-to classes, books and magazines on growing medical marijuana.
"The more that businesses start to push the envelope by showing that this is a legitimate industry, the further we're going to be able to go in changing people's minds," said weGrow founder Dhar Mann.
Although federal law outlaws the cultivation, sale or use of marijuana, 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized its medical use to treat a wide range of issues from anxiety and back pain to HIV/AIDS and cancer-related ailments. Fourteen states also have some kind of marijuana decriminalization law, removing or lowering penalties for possession.
Nearly 7 percent of Americans, or 17.4 million people, said they used marijuana in 2010, up from 5.8 percent, or 14.4 million, in 2007, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A Gallup poll last year found a record-high of 50 percent of Americans saying that marijuana should be made legal, and 70 percent support medical uses for pot.
Marijuana advocates also tout revenue benefits, as well as cost and efficiency savings for not prosecuting or jailing people for pot.
But a recent push from the federal government to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries has led several states to delay or curtail their dispensary programs for fear of prosecution. It means some medical marijuana users may seek to grow their own— paving the way for companies like California-based weGrow to open a budding number of locations across the country to help legal users and larger cultivators grow their own pot plants.
WeGrow doesn't sell pot or seeds to grow it. The store, however, makes no secret that its products and services help cultivators grow their own plants for personal use or for sale at dispensaries. Selling hydroponic and other indoor growing equipment is legal, but because those products are used to cultivate a plant deemed illegal under federal law the industry has tried to keep a low profile.
"For the longest time, it's been a don't ask, don't tell industry," Mann said. "Most people still want to hide behind that façade."
Mann, who opened the first store in Sacramento last year, said he started his venture after he was kicked out of a mom and pop hydroponics store in Berkeley, Calif., just for mentioning marijuana. WeGrow has since opened a location in Phoenix and also will open stores in San Jose and Flagstaff, Arizona, in the near future. The company has franchisees in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and plans to expand into Oregon, Washington state and Michigan.
The frankness of the business comes as public attitudes toward marijuana use and legalization in the U.S. transform. But federal pressure on customers means companies catering to the marijuana industry could take a hit — in their wallets and with jail time.
"There's a whole host of risks associated with investing and opening up shop here," said Jason Klein, a D.C. attorney who represents medical marijuana operators. "These entrepreneurs see themselves as doing yeoman's work, putting themselves in personal risk ... to get medicine to the sick people who deserve it."
D.C. officials on Friday are set to announce those eligible to apply for permits to grow and sell medical marijuana to dispensaries under the district's 2010 law. Applicants must sign a statement saying they understand a license doesn't authorize them to break federal law.
"They do so at their own peril because I can't imagine that the federal government is going to allow marijuana selling for any purpose right in their backyard," said Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser to the president's drug czar and an assistant professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Florida.
"Whether it's D.C. or all the way out in California, the government's been pretty clear that medical marijuana doesn't pass the giggle test."
Sabet said the idea of dispensaries trying to be passed off as a medical establishment is a joke, adding that the grow store will be the first in a series events where people are going to try to "make big money off an illegal drug."
The national medical marijuana market was estimated to be worth $1.7 billion in 2011 and is projected to reach $8.9 billion within five years, according to an economic analysis done for the American Cannabis Research Institute. The study also says that nearly 25 million Americans are potentially eligible to use medical marijuana based on current state laws.
"There's great potential for the industry across the country," said Steve Fox, a spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association, a D.C.-based trade group representing marijuana-related businesses. He said support for the businesses has emerged in states like California, Colorado and Washington state. "They are showing that just like any other industry, there's a demand for a product and these businesses are sprouting up to address the need."
The issue of marijuana in the nation's capital isn't new. A public referendum to legalize medical marijuana overwhelmingly passed in the late 1990s but Congress blocked it from taking effect for years. Allowing the city's latest move on medical marijuana use could also indicate an attitude shift on a federal level.
"The political winds on a federal level really affect our ability to get things done on a local level," said Brendan Williams-Kief, spokesman for D.C. councilmember David A. Catania, who co-sponsored the medical marijuana legislation. "When the (legislation) was passed, it happened at a time when there was a Congress that was less-inclined to exert their will on the District. ... But they're always up there on the Hill looking down."
Klein believes that, despite being next door to Congress, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Justice, the D.C. medical marijuana program will avoid the ire of the federal government because it was crafted to tightly control the industry.
"It's the sort of thing the feds will probably just look the other way elsewhere, but given the fact that it's right under their noses, is going to really be unique conundrum," Klein said. "I'm really looking forward to getting a couple of Congresspeople in a cab and caravaning them over to a dispensary ... so that they can see that this is not the danger that they imagine it might be."
For Alex Wong, the franchisee of the D.C. weGrow store, his involvement in the industry is both personal and professional. The mid-40s entrepreneur was drawn to the business after seeing the firsthand effects of his mother's colon cancer and learning that medical marijuana might have made her more comfortable during treatment.
"It is a viable medicine," said the. "All I can do is use my small business expertise to lend a hand in this movement."
Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, issued a statement saying science and research — not politics — should drive the approval process for medicine, and to date the "smoked form of marijuana has not met the modern standard" established by the Food and Drug Administration.
"Chronically ill and suffering patients deserve access to modern medicine that is proven to be effective and safe," Lemaitre said. "We ardently support continued research into medical uses for the components of marijuana and will continue to do so."
Mann, however, says medical marijuana cultivation and distribution is going to happen with or without federal government approval.
"Regardless of how rigorously they want to enforce intervention, it's not going to stop the industry," Mann said.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.