By HeathPop Staff
WeGrow franchisee Alex Wong, left, and WeGrow founder Dhar Mann, right pose inside the WeGrow store in northeast Washington on March 29, 2012. (Credit: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(CBS/AP) 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 blocks 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.
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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.
For many states, there’s no way to tell how many people have medical marijuana cards. California only has 9,637 valid card holders, but registration is voluntary. In Colorado, where you have to sign up, there 82,089 valid ID cards since December 2011. If Californians signed up at the same rate as Colorado, more than 615,000 would have had cards by now.
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 facade.”
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. HealthPop reported the first 10,000-foot weed emporium grew out of a warehouse called iGrow.
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 a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Substance Abuse Solutions.
“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.
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MEDICAL MARIJUANA EXPERTISE
Mr. Shevin represents clients exclusively in the area of State and Federal criminal law with a focus on marijuana and drug cases. Mr. Shevin’s practice also represents clients in matters dealing with medical marijuana business formation and corporate representation.
Presently, Mr. Shevin teaches a course on Medical Marijuana Laws to the Los Angeles County Judiciary, provides continuing legal education on Medical Marijuana Laws for the National Business Institute and teaches at the NACDL Advanced Criminal Law Seminar in Aspen, Colorado.
Mr. Shevin represents individuals nationally and has won significant victories for his clients in Hawaii, Louisiana, North Carolina, Utah, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, New York, Nevada, Texas and Tennessee. Mr. Shevin has been featured and/or quoted in more than 25 articles and news stories including the following media outlets: Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily Journal, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, Hartford Courant, Orange County Register, The 420 Times, West Coast Leaf, Marijuana Anti Prohibition Project, Press Enterprise, Metropolitan News Enterprise, Hemp Evolution, The Compassion Club, Cannabis News, The Medical Marijuana Magazine, The Marijuana News, OC Weekly and High Times Freedom Fighter of the month.
Boy did I find all kinds of interesting case work while googling Mr. Shevin. He seems to have seen it all and then some. I hope we become friends and only friends.
By MICHAEL COOPER
Published: November 30, 2011
The governors of Washington and Rhode Island petitioned the federal government on Wednesday to reclassify marijuana as a drug with accepted medical uses, saying the change is needed so states like theirs, which have decriminalized marijuana for medical purposes, can regulate the safe distribution of the drug without risking federal prosecution.
The move by the governors — Christine Gregoire of Washington, a Democrat, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, an independent who used to be a Republican — injected new political muscle into the long-running debate on the status of marijuana. Their states are among the 16 that now allow medical marijuana, but which have seen efforts to grow and distribute the drug targeted by federal prosecutors.
“The divergence in state and federal law creates a situation where there is no regulated and safe system to supply legitimate patients who may need medical cannabis,” the governors wrote Wednesday to Michele M. Leonhart, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Marijuana is currently classified by the federal government as a Schedule I controlled substance, the same category as heroin and L.S.D. Drugs with that classification, the government says, have a high potential for abuse and “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
The governors want marijuana reclassified as a Schedule II controlled substance, which would put it in the same category as drugs like cocaine, opium and morphine. The federal government says that those drugs have a strong potential for abuse and addiction, but that they also have “some accepted medical use and may be prescribed, administered or dispensed for medical use.”
Such a classification could pave the way for pharmacies to dispense marijuana, in addition to the marijuana dispensaries that operate in a murky legal zone in many states.
“What we have out here on the ground is chaos,” Governor Gregoire said in an interview. “And in the midst of all the chaos we have patients who really either feel like they’re criminals or may be engaged in some criminal activity, and really are legitimate patients who want medicinal marijuana.
“If our people really want medicinal marijuana, then we need to do it right, we need to do it with safety, we need to do it with health in mind, and that’s best done in a process that we know works in this country — and that’s through a pharmacist.”
The State of Washington approved medical marijuana in 1998, with a ballot question that won 60 percent of the vote. But like many states, Washington soon found itself in a legal gray area. The Legislature tried to clarify things last spring, when it passed a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana dispensaries and growers.
But the Justice Department warned that growing and distributing marijuana was still against federal law, and said that “state employees who conducted activities mandated by the Washington legislative proposals would not be immune from liability.” Ms. Gregoire, while sympathetic to the goals of the bill, wound up vetoing much of it.
It was similar on the other side of the country, where Rhode Island passed a law authorizing state-regulated marijuana dispensaries. This fall Governor Chafee said he could not go ahead with the plan because federal prosecutors had warned him that dispensaries could be targets of prosecution.
Advocates for medical marijuana praised the move on Wednesday, but said the governors should not wait for the federal government before going forward with state initiatives. Opponents said that even if marijuana was reclassified, it was unlikely that pharmacies would be able to dispense it, because the drug is usually smoked and comes in varied strengths.
As recently as June the D.E.A. denied a petition to reclassify marijuana, based on a review conducted several years earlier. But Ms. Gregoire and Mr. Chafee said the attitude of the medical community had changed since the government last reviewed the issue.
In 2009 the American Medical Association changed its position and called for reviewing the classification of marijuana, saying that the current classification was limiting clinical research.
Ms. Gregoire noted that many doctors believe it makes no sense to place marijuana in a more restricted category than opium and morphine. “People die from overdose of opiates,” she said. “Has anybody died from marijuana?”