By MICHAEL FELBERBAUM
AP Business Writer
WASHINGTON - 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.