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Weedmart: Meet the Entrepreneurs with Plans for Marijuana Superstores and Pot-Focused Reality TV

Meet the enterprising business upstarts at the vanguard of the pot boom.
 
 
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The following article first appeared in Mother Jones. For more great content from Mother Jones, sign up for their free email updates here.

On a Sunday in early October , Dhar Mann threw a party at weGrow, his hydroponic marijuana superstore in Oakland, California. Trailed by a three-person video crew from Hempire, the reality-show pilot he's costarring in, Mann gave sound bites to a pack of reporters as he strutted past Ikea-style displays showcasing products for every stage of indoor cannabis cultivation—from Sun Pulse lightbulbs to $700 grow tents and Bud Candy plant nutrients. "It's the whole supply chain," said the fauxhawked 26-year-old, self-assured in a tailored gray suit and red silk tie.

Mann stopped to talk to a wholesaler who said his bongs would nicely complement the West Elm couches, hardwood coffee tables, and Afghan rugs decorating weGrow's cozy smoking paraphernalia showroom. "I want a whole variety of products like this," Mann told the bong guy enthusiastically, "because that's what makes us different from any other hydro store."

Two years ago, Mann says, he had never seen a pot plant. Today, he envisions weGrow becoming the " Wal-Mart of Weed," a vertically integrated chain of big-box stores perfectly positioned to cash in on California's booming marijuana industry as it moves from the shadows to the mainstream. In this "green rush" for semi-legal weed, Mann and his partner Derek Peterson, a 36-year-old investment banker, seek to be the modern equivalents of Levi Strauss and Samuel Brannan—the Gold Rush entrepreneurs who made a killing not from mining, but from selling pans, pickaxes, and victuals to the forty-niners.

"Derek and I have really thought about how we can capture the entire market segment," Mann says. Since it opened a year ago in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse near the Oakland International Airport, weGrow has aggressively tried to cover as many angles as possible: It trains aspiring medical marijuana growers at its University of Cannabis (the "Princeton of Pot"); manufactures its own brand of indoor growing gear ( GrowOp); dispatches its hydroponics experts on house calls; and keeps a doctor onsite to write medical marijuana recommendations. Mann and Peterson say they've signed contracts to open 75 franchise stores in California, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, and Illinois, and they're talking up an IPO later this year.

Like Mann and Peterson, Oakland has come to embrace the financial side effects of medical marijuana. The city recently approved a package of permits and taxes for pot-related businesses that it estimates could bring in more than $10 million annually. WeGrow has already caught the eye of local politicians, including Jean Quan, a city council member who was elected mayor in November. On a stage outside the warehouse, Quan commended the company: "I want to congratulate Derek and Dhar. And I want to say that this is just probably the first step in California and perhaps the rest of the nation."

Afterward, Peterson scrolled through messages on his BlackBerry while Mann chatted with city council member Desley Brooks. Since 2009, Mann and his employees have donated $4,300 to Quan and three other council members including Brooks, who recently signed on to a proposal to have the city issue permits for large-scale growing operations. I asked her what criteria the council would use to pick Oakland's most reputable cannabis entrepreneurs. She laughed as Mann cut in, "Tall, good-looking, handsome."

As Mann threaded his way through a throng of cameras, a dreadlocked guy who described himself as a maker of "strong herbalizations" handed him a business card the size of a pat of butter. ("We're saving trees.") Mann politely slipped the card into his wallet, but looked wary as he walked away. "It's so important not to alienate these guys," he said. "At least hear them out and give them a fair chance." The older generation of pot impresarios, he continued, "are brilliant scientists, but they are not such brilliant businessmen. That's where Derek and I can come into play, because we understand both sides."

 
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