WASHINGTON: Jim Willett has never smoked pot. His teenage sons think he’s a square. A former Navy pilot, Willett spent a year flying drug interdiction patrols along the Washington coast, checking for ships carrying bales of marijuana. For the graying retiree, voting against the state’s legalization of recreational weed last fall was pretty much a given.
In January, Willett did an about-face. After learning about The ArcView Group, a San Francisco-based angel investment network for the marijuana industry, he signed on. “I was puttering around looking for things to do and this hit me like a lightning bolt,” says the 62-yearold Woodinville resident, who ran a waste recycling business for two decades. He has since invested more than $1 million in the legal weed market in Washington and Colorado. Th ink real estate, grow equipment, security systems, inventory tracking software and cannabis oil extraction devices—“basically, everything except the plant.” Financing the production and sale of cannabis poses too great a risk for him. “I’m not a crusader,” he says. “I’m just in it for the money.”
Welcome to the weed stampede.
If all goes according to plan, the Washington State Liquor Control Board will begin accepting applications from pot retailers, growers and processors this month and grant licenses in December to qualifying companies. Recreational stores could start cropping up early in 2014.
You’ve likely read about some of the region’s more high-profile “potpreneurs.” Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick “Dr. McDreamy” Dempsey, who recently bought the Tully’s coffee chain, joked about selling cannabis at Tully’s stores. William von Schneidau, the original Bill the Butcher (though he’s no longer involved in the enterprise) and proprietor of BB Ranch at Pike Place Market, sells bacon made from pot-fed pigs. Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Seattle-based private equity firm Privateer Holdings, which invests in ancillary cannabis companies, has become a media poster child for the squeaky clean, suit-and-tie-clad pot professional. Microsoft manager turned ganja convert Jamen Shively, who held a press conference with former Mexican President Vicente Fox this spring, boasted that his premium marijuana brand, Diego Pellicer, will “mint more millionaires than Microsoft.”
These entrepreneurs aren’t just blowing smoke. The potential profits could be sky high. Trade publication Medical Marijuana Business Daily foresees national revenues from legal weed rising to between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion this year. (For those who haven’t been keeping score, medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C.) Add in the recreational pot shops opening in Washington and Colorado next year and those figures could jump to between $2.5 billion and $3 billion, the publication reports.
How much cash the 25 percent excise tax on licensed sellers, cultivators and makers of pot tinctures, balms, edibles and beverages will yield remains to be seen. The Liquor Control Board estimates it will collect “anywhere between $0 and $2 billion” in tax revenue during the first five years of legalization. The generous spread accounts for the fact that no one can predict whether the federal government, which still forbids possessing, growing and selling pot, will shut down the adult-use party.
“This is the greatest business opportunity since the falling of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of the free market in Europe,” says Steve DeAngelo, longtime marijuana activist and president of The ArcView Group, which drew “cannabusinesses” from around the country to two pitch slams in Seattle this year. DeAngelo runs Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, considered the world’s largest medical marijuana dispensary and featured on the Discovery Channel show Weed Wars. Harborside recently made headlines when the City of Oakland sued the federal government for trying to shut down the dispensary.
Beyond the dollar signs
|Capital Idea. Brendan Kennedy is CEO of Privateer Holdings, said to be the marijuana industry’s first private equity fund.|
Not everyone entering the recreational marketplace is motivated by money. Some are longtime marijuana enthusiasts pushing for social change. Others have come to appreciate marijuana’s pain-relieving properties after seeing a chronically ill loved one helped by the plant. Many live in the suburbs, drive minivans and would be hard-pressed to name a Grateful Dead song or demonstrate how to use a vaporizer. “We grew up with ‘Just Say No,’” says Bellingham resident Robi Hawley, 49, who plans to open a cannabis testing lab in Everett when she graduates from medical school this fall. “We go to church on Sundays. We’re those people.” The Hawleys are still “those people,” only now they’re pro-pot. Three years ago, a difficult-to-diagnose chronic ailment left Hawley’s husband riddled with pain, unable to work and clinically depressed. Prescription drugs didn’t relieve his agony. Only after trying medical marijuana did Hawley’s husband gain some relief and start to reassemble his life.