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Montel Williams Makes a Bid for Oakland Pot Dispensary

 
City is moving forward with permitting plans despite a federal crackdown

Montel Williams (Stock)

"The Montel Williams Show" shocked, scandalized and inspired the afternoon television-viewing set for 17 years with shows on serial rapists, killer girlfriends and surprise transsexuals. Navigating Oakland’s bureaucracy  — as horrifying as some might find it — was never covered.

Williams — who is battling multiple sclerosis and has become an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana — is trying to win a permit from the city of Oakland for one of four new medical marijuana dispensaries set to open next year. But in the first round of scoring released this week by city officials, who evaluated competing business and security plans, Williams' Abatin Wellness Center finished in ninth place. 

Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for the former talk-show host, said Tuesday that the “jury is still out, and we are confident that the final scoring will be consistent with the high marks that we have gotten from the medical and patient communities.”

Oakland is proceeding with plans to allow the new dispensaries at an extremely perilous time for the industry. The federal government is in the midst of a massive crackdown on medical marijuana in California, and a state court recently overturned parts of Long Beach's dispensary ordinance, ruling that issuing pot club permits authorizes behavior that is illegal under federal law.  

Cities from San Francisco to Napa have put a halt to permitting dispensaries while they await the outcome of appeals of the Long Beach case. Arturo Sanchez, the assistant to Oakland's city administrator, said the city is keeping a close eye on the case, but will move ahead with its plans in the meantime.

“It’s entirely possible that we select the top four applicants and then just decide to stop,” said Sanchez. “On the other hand, let’s say we stopped and Long Beach is successful, then it would take us a long time to get through the process.”

Oakland has tried for years to generate tax revenue by making the city a capitol for the cannabis industry. A plan to permit four enormous pot farms was put on ice earlier this year after the Department of Justice sent a stern warning to the city.

In the past, Williams would likely have been joined by a host of other celebrities seeking a piece of the Oakland "green rush." For instance, Ben Bronfman, the heir to the Seagram fortune and fiancé of rapper M.I.A., was in the running for one of the pot farms. As recently as this summer, the city had a list of more than 330 people interested in doing marijuana-related business in Oakland.

But since early October, when the Department of justice began its crackdown on what it said was widespread criminal activity in California’s $1 billion medical marijuana industry, interest has cooled considerably. Only 11 people applied for a dispensary, Sanchez said.

Williams has star caliber, operates a dispensary in Sacramento — and even hosted a fundraiser for Oakland City Council member Rebecca Kaplan in her failed bid for mayor. But he faces competition from players who are politically connected and well known in Oakland’s cannabis circles.

The top scorer in the first round of evaluations was Oakland Community Collective. It would be run by Salwa Ibrahim, who has worked for years at Oaksterdam University, the downtown Oakland cannabis college founded by Richard Lee. Her business partner is Derek Peterson, a former investment banker who made headlines with his last venture, Oakland’s now-defunct hydroponic superstore WeGrow.

To add to the drama, Peterson’s former business partner, Dhar Mann, the flashy young scion of Oakland’s largest cab company, appears to be behind the second-place finisher, G8 Medical Alliance. Although Mann isn’t listed as a board member, G8’s dispensary would be located at the site of the old hydroponic store that his politically connected family owns.

Tidewater Patients Group, which came in third, has ties to City Hall lobbyist and former City Council aide Carlos Plazola.

Jeff Wilcox, a former real estate developer who pushed the pot farm legislation, finished fifth. He wants to put a dispensary off the 880 Freeway, near Harborside Health Center, the largest medical pot shop on the West Coast.

Sanchez said that neighbors of all the proposed sites would be notified about the applications. After a second round of scoring, public hearings will be held for each would-be potrepreneur in January.

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