Montel Williams has been many things in his career, and medical marijuana patient, advocate and entrepreneur is one. Having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 13 years ago, Williams has used and fought for medical marijuana in eight of the 16 states that currently allow it.
Yesterday, he brought his personal story and celebrity status to bear upon Ward 5, where he hopes to set up two cultivation centers and further the cause of medical marijuana not far from where he grew up in Baltimore.
Standing in front of 60 people in the basement of a Baptist Church just off of Rhode Island Avenue NE last night, Williams used his well-honed skills as a talk show to lay out the case for medical marijuana, both personally and politically. He spoke of his own affliction, and how despite popular conceptions and fears about marijuana, it has significant medicinal value for people with a variety of ailments.
“I try my best to do the best I can to keep a positive image forward for cameras, but most people here have no clue what I live with on a daily basis,” he said, leaning against a table to head off what he said was persistent pains that flared up in the evening hours.
Speaking of his advocacy for medical marijuana across the country, though, Williams admitted that he had spent more time arguing for program’s than he did observing what came of them after-the-fact.
“As I’ve looked back behind me, I realized that I’m also part of the problem, because i created an opportunity for some people who don’t give a damn about people like myself, who are patients,” he said.
“After paying very close attention to almost every municipality where they’ve passed these laws, I’ve taken a look and about a year-and-a-half ago got fed up and got to the point that i decided and was actually challenged by a city councilmember in Los Angeles. ‘You gotta put your face where your mouth is. If nobody is going to do it right and you claim to have the way to do it right, why don’t you step up to the plate and show us how to do it right?’ Well, I’ve done that,” said Williams, who also operates a cultivation center and dispensary in Sacramento, California.
In being both a patient and a self-professed pioneer in the industry, Williams said he set his sights on the District both because the tight regulations offer high-quality providers like himself a good opportunity and because if the program were to fail here, it could fail nationally.
He’s already rented a 15,000 square-foot building on Queens Chapel Road NE, where he hopes to open two state-of-the-art cultivation centers. But he doesn’t just want to grow marijuana, but rather serve as a national model for how similar programs can be run.
“Why not let the nation’s capital lead by example with the best facilities available for the nation to try to copy, rather than reinventing the wheel that’s been created in other places that isn’t as appropriate for here? D.C. has an opportunity to take the lead, and Ward 5 has an opportunity to be a leader in that,” he declared.
Not many Ward 5 residents were convinced, though.
Much as they have at other community and civic meetings in recent weeks, ANC commissioners and residents complained of the clustering of cultivation center applications in their ward. (Of 28 applications for licenses, all but two are in Ward 5, the majority clustered in a single ANC.) They cited worries about crime, future development and what it would say about their ward if it became the de facto medical marijuana district.
“Do not think this is the dumping ground of the District of Columbia,” said one resident.
Williams tried to explain the building he’s rented is located between two trash transfer stations, doesn’t currently have a roof — it lost it in a 2007 fire — and that he would be fixing it up, but that was of little consolation to some. The stigma of marijuana and the lack of basic services like a playground in some parts of the ward has made residents wary, no matter how good a pitch Williams delivered.
Still, there’s something to be said for his having jumped into the District’s medical marijuana program. His story is compelling, and he knows how to sell it. Whether that has any impact on Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr.’s (D-Ward 5) plans to propose emergency legislation next week limiting the number of cultivation centers in the ward, though, remains to be seen.
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By Martin Austermuhle