Scaled-Back and Toned-Down ‘Walmart of Weed’ Opens in Northeast
When it announced in January that it was opening its first east coast location at a store along Rhode Island Avenue NE, California-based hydroponics store weGrow proudly advertised itself as the “Walmart of Weed.” But as it throws open its doors to the public today, the store has reinvented its image for a city that has legalized medical marijuana but is only cautiously moving towards making it available to patients.
Had weGrow never advertised its connection to California’s massive medical marijuana industry, its 2,500-square-foot D.C. location could have slipped under the radar as just the third hydroponics store in the city. (There’s Capital City Hydroponics in Petworth and Urban Sustainable in Adams Morgan.) But since company founder Dhar Mann opened his first store in Oakland in 2010, weGrow has become known as something of a superstore for people for supplies to grow their own marijuana, which is legal under California’s free-wheeling medical marijuana program.
In D.C., of course, home cultivation remains verboten, so Mann and Maryland-based franchisee Alex Wong were forced to retool the store for a smaller space—an Arizona outlet is about 10 times bigger—and a more conservative crowd. As debate heated up over the last few months over the crowding of medical marijuana cultivation centers in Ward 5, neighborhood activists were none-too-happy to hear that the self-proclaimed Walmart of Weed was looking to open up along a former used car dealership just up the road from Home Depot and the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.
Today they’d probably be pleasantly surprised with what weGrow’s D.C. location will—and will not—offer. Zeta Ceti, the company’s director of sales and product development, walked us around the store yesterday, showing off products ranging from indoor lighting to cloning gel and nutrients that could be used by just about any indoor gardener. (He even advertised their custom-built mobile hydroponic trailers—the entry-level 28-foot model would set you back $59,000, the 48-foot model $89,000.) Urban agriculture is becoming more and more popular, he said, but consumers run the risk of doing it wrong—that’s where weGrow comes in.
But what about marijuana? Because of the District’s restrictive laws, he said, store policy will be to only discuss marijuana with licensed cultivators, dispensers or patients. If anyone else asks about growing weed at home, they’ll be asked to leave. (An employee at Urban Sustainable told me that they have the same policy.) Initial plans to sell paraphernalia were scrapped (wisely, given Capitol Hemp’s experience), and the store itself contains few hints of the Walmart of Weed it once billed itself as. It certainly won’t have a doctor on site that can write recommendations for medical marijuana, Ceti said, nor will marijuana be grown on premises as it is in California.
“We’re not going to come full force,” he said. “We’re not here to impose or change policy. We’re here to educate,” he said, touting the classes on hydroponics and urban agriculture that the store will offer. Of course, the store is positioning itself as the go-to supplier should the city’s medical marijuana laws ever be loosened—it’s not a coincidence that the grand opening coincides with the day that that D.C. announced its first cultivation center licenses, after all.
But given how much the store has been scaled back from it’s California roots, what are its chances of surviving? Pretty good, thinks Wong, whose mother’s death from colon cancer made him more interested in marijuana as medication. He expects that the store will attract customers from Maryland, Virginia and even further asunder. Ceti, who told us that the D.C. store cost around $250,000 to build out (on top of the $40,000 franchise fee), should be fine if its Arizona counterpart serves as any example—the franchisee there made enough money in his first few days of business to buy the rights to the whole state; plans for expansion are in the works. Mann and Ceti also see D.C. as a test-run for other stores they’re looking to open in New Jersey, Colorado and Michigan.
weGrow’s transformation for the D.C. market was a wise one—using “Walmart” and “weed” in the same sentence in a town that’s getting both six Walmarts and a bunch of medical marijuana cultivation centers and dispensaries was enough to throw just about civic do-gooder into conniptions. They still may not be happy with what weGrow’s California reputation is, but they may also be surprised with how tame the D.C. store is by comparison.