A former corporate strategy manager at Microsoft plans to create the first national marijuana brand, and said he is kicking off his Seattle-based business by acquiring medical cannabis dispensaries in three states.
Jamen Shively, 45, envisions his enterprise becoming the leader in both recreational and medical cannabis—much like Starbucks is in coffee, he said.
Shively, who was with Microsoft six years and left in 2009, said he was soliciting investors for $10 million in start-up money.
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The use, sale and possession of marijuana remains illegal in the U.S. under federal law. But two states have legalized recreational marijuana use and are among 18 states that allow it for medical use. Washington and Colorado became the first states to allow recreational marijuana when voters approved legalization in November.
"It's a giant market in search of a brand," Shively said of the marijuana industry. "We would be happy if we get 40 percent of it worldwide."
The sale of marijuana remains illegal in much of the world, although some countries—mainly in Europe and the Americas—have decriminalized its possession in small quantities. A larger number have decriminalized or legalized marijuana for medical use.
A 2005 United Nations report estimated the value of the global marijuana trade at $142 billion.
Shively acknowledges that his business plans conflict with federal law and are complicated by regulations in Washington and Colorado. He said he is interested in buying dispensaries that comply with local and state rules and are less likely to attract the scrutiny of authorities.
"If they want to come talk to me, I'll be delighted to meet with them," he said of federal officials. "I'll tell them everything that we're doing and show them all our books."
Washington's marijuana consultant, Mark Kleiman, said he was skeptical.
"It's very hard for me to understand why anybody seriously interested in being in the marijuana business, which after all is against the federal law, would so publicly announce his conspiracy to break that law," said Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, referred questions to the Department of Justice headquarters. Officials there did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat, sees promise in Shively's initiative. Any industry emerging from the shadows will inevitably undergo consolidation—and thereby simplify the task of regulators, he said.
"The fact that an entrepreneur is publicly pushing the envelope around a branding and value-based pricing opportunity, I would say that's in the water in Seattle," said Carlyle, chairman of the House Finance Committee. "That's in our DNA. ... We could have predicted that as much as the rain."
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Shively said that he has acquired the rights to the Northwest Patient Resource Center, a medical marijuana operation that includes two Seattle storefronts, that he is close to buying a dispensary in Colorado, as well as two each in Washington and California, with the owners given the option to retain a stake.
"We've created the first risk-mitigated vehicles for investing directly in this business opportunity," he said.
The ultimate plan is for separate medical- and recreational-use brands, Shively said, adding that he also intends to launch a study of the effectiveness of concentrated cannabis oil in the treatment of cancer and other illnesses.