Mike Cuthriell thought about business school, but instead he's opening a store that sells marijuana.
After two years of preparations and fighting through red tape, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment, the Metropolitan Wellness Center is scheduled to open its doors this spring to licensed medical-pot users in the District of Columbia.
Located above a Popeye's chicken in the Eastern Market neighborhood, one of the District's first legal marijuana stores will sell pot, pipes and THC-infused baked goods seven blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
Medical marijuana is illegal in America under federal law, and D.C. is no exception. In states where medical marijuana is legal under local laws, the federal government has by and large looked the other way as licensed growers have sold to it dispensaries, which have, in turn, sold it to patients. That's about to start happening in D.C.
Cuthriell expects his brainchild to launch in two to eight weeks in the nation's capital, along with two other dispensaries opening around the same time.
"The second we get the green light, we're open," Cuthriell, 32, said in a recent interview.
That green light will have been hard won.
For more than 10 years, Congress prohibited medical pot in D.C. with an appropriations rider that blocked funding to license or approve medical marijuana, despite District voters' approving of medical marijuana in a 1998 ballot initiative. In 2009, Congress lifted the effective ban, leaving the D.C. government to create the series of licensing hoops through which Cuthriell and the Metropolitan Wellness Center appear to have successfully jumped.
The process has been a long one.
"I literally put 500 to 1,000 hours into it in the first year and a half, and it kind of got us where we are today," Cuthriell said.
An area resident since attending college at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Cuthriell works in education technology, and the idea to open up a pot store came from conversations with a terminally ill coworker at their Northern Virginia-based firm in 2010.
"A guy that I worked with who had a family, he was battling stage-four colon cancer, and he lost that battle after three or four years," he said. "And in the winter of 2010, around December, he was kind of on that last leg, that last six months.
"And we were talking about marijuana. We said, 'Do you smoke [marijuana] to overcome everything you're going through?' And he said, 'I have to buy it illegally, of course."
Cuthriell looked into it and found that D.C. was preparing to move ahead with approving marijuana sellers for licensed patients.
"I started doing some research, and I found out the D.C. program was supposedly coming online, and I read through the regulations that were a hundred pages or so," Cuthriell said. "I said, 'I feel like I can do that.'"
The process began with reading, but it continued with fundraising, a lease deal, hiring a general manager and completing mountains of paperwork.
"I raised the money through a friends and family network," Cuthriell said. "It'll end up being a few hundred thousand dollars when it's all said and done, before we're expecting to be cash-flow positive."
To get approved by the D.C. Department of Health, Cuthriell says, Metropolitan Wellness Center needed a place to operate one of the limited number of such stores allowed in the District.
"You can't just say you have space, you have to have the rights to that space," he said. "I can't sign a five-year lease. The day I applied in 2011, I didn't know if I was going to get through."
So in November 2011, he orchestrated a lease deal that allowed him to occupy space on 8th St. SE for a fee, with a longer-term lease contingent on the dispensary's approval. He didn't put any money into fixing up the store until things looked ready to move ahead.
Perhaps the most onerous part of Cuthriell's journey to marijuana sales was submitting an application of nearly 300 pages, including cash-flow statements, projected tax returns and promissory notes for the money he raised.
"I created manuals on how to smoke a bowl, how to pack and smoke cannabis [from a pipe], because that was part of my education material" for patients, Cuthriell said. "I created job descriptions for the people that were going to work there. I created all my financials."
Throughout the process, Cuthriell consulted an informal advisory board of people involved in the medical-marijuana industry in states where it has been legalized.
"I spent all my time talking to people in Colorado and California, insurance providers, cannabis growers, dispensary owners," Cuthriell said. "I was like, 'Here's what's happening in D.C., what can you teach me that I need to be successful in this?'"
He hired a general manager in Vanessa West, who worked in marijuana dispensaries in San Diego before coming to D.C. to run the Metropolitan Wellness Center. He didn't want to invest until marijuana growers began operating, because a dispensary without marijuana isn't much of a dispensary. But with two now approved, Cuthriell is getting ready to invite Department of Health officials to his office space to inspect and (he hopes) approve the dispensary to start operating.
"It was like, 'Boom.' Contractor. I know my floor plan - build it," Cuthriell said, of the moment the District's first marijuana cultivation center began growing pot. "We had to add on another room to our space, so we build a room, we had to do some electrical changes, we added some lighting, we painted the walls, we added some adjustments to our features."
The Metropolitan Wellness Center has cameras and bank-level security, Cuthriell said, but it's lacking one important thing: Customers. Until the Department of Health approves an application process for patients to use marijuana for medical purposes, Cuthriell will have no one to sell to. And with only two growers approved, he said supplies might be thin when his shop first opens.
"Every day we're asking the department when this is coming," Cuthriell said.