Click photo to enlarge
weGrow Hydroponics owner and founder Dhar Mann shows one of the hydroponic plant growing systems at his warehouse store in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 6, 2010. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

Tempers flared as the evening of July 22 wore on, turning an Oakland City Council meeting into a marathon debate over the future of medical marijuana in one of the country's most pot-friendly cities.

For months the media had chronicled the unfolding of a modern-day Gold Rush -- quickly dubbed the "Green Rush." Now, the path to El Dorado rested in a bid to permit pot growing on an industrial scale. Opposition to the plan by dispensary operators erupted publicly after quiet lobbying failed.

Newcomers were blamed for upsetting the comfortable landscape crafted by seasoned advocates who stood to lose control and profits. One of the newcomers included Dhar Mann, a 26-year-old who runs a corral of businesses that include weGrow -- the nation's first hydroponic superstore, a real estate management company and an exotic car rental agency. He owns a BMW M5 that drives "faster than I care to." He is the director of his parent's business, Friendly Cab Co., the largest taxi operator in Oakland.

"Not all of us can use daddy's money," quipped James Anthony, the attorney and public face of the Harborside Health Center dispensary, during the July meeting. Anthony didn't say Mann's name, but it was clear who he was talking about.


Advertisement

Mann hadn't helped matters by announcing his intention to become the Levi Strauss of the marijuana industry, stripping away the carefully constructed and managed medicinal cannabis image used to ease pot into the mainstream.

The association with Strauss seemed apt. Both are the son of immigrants -- Mann a second-generation Indian-American -- and both shepherded the family business to success.

But Samuel Brannan, a tireless self-promoter who became the first millionaire of the Gold Rush, would make a better comparison. When word of gold got out in 1848, Brannan purchased every shovel he could find in San Francisco and ran through the streets yelling, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" He made a fortune selling supplies to miners.

Mann is propelled by the same impulse that drove Brannan, Strauss and what drives every entrepreneur: opportunity.

Seizing opportunities earned the young upstart a place at the table with far older men who risked arrest to guide marijuana from an illegal enterprise to a multimillion-dollar medicinal industry. His naked ambition also earned him their resentment as they vie for a costly and hard-to-come-by large-scale grow permit.

Like a startup

On the ground floor of its warehouse, weGrow resembles an IKEA showroom for medicinal pot, complete with state-of-the art "big bud boxes." Mann, dressed in jeans, two-toned loafers and a stretchy buttoned-up shirt, shows off the equipment displays proudly, easily slipping into the technicalities of LED lighting and yield techniques.

"Soil is the most basic way of growing," he explains in a voice marked by growing up in Oakland and spending four years at Alameda's Saint Joseph Notre Dame High School. Videos looped on a TV screen hang over the replica of a growing room. One is made to look like a news clip and blends deceptively into an actual news clip from the grand opening of weGrow. He changed the name from iGrow to weGrow in July after a business with a similar name threatened to sue.

Mann leads the way upstairs to his office, past a row of others that resemble a tech startup company. In one room, a team of young men and women pore over grant applications from nonprofits invited by Mann to apply for a share of weGrow's revenue. Mann takes a seat behind a glass-topped desk in another. He says weGrow is based on "sweat equity" and recounts how he dropped out of UC Davis because he founded a successful marketing then mortgage company before he could buy beer legally. The way he tells the story, his parents didn't find out about it until they read a campus newspaper story because Mann paid his own tuition.

"They freaked," he said.

By the time he turned 22, he had at least a half-dozen properties, several dozen employees on his payroll and the confidence that comes from watching his parents build their taxi company from one cab into a monopoly.

"I was born into the taxi business," he says.

His mother carried him in her arms when she went to Oakland City Hall for their first taxi permit, according to one account. While she and her husband put in 16-hour days, the 10-year-old would sit in his driveway trading and selling baseball cards and has been trying to figure out ways of "building value" ever since.

"You start small and grow into it," he says.

Mann returned to UC Davis, minoring in political science but finishing with a bachelor's degree in economics. He then returned home, when the family business was in need of "modernizing," as he puts it.

Suits, settlements

The family, under a variety of business names, had settled scores of lawsuits, according to court documents. The state sued them in 2002 because they built a parking lot on top of a protected stream -- a tributary of San Leandro Creek -- then refused to restore the waterway. WeGrow sits on the edge of that same property. The warehouse stood empty until Mann took it over.

Operations appeared to improve although he is now fighting off a claim against his property management company, MannEdge, that he evaded paying workers' compensation insurance. He says the workers were employed by a contractor he hired to work on a property he manages and pledged to fight the claim. He calls the fine a "success tax" -- the curse of running a lot of businesses.

Mann smokes little marijuana, preferring edible forms instead. He has a patient card although he wasn't so much interested in buying it as growing it. He took his first cannabis cultivation class at Oaksterdam University less than a year ago.

Then he hit on the hydroponics idea. His original distributors pulled out of weGrow because the store openly touts products made for growing pot, which could land them in the crosshairs of federal authorities. Marijuana, medical or otherwise, is illegal under federal law.

Undaunted, Mann turned around and created a distribution company with Derek Peterson, a former analyst for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. Together they plan to take the company public and open hundreds of stores across the nation. Meanwhile, Mann runs the University of Cannabis -- the "Princeton of Pot" -- and is developing a reality show about being "ganjapreneurs" called "Hempire."

He downplays the danger posed by the gap between federal and local policy governing medical marijuana -- but he doesn't dismiss it.

"I would be shortsighted to say there is no risk," he says. "But we don't see why it would be a priority."

Birthday party guests

He also started channeling energy and money into local politics. Since 2008 he donated about $10,000 to Oakland City council members, under a variety of names. Several members of the seven-person council showed up at his 26th birthday party held in a private room at the high-end Ozumo Japanese restaurant. In January, councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan, Larry Reid and Desley Brooks touted weGrow's financial potential to Oakland at the opening.

The council won't be in charge of deciding who receives one of the four large-scale growing permits. But it gave the go-ahead in July for the industrial-scale cultivation, setting off what Mann calls the "Harborside Crossfire."

"We are honored by Dhar Mann joining us now," quips one of Oakland's staunchest medical marijuana proponents, Richard Lee, when Mann arrives a half-hour late to a meeting of the Measure Z committee. The panel, which advises city officials about medical marijuana policy in Oakland, gathers in the City Council chamber this night, Aug. 19, instead of its customary hearing room. A blues band performs in the plaza outside, playing "Stand By Me."

"Sorry," Mann replies quietly, ducking into a seat between Lee and James Anthony, where Kernighan would usually sit.

Relations were better before the "cultivation war," Mann had said earlier about the friction. Indeed, Harborside's founder, Steve DeAngelo -- in his trademark fedora, tie and two long braids -- makes a cameo in an online cartoon created by Mann about a "superhigh hero" called CannMann who uses his powers derived from medical marijuana to save Pottam City. The cartoon -- complete with a sexy female physician -- appeals to the core group of pot smokers, males 18-35, and makes no pretense about the abuse of medical marijuana system.

'It's inevitable'

The approach that reveals Mann's youthful brashness would be unthinkable by advocates who reject suggestions that pot causes negative side effects and that medical marijuana is anything but medicinal. Mann says future episodes will focus more on the medicinal value. WeGrow has already exceeded Mann's already rosy expectations of a half-million dollars in the first year. Customers, he said, "can easily drop 10 grand on a system."

Just as Apple did in the tech industry, Mann said, "It's inevitable that newcomers will come and be game-changers. Somebody had to take the leadership."

Anthony and DeAngelo declined to comment or discuss their relations with Mann, who has already seen alliances shift. He is learning to shift with them. Not unlike the young ambitious Gold Rush entrepreneurs, Mann began to upgrade his image. Photos of him online posed in slick suits are replacing the pictures of him in beefy muscle T-shirt and sunglasses, signaling his future ambitions. He says he would consider running for public office, a seat on the Port of Oakland commission or sticking with business development. Whatever would benefit Oakland most, he says.

For now, he says, he is "building a good resume" and trying to be active in the city. But the door to public office, he added, "is definitely open. I guess time will tell."