The Nonprofit Marijuana Ventures of Montel Williams

August 16, 2011; Source: Washington Post | One positive side effect of the medical use of marijuana may be that it gets its prominent users’ nonprofit juices flowing. Talk-show host Montel Williams is part of a nonprofit group, the Abatin Wellness Center, that has just filed for a license to operate a marijuana dispensary and cultivation facility in the District of Columbia. The Washington Post reports that earlier this year, Abatin opened a facility in Sacramento, California, with Williams as its “public face.”

Williams’ interest in medical marijuana is serious: he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Although in recent years Williams has recorded TV pitches for the Living Well Healthmaster blender, online payday lender Money Mutual, and security firm LifeLock, he is not “a spokesman-for-hire,” according to Jonathan Franks, the publicist for both Williams and Abatin. Many people also associate Williams with the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, a single point of access to hundreds of public and private patient assistance programs.

Williams does have a nonprofit track record. After his diagnosis, he created the Montel Williams MS Foundation which, according to its website, has handed out $1.5 million in grants to groups studying MS. The website uses bold type to assure donors: “Currently, 100% of the public’s donations go directly to funding research to find a cure for MS. We are committed to keeping administrative costs as low as possible to remain true to this mission.” However, charities’ claims of low administrative costs are often problematic, and this is no exception. The Foundation’s 2009 Form 990, the latest available at Foundation Directory Online, shows $237,517 in contributions and $261,994 in total revenue, but $326,014 in total expenses, composed of $165,201 in salaries, $39,673 in professional fees, $47,947 in occupancy costs, $19,922 in printing and postage, $53,271 in other expenses, and $0 in grants. (It should be noted that elsewhere in the 990, the Foundation identifies program expenditures of $55,852 to promote awareness of MS, $48,261 for its role as an “informal resource center to MS patients and their families” and $707 in “research grants and financial assistance to selected medical organizations to further medical research on causes and treatment of multiple sclerosis.”)

Formerly known as the Capital Wellness Cooperative, Abatin seems to operate on a very low-profile, exclusive basis, at least at its Sacramento facility. According to NUG Magazine, “They do not have a listed or readily available telephone number. They are not on weedmaps.com, nor do they have a website. No advertising, no loud nug displays, not even a sign outside to indicate that it is a medical marijuana cooperative.” In June, a local Sacramento blog called the Sacratomatoville Post ran an item about Abatin entitled “Montel Williams Medical Cannabis Store to Be the Nieman Marcus of Marijuana?”

It would appear that soon, D.C. residents will be able to answer that question for themselves. Nonprofit, upscale, and celebrity-oriented, Abatin and Williams are blazing a distinctive path in the brave new world of medical marijuana dispensaries.—Rick Cohen