SEATTLE - For activists who led the effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Washington state last fall, Jamen Shively was one of their biggest fears: an aspiring pot profiteer whose dreams of building a cannabis empire might attract unwanted attention from the federal government or cause a backlash that could slow the marijuana reform movement across the country.
With visionary zeal, the 45-year-old former Microsoft manager described his plans to a conference room packed with reporters and supporters last month, saying he was tired of waiting for a green light from the Obama administration, which still hasn't said how it will respond to the legalization of recreational pot in Washington and Colorado. Shively vowed to raise $10 million and build his company, Diego Pellicer, into an international pot powerhouse.
His approach contrasted with that of state regulators who want to avoid repeating the national experience with Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol, industries that profited wildly on addiction and abuse. Mark Kleiman, head of the team hired to be Washington's official marijuana consultant, responded on his blog: "It was inevitable that the legalization of cannabis would attract a certain number of insensate greedheads to the industry."
Shively's ambitions don't merely raise questions about what marijuana legalization might look like in the long run and whether large corporations will come to dominate. He also risks getting indicted. The Justice Department has said while it doesn't intend to prosecute sick people for using marijuana, it will go after those who try to get rich from commercial sales.
The legalization votes in Washington and Colorado have created a fever for cannabis-related investing, to an extent. Conferences have focused on the parameters for legally investing in "ancillary businesses" -- those that supply equipment needed by pot growers, for example -- without financing the actual production or distribution of marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.
But Shively is diving right in, in a way that few other entrepreneurs are.
"Developing a national brand in an industry in which it is illegal to move the core product across state lines presents some serious logistical challenges," said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Diego Pellicer's business plan estimates $120,000 of pure profit per month, per recreational pot store. Shively said he plans dozens of stores in Washington and Colorado, earning his company the "Starbucks of Pot" nickname.