By Meghan Cahill
District Grower’s building in Southeast, Washington, D.C., is incognito by design—it shares walls with an auto body shop and has no sign indicating what goes on behind its weathered brick facade. Stand outside of the two-story industrial grow house for less than a minute though, and you will get a whiff of something extraordinary in Southeast D.C.—medical marijuana, and a lot of it.
However, Corey Barnette, owner and operator of District Growers, a registered medical marijuana cultivator based in the District, has bigger ambitions. Barnette is allowed to grow 500 medical marijuana plants at a time to sell to the city’s four medical marijuana dispensaries, but he is ready to increase that quantity in anticipation of the District’s potential medical marijuana rule changes and the possible tax and regulation of recreational cannabis.
It is easy to see that Barnette is on the cusp of a big cannabis business opportunity and is already reaping the benefits of medical marijuana. Not only does he grow the marijuana that is sold to the four dispensaries in D.C., he is only one of six licensed medical marijuana cultivation centers in the city and owns one of the four licensed dispensaries, Metropolitan Wellness Center.
Barnette has plans to take over the entire building where his cultivation center resides in preparation for a higher medical marijuana plant count and if D.C. allows the purchase and sale of cannabis for recreational purposes. “We will definitely do that. Absolutely. Yes. Done,” said Barnette when asked if he would grow and sell recreational cannabis if it becomes legal in D.C. “You had me at hello.”
On my cab ride over to District Growers, my driver became increasingly leery as to why I needed to go to this Southeast neighborhood, and he would not let me out of the car until Barnette met me at the cab. The cabbie’s attitude mirrors how many in D.C. react to marijuana as a business—skeptical.
In regards to those who question medical marijuana’s validity, Barnette is not concerned with them. He owned two successful, legal businesses in California that grew and sold medical marijuana, and he has been in the business of growing and distributing medical marijuana in D.C. since receiving a license in 2012.
Barnette is considered experienced in the east coast cannabis industry, though any marijuana business on this coast is an infant compared to those in California and Colorado. However, Barnette may be looked to as an expert in the industry because he was a seasoned businessman prior to his cannabusiness experience and owned a number of other businesses.
“I have been buying small businesses and selling small businesses since 2003 on my own. And prior to that I was a venture capitalist,” Barnette said. In addition to his resume, he dresses the part of the savvy business professional in pleated slacks and a black polo embroidered with the District Grower’s logo.
Corey Barnette is not your stereotypical marijuana salesman. Yes, he can grow high-quality medical-grade marijuana, but he can also market and brand products and run a successful business in a quickly evolving cannabusiness landscape.
“When we sought to design our service model here at Metropolitan Wellness, [decide] what we wanted to be, and position ourself as District Growers, we tried to figure out what the market really needed,” Barnette said.
And as opportunities pop up in D.C.’s cannabusiness market, Barnette is open to taking risks and rolling with them. “I don’t think the story is told on who District Growers is yet. We are still developing; we are still on our way somewhere. We know where that is, or we at least know were we want to go, but we are open to wherever we need to go.”
Calculating Competition and Counting Plants
Barnette appears to be well positioned in the District’s marijuana market. He has only four competitors for District Growers and only three for Metropolitan Wellness Center. However, he works to keep an edge over the other cultivation centers and dispensaries by “targeting the patient that has a develped palate and appreciates high-quality cannabis,” Barnette explained. “It’s not about how high I can get you … it’s about ‘is this orange the best orange you have ever tasted’ … I want this plant to be its genetic best.”
Barnett’s passion bleeds into the pride he holds for his business’ high-level of patient services. Metropolitan Wellness Center is located on a trendy street in Eastern Market, not too far from the Capitol, and at first glance, it appears to be a medical spa of some sort. Once you enter, the decor is similar to that of a doctor’s waiting room.
“Most dispensaries are poorly thought out and unsophisticated. At Metropolitan Wellness Center our objective is to disarm you, relax you, and let you know you are about to be treated with dignity,” Barnette said. “[At our store] you can feel good about what you are about to do.”
The dispensary’s aesthetic is intentional. Barnette hand-picked the dispensary’s manager Vanessa West from Nordstrom. “They are known as a company for their service. We wanted someone who understood what service really meant.” West designed the look and feel of Metropolitan Wellness Center and Barnette’s previous operation in California.
Though Barnette is enjoying success in a limited-competitor market for his cultivation center and dispensary, he is still victim to growing pains within a quickly changing business environment. Barnette expressed that many of the hurdles he experiences are not of his own doing but rather caused by regulations from the D.C. Department of Health. “Across the district, in every dispensary, we are experiencing stock-outs. So that is obviously a problem,” Barnette said. Not only does that affect sales, it also blurs the target customer. “Everyone now who is a patient is a customer.”
The D.C. DOH is catching up with the marijuana supply and demand issue, but not as fast as Barnette would like. Last year the plant count was set at 90 max. Now, cannabis cultivation centers in the District have a 500 plant count. However, Barnette needs to be able to cultivate more plants to fulfill patient demand.
“They increased [plant count] by a factor of five, and we are still stocking out. Yet, the DOH still may not want to increase the plant count,” said Barnette. “On Saturday, we ran out. When we close, we close with maybe a few concentrates left. We were out of flowers. Last Tuesday, we were not open because we had nothing to sell.”
In response to this issue, Metropolitan Wellness Center has a communication plan to send out text notifications when it closes due to stock outs. Similarly, it does the same when it has new strains and products.
Barnette is excited about his future in the Disrict’s marijuana market. In the next 60 days, he plans to release a bevy of new products at Metropolitan Wellness Center, including a line of fresh-pressed juices named More. More’s flavors will be named according to how patients want to get more out of life. For instance, more bliss or more freedom.
In addition to More, Barnette is set to release bite-size edibles with a local-celebrity chef. “We’ve been known as that firm that offers variety … we offer 18 strains … we are the definition of variety. Now we want to extend that variety across different categories,” Barnette said.
Barnette is certainly ambitious when it comes to the District’s marijuana market, and he has the experience and drive to turn his ambitions into lucrative realities. If the District allows the purchase and sale of recreational cannabis, Barnette is the man to watch.