Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Norbert Pickett believes in the power of cannabis. “It’s important because I think it’s a wonder drug,” he says. “Cannabis saved my life.” And thanks to Pickett, the drug is about to become radically more accessible for medical marijuana patients in Ward 7. His dispensary, DC Holistic Wellness, is scheduled to open in Deanwood this week, operating out of the old Dave Brown Liquors location. Pickett says the only remaining hurdle is one final, minor inspection by DC Health and the Metropolitan Police Department, and then he’s all set to open by the end of the week. It will be the first medical marijuana dispensary in Ward 7.

But cannabis is not a “wonder drug” Pickett ever thought he would need. Growing up outside Boston, he was a high school basketball star turned D-1 player at Boston University, and he first came to D.C. to jump start his career on the business side of sports. He worked for the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) and for the Capitals, before leaving the city again to do marketing for the Philadelphia Eagles. Eventually, wanting to try his luck in the entertainment industry, he moved to Hollywood, and pretty soon, he’d finessed his way onto Jimmy Kimmel Live! Pickett worked with Kimmel for several years as his casting director, before moving on to a studio job.

And then, in the spring of 2012, he was hit by a car. As he was waiting for a red light after an afternoon meeting, another driver barreled into him from behind, severely injuring his back and leaving him permanently disabled. “It was hell,” Pickett recalls. He spent the next five years in and out of intensive surgery, he says, as doctors installed “hardware in my lumbar all the way up to my cervical.” He says that once a surgeon almost killed him when a botched operation came too close to his aorta. Doctors told Pickett he would never run again—they were incorrect. However, the accident left him in severe, chronic pain.

That’s how Pickett first discovered medical marijuana. “I was on five different opioids at one time for the pain,” he explains. “I wasn’t used to being all doped up. So I turned to CBD and THC. That’s what got me off of those awful meds.”

Between all the time off work and the depression and PTSD that followed the accident, Pickett’s entertainment career was hobbled, and he’d started feeling that L.A. wasn’t “conducive to raising my child.” “So we moved to my favorite city,” he says. “Washington, D.C.”

When he arrived, he was shocked by the price of medical marijuana in the District compared to Los Angeles. According to a recent survey, D.C. is the most expensive place in the country to buy cannabis, by a large margin. “I said, ‘This isn’t right,’” he recalls. “It shouldn’t be this expensive. People aren’t going to be able to afford this.” His therapist told him the city was looking to let a single dispensary open up in Ward 7. Excited at the chance to expand cannabis access east of the river, Pickett decided he would try to win the spot.

That kicked off a long and competitive bidding process, as he fought with other local businesses and multimillion-dollar national corporations for the coveted Ward 7 license. One of his first orders of business was to find a location. Driving through Deanwood, Pickett saw Dave Brown’s son, Kevin Brown, standing out in front of his father’s recently closed liquor store, which was a Sheriff Rd. NE mainstay for decades.

He chatted with Kevin, who he knew was looking to sell the building, and asked if he had any offers on it. “I’d had other offers,” Kevin tells City Paper, “but they didn’t really hit my spot… Norbert was taking over where I left off.” Pickett remembers Kevin telling him, “I was waiting for someone like yourself to come along.” Pickett inferred that there must not have been many other black buyers looking at the store, “and he didn’t want to gentrify.” Pickett bought the building (he’s keeping the iconic Dave Brown Liquors sign up as is), and in due time, the District awarded him the license.

Pickett says roughly 90 percent of his employees are from Deanwood, and some of them grew up just a couple blocks from the store. Hiring local was a priority for him. “It’s important to lift communities like Deanwood up,” he says. “It’s an invaluable community. It’s an iconic community… People in Deanwood need opportunities.”

“As black people, the cannabis industry is an industry that we’ve been notoriously left out of,” Pickett emphasizes. “Where this is an opportunity for us to build a special expertise.”

Pickett says DC Holistic Wellness will offer educational classes and lectures, as well as a range of innovative medical products, like a cannabis suppository invented by the Deanwood-based District Cannabis. He says the suppository was designed to treat endometriosis, a condition often associated with painful periods, but that it’s been a boon for his own chronic pain, letting him target specific areas of his back in a way that other products can’t.

He also plans to build a “safe use lounge” for patients in public housing and on Section 8 vouchers, who risk losing their homes if they consume cannabis where they live. He wants to expand to provide kush-free healthcare, too; he’s currently working to get regulatory approval to open an urgent care at the same location. (There is currently no urgent care facility east of the Anacostia River, but MBI Health Services already has been licensed to open one in Ward 7 later this year.)

Above all, Pickett says, he aims to make healthcare cheaper and more available for residents in Deanwood and in Ward 7: “I just think this needs to be easier for people to access.”

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