Montel Williams’ fight
The former talk-show host opens a new medical-cannabis dispensary in Midtown to fanfare, controversy
“There won’t be a cure for MS in my lifetime. Period. It’s not happening.”
Montel Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, accepts this. He accepts it when he gets up each morning and is in too much pain to lift his feet out of bed. Or when his body can’t regulate its temperature and he’s the only guy in an air-conditioned room sweating uncontrollably.
He says these words on a recent Thursday morning at downtown Sacramento’s Hyatt Regency hotel amid sips of a warm espresso drink. The former talk-show host, whose Montel Williams Show ended in 2008 after 17 years, says he’s on a single-minded mission to mitigate, abate and assuage his MS symptoms. And share what he’s learned with patients worldwide.
“Everything I’m working on is a spoke in the wheel,” he says.
Williams’ latest spoke, however, is a divisive one: Abatin Wellness Cooperative, a medical-cannabis dispensary he launched this past Monday in Midtown Sacramento. A long-standing advocate, Williams has spoken at city halls across the country on behalf of medical pot. But this is his first medical-marijuana business endeavor. He hopes to take what he learns over the next six months here in Sacramento and expand nationwide.
Critics, including many local pot-club owners, say Williams is merely cashing in on California’s marijuana boom. They cite his commercials shilling for cash-advance loans and penchant for hosting psychics on his old TV show as grounds to doubt his compassion.
Many also question whether he should be allowed to operate a dispensary in the city, which has a moratorium on new clubs and an ordinance disallowing transfer of ownership. Williams says he is simply “consulting” at Abatin, and that Aundre Speciale—who owned the club that also previously operated at 2100 29th Street as Capitol Wellness Collective—remains on as “executive director.”
A contingent of vendors arrived at the new dispensary on Monday to complain that they were unpaid by Speciale for cannabis and services provided at her old collective, which shut down months ago, only to be remodeled into the existing Abatin club. One disgruntled contractor, Mickey Martin, who owns medical-cannabis consulting firm T-Comp in the Bay Area, argued he’s owed $20,000 from Capitol Wellness and also that Abatin is in violation of Sacramento’s ordinance, which states that any dispensary that closes for more than 30 days will have its permit revoked.
Capitol Wellness says it’s working with vendors to resolve any payment issues.
Williams rebuffs all detractors. “Anyone who would say [I’m doing this for the money] clearly is thinking of how they position themselves, because they’re not thinking about me. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years. It’s not like I’m doing this because I’m trying to make a buck. …
“There is not a more open medicinal-marijuana user in America as me,” he proclaims.
“And I’m sick of the fact that, as I look around this country, cannabis has been hijacked by so many groups who don’t care about patients.”
Over coffee at the Hyatt, Williams shares his own experience as an MS patient.
Born in Baltimore and son of a fire chief, he was class president, a musician and an athlete. But never a pothead, although he’d tried the drug. “C’mon, I was a child of the ’70s. I was a rocking kid. I had a band. But I was never a stoner. But did I smoke a joint while running across the track field with a friend? Hell yeah.”
Williams enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1974 and earned an engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and served for 22 years.
In 1991, CBS gave Williams his show, a tabloid TV daytime talk show that garnered the host one Emmy and multiple nominations. When he was diagnosed with MS in 1999, creating awareness about his disease became a popular topic on the program.
Williams doesn’t look sick. He wears a tight, short-sleeved, aqua-blue T-shirt, and his biceps are defined. He’s lean, clean-cut and speaks with an unwavering energy. Stand up, however, and you’ll notice his limp, which he says is constant. “My legs don’t bend. Every step I take is a reminder that I have MS.” He no longer can play bass guitar, because the fingers on his left hand won’t move fast enough. Vision comes and goes in his left eye.
He admits to “cry fests”: He’ll disappear into a bathroom and just let out the tears. “If you strike your crazy bone,” he says, “that is the pain I feel all day.”
By 2002, Williams hit the wall. “I was taking so many opiate-based drugs,” he says of those first three years as a patient, “that I have issues. Pretty bad ones.” He’s quit the hard-drug pharmacopeia, but still keeps four different opiate prescriptions on call, just in case.
His goal since has been the “spoke in the wheel” approach: a crusade to discover new cures and ways to ease the pain.
This includes the simple: drinking 40 ounces of fruits and vegetables a day in his Montel-brand HealthMaster emulsifier—“It’s not a blender!”—or working out. And the challenging: a University of Wisconsin-based brain-stem therapy that involves electro-stimulation of the tongue three times a day, 20 minutes each session. “It makes my tongue always buzz.”
And the extreme: Williams will undergo a non-FDA-approved chronic cerebro-spinal venous insufficiency surgery later this year. He explains that doctors will install stents in the veins along the neck that drain the central nervous system. He is optimistic, but conveys that recovery might be scary.
Yet he feels an obligation to what he estimates are the 4 million MS sufferers worldwide. “I didn’t ask to be the MS guinea pig of the world,” he says, “but everybody’s asking me.”
And as of this week, Williams will also be a high-profile test subject in the fast-growing world of medical cannabis.
Inside Abatin Wellness Cooperative, soft light glistens on marble countertops and tile floors. Mahogany wood counters show off a polished shine. Flat-screen TVs play a marijuana documentary narrated by Williams, a cannabis-history buff who also has installed a National Archives-like exhibit at the dispensary. Stepping up to a podium at noon, Williams sports a pinstripe suit and tie and tells a group of media, co-workers and friends that his role will be to give “counsel and provide guidance to” Abatin and eventually a select number of dispensaries across the country.
This new club aims to shake up the industry and “transform the conversation” about pot. “I see it as a must-change situation,” Williams says. “If we continue to go this way, they’re throwing me and patients like me under the bus. Because the feds aren’t gonna put up with this crap. And Americans aren’t, either.”
Specifically, Williams, who turns 55 next month, wants to end the “cottage industry” of medical-pot doctors, who he says ink referrals with no regard for patients; discontinue the silly naming of cannabis strains; and stop people from using rolling papers—“If they’re smoking blunts with Big Tobacco, I’m sorry, homey, but I’m going to get you off that.”
He even intends to end how the industry markets and promotes itself. “All those advertisements,” he says, hinting at the ones in this very publication, “got to go.”
Patients “don’t know where their pot is coming from,” so they don’t know what strains will help which symptoms, Williams argues. And so, “Patients need to be culturally changed. Doctors need to be culturally changed.”
At Abatin, a patient must meet with a counselor upon each visit to discuss their disease, symptoms and treatment. They also must fill out paperwork. This is all done at private, cubicle-like stations—kind of like what you would see at a BloodSource or a bank.
The end goal is to improve efficacy and delivery of medical cannabis, but Abatin scientists will also use the data for proprietary purposes, such as creating new products. Everyone insists that the results will be open-source and transparent. Williams wants to “do as much research on this [data] as any pharmaceutical company in the world.”
Ultimately, he aspires to be the pot pioneer who changes how the world views marijuana, which is bound to inspire and also ruffle feathers. He’s already done so here in Sacramento simply by opening shop.
“I’m a freak in a sense, I’m sorry. I don’t look at things and think, ‘That has to be good enough.’ I want things to be the best.”
Description of the CCSVI surgery procedure as been modified since the original published version of this story.