Wall Street sniffs out opportunity in marijuana

Andrew Tangel / Los Angeles Times /

Published Apr 6, 2013 at 05:00AM

BELVIDERE, N.J. — Amid the whir of fans and the glow of soft white light, workers tended to bright green seedlings sprouting in a giant greenhouse.

Located about an hour’s drive from Manhattan in the hills of northwestern New Jersey, the facility produces basil, chives, oregano and other herbs that are sold in grocery stores around New York City.

But if Ken VandeVrede has his way, the facility will one day be growing a much more valuable plant: marijuana.

VandeVrede is chief operating officer at Terra Tech, a hydroponic equipment maker based in Irvine, Calif. The small company wants to double the five-acre New Jersey greenhouse operation. The aim is one day to supply the exploding U.S. medical marijuana trade and to prepare in the event that recreational marijuana ever becomes legal nationwide.

“We can scale this thing very, very quickly,” said VandeVrede, clad in blue jeans and a pumpkin-colored sweater as he surveyed his indoor fields of produce and flowers. “When hemp and cannabis become legal, we’re ready to rock and roll.”

To do it, Terra Tech needs to raise $2 million. And like a number of small businesses in the burgeoning U.S. cannabis industry, it’s trying to enlist Wall Street’s help. Business owners have been pitching their ideas to potential investors, coming to New York in some cases to meet with would-be financiers.

Wall Street has good reason to smell potential profits.

Washington, D.C., and 18 states have already legalized medical marijuana; there are formal measures pending in 10 additional states, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana use in November. In addition, a measure allowing “adult use” of pot has been proposed in Maryland, according to the association’s tally. Various bills to legalize marijuana and hemp have been proposed in Congress too.

Although pot remains contraband under federal law, some entrepreneurs see marijuana heading down the same path as Prohibition, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol from 1920 until it was repealed in 1933.

“More and more people see the inevitability,” said Brendan Kennedy, chief executive of the Seattle private equity firm Privateer Holdings, which targets cannabis-focused startups.

Privateer is raising $7 million to acquire small companies that have a hand in the trade but don’t grow or distribute marijuana. Its first acquisition: Leafly, a Yelp-style online rating site in Seattle for dispensaries and varying strains of marijuana.

With pot still federally outlawed, others are making similar bets — funding firms that supply equipment or ancillary services while steering clear of marijuana farming and sales.

Take Lazarus Investment Partners, a $60 million hedge fund in Denver, for example. One of Lazarus’ investments is in AeroGrow International Inc., a maker of hydroponic kitchen appliances geared toward growing herbs, lettuce and tomatoes.

Lazarus, which owns 15 percent of AeroGrow’s shares, has suggested that the company tweak its products to accommodate taller plants, including marijuana, said Justin Borus, the fund’s managing partner.

“We want to be selling the bluejeans to the gold miners,” Borus said. “We don’t want to take a bet on which state is going to get legalized and which dispensary is going to succeed, or (which) cannabis growers are going to be successful. We want to just make a bet on overall legalization.”

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