Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment.

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How a Local "Ganjapreneur" Bummed Oakland's High and Cheated the City out of Thousands

| Wed Dec. 11, 2013 3:32 PM PST
Derek Peterson and Dhar Mann (pictured at right)

In 2011, a Lamborghini-driving 26-year-old named Dhar Mann became a national media sensation when he partnered with a Morgan Stanley investment banker in an audacious plan to create weGrow, a vertically integrated marijuana conglomerate better known as the "Walmart of Weed." Shortly after I wrote the first detailed profile of Mann, however, he split with Morgan Stanley's Derek Peterson amid mutual accusations of unpaid debts and financial shenanigans. Peterson charged Mann with running "a fucking hydroponzi scheme."

Now it looks like he wasn't exaggerating by much. Yesterday, Mann pleaded "no contest" to five felony counts of defrauding the City of Oakland, the Oakland Tribune reports. The scion of a wealthy taxi monopolist and a major local political donor, Mann was accused of pocketing some $44,000 in city redevelopment funds that he was supposed to use to fix up several of his properties. According to court documents, Mann submitted checks to the city that he'd supposedly written to contractors but that were in fact redeposited into his own bank account.

Mann won't face jail time, but still must resolve an Oakland civil suit seeking $345,000 in civil penalties and damages.

Though weGrow got a lot of media attention, it was never very popular among the Bay Area's pot cognoscenti, who saw the company's materialistic and confrontational image as a liability to their wider goal of a truce in the drug war. But now it looks like it was Mann himself, not anti-drug crusaders in the federal government, who planted the seeds of his demise.

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Here's How Walmart Could Pay Workers a Decent Wage Without Raising Prices

| Wed Nov. 20, 2013 3:08 PM PST

Walmart has gotten a lot of bad press this week over news of an Ohio store holding a food drive for its own workers, who were unable to buy Thanksgiving groceries on the retail giant's paltry wages. The store managers deserve credit for their thoughtfulness, but wouldn't it be better if Walmart simply paid its workers enough to feed themselves? A new report from Demos, a liberal think tank, suggests that doing so wouldn't be as hard as you might think.

Walmart could continue spending $7.6 billion to buy back its own stock, or it could pay every worker $14.89 an hour.

According to the report, "A Higher Wage Is Possible," Walmart spends $7.6 billion a year buying back stock. Those purchases drive up the company's share price, further enriching the Walton family, which controls more than half of Walmart stock (and for that matter, more wealth than 42 percent of Americans combined.) If Walmart instead spent that money on wages, it could give each of its 1.3 million low-paid US employees a $5.83 per hour raise—enough to ensure that all of its 1.3 million workers are paid a wage equivalent to $25,000 a year for full-time work.

Walmart and its defenders like to argue that raising wages would require it to raise prices, which would in turn hurt its low-income shoppers. But Demos disagrees: "Curtailing share buybacks would not harm the company's retail competitiveness or raise prices for consumers," the report says. "In fact...higher pay could be expected to improve employee productivity and morale while reducing Walmart's expenses related to employee turnover."

A spokesperson for Walmart did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 

Walmart Ads Target "Low Income" Consumers With Junk Food

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 4:00 AM PST

In 2011, Walmart pledged to offer healthier grocery options by reducing the sugar and sodium content of packaged foods, rolling out a "Great for You" food label, and making fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable. It has done that to an extent, but those are not typically the products that it markets to its "low income" shoppers.

A November 13 advertising circular specifically aimed at low-income customers included discount coupons for a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, a 10-pack of Kool-Aid Jammers drinks, and a 9.5-ounce bag of Cheetos. Only 3 of the 36 discounted items in the ad were labeled "Great for You," while 10 of them touted high-sugar, high-sodium, or high-fat junk foods. The ad did not include any coupons for fresh fruits or vegetables.

By contrast, coupons appearing at the same time in a separate, more broadly targeted "Grocery" advertising page included yellow onions, whole carrots, and Bartlett pears.

At some point after November 13, Walmart changed the name of its "Low Income" coupon page to "Stretch & Save." Walmart did not respond to questions about why it changed the name and why its Stretch & Save customers don't deserve healthier options.

Early this year, Michele Obama appeared at a Walmart store in Springfield, Missouri, to tout the retail giant's move toward healthier offerings. "For years, the conventional wisdom said that healthy products just didn't sell," she said from a podium set up in the produce section. "Thanks to Walmart and other companies, we are proving the conventional wisdom wrong."

But Walmart's advertising strategy seems to suggest that the retail giant still isn't willing to market fresh fruits and vegetables to the shopping demographic that most needs them. It's hard to say why. Maybe Walmart has figured out that ads for Bartlett pears won't get the poor through the doors. Or maybe its mediocre and low-margin produce just isn't profitable enough.

Either way, one would hope Walmart, as a corporate citizen, could see value in marketing healthy foods to low-income shoppers, given that those shoppers are also its workers. Then again, controlling its employees' health care costs typically hasn't been a big part of Walmart's business plan.

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