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One Small Soldier in a Big War
Richard Lee rolls down the street in his wheelchair

One Small Soldier in a Big War

Richard Lee rolls down the street in his wheelchair

Richard Lee rolls down the street in his wheelchair, popping in on any number of his businesses located in the “Oaksterdam district” of downtown Oakland, California. Once known for the wild finishes of its roughhouse Raiders, the city has quietly evolved into the Amsterdam of America. And Mr. Lee is spearheading the charge.

Lee is president of Oaksterdam University, the country’s first “cannabis college,” and a leading voice behind the statewide ballot measure The Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. If his hunch is correct (and polling data bears him out), California may become the first state to legalize marijuana.

Lee’s group recently announced they have stopped signature gathering after hitting the 680,000 mark, well over the 433,971 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. The campaign will file these with the attorney general’s office in January.

Meanwhile, people from across the country are flocking to Oaksterdam University for education and training on opening and operating a medical marijuana cooperative or collective in their home area.

Located between downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt, Oaksterdam is a burgeoning concern of “cannabusinesses.” Thousands each year drop in to purchase T-shirts and other related cannabis paraphernalia at the Oaksterdam Gift Shop, flowers at the Oaksterdam Nursery, rent bikes and purchase glassware in the commercial district. More importantly, medical marijuana patrons may purchase cannabis in the dispensary located in the back room of Blue Sky Café. Lee’s enterprises collectively employ 58 people, who are given medical and dental benefits, while paying $250,000 in state sales taxes.

The Oaksterdam district was already established when Lee moved out from Houston in 1997. At the time, he was running a hemp shop in the hippie section of Houston and working on marijuana legalization campaigns. He learned that California had just adopted the Compassionate Use Act, the state’s first medical marijuana law, and gravitated to Oakland, which was primed for acceptance of the medicinal pot world.

Business owner Jeff Jones had established the Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Club, which became one of ten dispensaries to operate in the Oaksterdam district. Around the same time, City Councilman Nathan Miley persuaded his fellow members to adopt an ordinance authorizing dispensaries within city limits.

Miley witnessed firsthand the success of Oaksterdam and admired Richard Lee’s desire to mold it in the image of Amsterdam. “Over the years, to see that evolve, has been a joy and pleasure, both for Rich’s sake and the opportunities it presents for the patients, caregivers, and others who want to support it by buying products,” said Miley, who has served as supervisor of Oakland-Alameda County since 2001. “Rich has been supportive of making sure that his medicinal marijuana and various ancillary operations are paying their business and sales taxes to support the local economy. It’s brought economic development to downtown Oakland. To me, it’s been a win-win all around.”

In 2004, Oakland voters approved the ballot initiative Measure Z, which liberalized its medical marijuana law, increased taxes on related marijuana business enterprises, but also winnowed the number of dispensaries in the downtown area from 12 to four. Oaksterdam survived and thrived, while tax dollars streamed into city coffers. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown was serving his second term as Oakland mayor when the ordinance became law.

Both Miley and Lee categorized Brown as “neutral” on the subject during his mayorship, although he didn’t obstruct progress on the issue. Brown is now California’s state attorney general (elected in 2006) and considered the Democratic frontrunner for governor in 2010. (Brown’s office did not respond to calls for comment on Richard Lee and Oaksterdam University.)

In 2006, Richard Lee was invited to go to Amsterdam where he was presented with the “Freedom Fighter of the Year” award from the Cannabis Cup, a fall festival sponsored by High Times magazine. The festivities, which annually draw 3,000, were initially held in Amsterdam because, at the time, the Netherlands was the only country that permitted marijuana sales to adults.

In Amsterdam, Lee observed the permissive climate surrounding drugs. But it was a cannabis college that stirred his imagination. He noted it was less a college and more like an information and political center on cannabis. Inspired, Richard Lee returned to Oakland and set out to merge that concept with a full-fledged trade school. One year later, Oaksterdam University was born.

Plying his educational background in marketing, advertising and public relations at the University of Houston, Lee placed an ad locally for his new training center and the responses were overwhelming. America’s first cannabis college struck a nerve and tapped a demand for a comprehensive program. “It’s really taken off,” Lee said. “I didn’t realize the demand. There are so many people … coming from all over the country.” Oaksterdam University quickly outgrew its former facility and this year moved into a newly remodeled 30,000 square foot building that can accommodate the steady stream of marijuana students. “It’s amazing to see the enthusiasm out there.”

Before diving into the main courses, Oaksterdam students must first complete prerequisites on politics and legal issues, Lee said, “because we are ground in changing the laws and want students to be aware of the legal risks and to become politically involved.” Instructors provide information and training in wide-ranging curricula that include: horticulture, cannabis cultivation, cannabis cooking, hash making, bud tending and courses related to incorporating, starting and managing a business.

To date, Oaksterdam University has trained more than 6,000 individuals in weekend sessions ($250) and the 26-hour semester course ($650), generating $1.5 million in revenue last year.

While Amsterdam may be the most permissive international city regarding drugs, Oakland has quickly zoomed to prominence in America, quietly usurping top position from its neighbor across the Bay.

Lee and his Oakland-based cohorts are sure to generate beau coup publicity throughout 2010 as word spreads about their ballot initiative (Lee and his partnership S.K. Seymour, LLC are sponsoring the initiative). Wisely, The Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 initiative is brief and simple to comprehend. The group’s web site cites three major advantages:

  • Regulate cannabis like alcohol: Allow adults 21 and older in California to possess up to one ounce of cannabis.
  • Give local governments the ability to tax and regulate the sale of cannabis to adults 21 and older.
  • Generate billions of dollars in revenue to fund what matters most in California: jobs, health care, public safety, schools, libraries, state parks, roads, transportation, and more.

Two similar marijuana initiatives have been filed with the attorney general’s office and may qualify for the ballot as well. In addition, state legislator Tom Ammiano’s marijuana legalization bill would put the state in charge of licensing and collecting taxes on marijuana, in contrast to Lee’s initiative which gives the authority to local governments. Lee said if both the assembly bill and the ballot initiative passed, they would coexist, and neither would conflict with present laws regulating medical marijuana.

In April, the Field Poll of California reported that 56 percent of likely 2010 voters would approve the Tax Cannabis initiative. Just last month, the Seattle Times conducted a national poll that showed that two-thirds of Americans believe the “war on drugs” is a failure, while 53 percent agreed that marijuana should be legalized. Lee believes this new national trend of acceptance is logical; the warnings about medical marijuana have proven unfounded, he said, and the electorate is now leaning in favor of legalizing cannabis.

A Department of Justice report suggested that all along the medical marijuana movement has been a ruse to open the doors to recreational legalization. Lee countered, “Which just proves that the real reason they (federal government) were opposed to medical marijuana is because they are against legalization (for recreational use).”

Asked how it felt to be the poster boy for the marijuana legalization movement, Lee declined the leadership title. “I’m just a small soldier in a big war.”

As if Richard Lee and the Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative needed any more tailwind at their backs, George Zimmer, CEO of Men’s Wearhouse, has contributed $10,000 to the initiative campaign. Zimmer’s Houston-based apparel company was a few tux rentals shy of $2 billion in 2008. He’s a long-time supporter of marijuana referenda.

In 1995, Zimmer and three other high-powered businessmen helped finance Proposition 215, which became the first medical marijuana law in California. The other financiers included billionaire George Soros, noted contributor of progressive candidates and campaigns, and an ardent supporter of alternative drug treatment initiatives; Dr. John G. Sperling, founder and executive chairman of the board of Apollo Group, which owns and operates the University of Phoenix; and Peter B. Lewis, chairman of Progressive Corporation.

In January, Lee will submit the collected signatures for certification. The long-time marijuana crusader believes his initiative will qualify for the November 2010 ballot. Then it will be up to the electorate to decide if California will become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.

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