After a federal raid in early April on Oaksterdam University, an education center located in downtown Oakland that trains students to work in the marijuana industry, founder Richard Lee has decided to step down as head of the institution. His successor will be former executive chancellor Dale Sky Jones, which will officially be announced on Wednesday morning.
“It is safe to say that I will be taking over the lead position at Oaksterdam University to ensure that the institution will go on,” Jones told Oakland North in an interview.
Oaksterdam University, the first cannabis college in the United States, was founded in 2007. Ever since visiting the cannabis college in Amsterdam, Lee had wanted to open a trade school for the cannabis industry in the US. Medical marijuana has been legal in California since the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, although it remains illegal under federal law. Lee, who has been working to end cannabis prohibition for over 20 years now, put his idea into practice by creating a school with a curriculum that focuses on the entire cannabis trade, offering classes such as Legal Issues, Politics, Cooking, Concentrates, and Horticulture.
“I started the university to promote the cannabis industry and to create jobs in this industry that pay taxes,” said Lee. “The other reason was to teach people who want to get involved in the cannabis industry and politics but did not know anything about it.” In 2008, a satellite school was launched in Los Angles and classes were also held in Michigan in May, 2009. (Both locations are now closed due to financial shortfalls.)
Lee, who moved to Oakland in 1997, played a huge part in passing Oakland’s Measure Z, making private sales, cultivation, and possession of cannabis local law enforcement’s lowest priority. He was also a supporter of Proposition 19, a failed 2010 ballot initiative to control, tax, and regulate recreational marijuana use in California. Even though Proposition 19 did not pass, Lee considers the effort, which he helped finance, a success. “It was successful in moving the legalization debate forward,” he said. “One of our main goals was to get people to talk about this issue. And it just was on the agenda with the presidents down in South America. Columbia and Guatemala have come out for legalization of cannabis now.”
Lee believes that marijuana should be legalized in the U.S., as well. “It should be legalized to get the people out of prison that are in there because of issues related to cannabis. It should also be legalized to stop the violence surrounding cannabis, such as the 50,000 deaths in Mexico. It should be legalized in order for our law enforcement to be prioritized and in order to give an herbal alternative to sick people that need help,” he said.
Lee thinks that the reason marijuana has not been legalized here is because the medical use of marijuana would create competition for the pharmaceutical industry, and because legalization would endanger bureaucratic jobs that are dependent on enforcing laws against cannabis.
However, Lee believes that legalization is on the horizon, pointing to polling figures that show increasing public support for legalization. Lee also cited legalization’s potential to raise tax revenues for cash-starved governments. “It makes sense to legalize cannabis in times of economic struggle,” he said. “States are already collecting a lot of taxes from the cannabis industry, even before it has been legalized. If cannabis were to be legal, they would make even more money.”
After the raid, Lee decided to step down from his position as head of Oaksterdam University “partly because I feel like I have done my duty on the front line for a long time now, and partly to keep my legal issues separate so that Oaksterdam University can go on without problems,” he said.
However, Lee said he will continue to advocate for marijuana legalization. “I will speak at the hemp festival in August in Seattle and I will help support the legalization initiative in Washington State, Colorado and possibly other states such as Michigan, Missouri, Montana and Oregon,” he said.
Lee declined to comment on whether or not he was facing any criminal charges after the federal raid. (A spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency could not be reached for comment by press time.)
Lee supports Jones as his successor. “It is great that Dale is stepping up and I wish her all the luck,” he said. When looking back on his time as head of the school, he said, “I am proud of the 15,000 students that we have taught and all of the great work that they are doing now. Many of them are politically active or started their own dispensaries.”
Lee and Jones have worked together at Oaksterdam University as well as on the Proposition 19 campaign, for which Jones was the spokeswoman. Jones has worked within the marijuana industry for several years. She helped establish the Medical Cannabis Safety Council in early 2008 and was the chairperson of the group’s education and research committee, with whom she developed programs through which patients, doctors, providers and regulating authorities can be more confident in how medical marijuana is sourced, from the plant to the patient.
However, her background is from somewhere else—corporate America. “Up to five years ago, I was a total corp-girl. I was working in retail and hospitality management for companies such as Brown Shoe or T.G.I. Friday’s,” she said. “One day I got a phone call asking me if I want to quit my job and work for a group of doctors to manage their medical cannabis recommendations in Southern California. I was just simply fed up with the corporate world and was looking for change. So I took a leap of fate down rabbit hole. And here I am now, feeling like Alice in Wonderland. Working in the cannabis industry is very difficult. A lot of the rules within the industry are blurry, you can’t do normal banking and you cannot set up non-profits. But my training in professional corporations allows me to correlate the best practices from mainstream industry and adopt those to the cannabis industry.”
Jones will take over Oaksterdam at a very difficult time for the organization. After the raid of five Oaksterdam-related locations, including Lee’s home and the organization’s downtown dispensaries, 45 employees lost their jobs as well as their health insurance and benefits, according to Jones. “We took cannabis away from the streets and into a safe and responsible environment and that’s how the government and the state authorities thank us—by increasing the unemployment rate in Oakland and making our life more difficult,” she said.
As the new head of Oaksterdam University, she is now trying to calm the waves the raid has caused. “There is no way for me to not try to keep Oaksterdam University going. I consider it my duty and my moral obligation,” she said.
“We are trying to survive now,” she continued, “but it is a challenge, especially money-wise. In order to keep educating the way we were, we have to purchase new equipment. All of our computers were taken away by the federal authorities. We simply do not have enough sources anymore and we basically have to start from scratch.”
Oaksterdam University is currently dependent on donations and run with volunteers only, she said. “We can’t pay any wages at the moment. We also had to cut down on specialty classes and our remaining classes are taught by volunteers at the moment,” Jones said. “The current students already paid for classes so we feel obliged to honor them and to keep teaching, but it is difficult without resources and equipment. We are dependent on donations and we currently survive on enrollment. But we still have students. Right now we’re looking at about 100 students that have pre-registered for upcoming classes that we are trying to teach. And we will honor them and keep going. The best way for us to do that is for other new students to register.”
Jones is currently negotiating with the owner of the building that hosts Oaksterdam University to only rent them smaller, more affordable parts of the building instead of the entire 30,000 square foot campus, so they can remain in business. “I am not sure how that is going to turn out, though. We might have to move out by the end of the month. That’s when our lease is running out,” Jones said. “Of course it hurts to lose facilities but we just have to change the model, move to a smaller place or diversify Oaksterdam to different places. We are not giving up. We just have to look forward and to keep educating in order to create social justice and tackle the issue of legalizing marijuana.”
After the raid, the atmosphere at Oaksterdam University has been one of shock, Jones said. “People still believe in the concept of Oaksterdam, but seeing a good man like Richard Lee being taken down in such a bad way is just shocking,” she said. “But the employees have been amazing. They believe in Oaksterdam.”
One of Oaksterdam’s volunteers is Carrie Harger, who just moved to Oakland from Los Angeles. Harger is originally from the Bay Area but used to run Oaksterdam University in Los Angeles until it was shut down due to financial problems. She then decided to come back home to support the Oaksterdam family here. “Everything seemed to be going well—we were business as usual—and now this suddenly happened,” she said. “For me, it is just sad. This is not just a job for me, it is telling the truth about cannabis, planting the seed of knowledge and educating people. … I think cannabis can help the world, which is why I am not giving up and why I come here on a voluntary basis now.”
Harger is a medical marijuana patient herself. “I am not a drug seeker, I use cannabis for medical reasons,” she said. “It is so frustrating that patients lost their access to their medicine because the federal government came in and destroyed everything. We provided safe and clean cannabis for our patients and now they are forced to buy their medicine somewhere on the street from the Mexican drug cartel. Thank you, DEA.”
Like Harger, other Oaksterdam supporters have expressed concerns that former patients will be pushed to buy marijuana on the streets, rather than from a dispensary. Gianni Feliciano used to run the Oaksterdam hemp museum before it was closed due to the raid. He moved from Puerto Rico to Oakland two years ago when he heard about Oaksterdam. “Personally, I feel they cut off the head of a hemp stock and all the seeds fell to the ground’” Feliciano said, referring to the raid. “Just because they raided the dispensaries does not mean people stopped buying marijuana. They just pushed it to the underground again, which is putting patients at risk because their medicine might not be as clean anymore.”
Ethan Sommer, an alumnus of Oaksterdam University, has similar concerns about the raid’s effect on cannabis education itself. Sommer participated in a 13-week program at the college and is now working as the executive director of the Medical Cannabis Association, a trade association that promotes the commercial and political interests of the medical cannabis industry. “I learned a lot about the policy behind cannabis here at Oaksterdam University,” he said. “I also learned about cultivation and various business issues that are specific to this industry as well as the science behind the medicine and the plant. I learned more than I expected and now the federal authorities are making this education process more difficult. This university was the heart of our downtown area and they tried to take that away from us. If they succeed, that would leave a huge hole in the culture of fabric in downtown Oakland. But we are not going to let them do that.”
Jones, too, is concerned about the future of Oaksterdam University, particularly the possibility that federal charges could be filed against Lee or the university. “Of course I am concerned for Richard. He is a target,” Jones said. “But I am a teacher and I have done nothing wrong. Education is not a crime. However, you can always be harassed and charged and we are concerned that all of our resources are going into fighting rather than our education.”
“I am so disappointed that this is the way it has to be,” she continued. “By looking at the current enforcement policy, I can tell that they are systematically going after people that are engaged in the cannabis legalization movement. They go after these people, such as Richard Lee, and shut them down. They go after the registered ones that do pay taxes, which is just absurd. Attacking a school just illustrates how flawed the current drug policy is.”
Harger, however, said she does not believe charges will be pressed. “They didn’t find what they were looking for. Instead of an underground cannabis operation, they found educational material, classrooms, students, books,” she said. “And we are not a bunch of lazy stone-heads. We are an excited group and we are going to get back on our feet and keep up the service we were offering to our community.”
Jones said Oaksterdam will continue to push for changes to the drug laws that prompted the raid. “We need to change these policies. They are flawed and old-fashioned,” she said. “But we are not dead yet—we are fighting and we won’t just disappear. I will keep teaching and talking about it and that is not illegal. While the sky is falling, you gotta keep your chin up.”
You can read Oakland North’s complete coverage of marijuana-related issues in Oakland here.