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High Times in a Rough Economy

on March 12, 2009


Howard Hsu/Oakland North

Howard Hsu/Oakland North

While the majority of businesses struggle to stay afloat through the present economic turbulence, there is at least one industry that gently glides across it: the marijuana industry.

And it’s been a magic carpet ride, of sorts.

Oaksterdam, the 9-block square area between Lake Merritt and Telegraph Avenue, has established a cannabis-friendly atmosphere that’s already been imitated in cities across the country. It is one of West Coast’s activism bastions in the so-called “marijuana battle.” Last year the Oaksterdam brand, a solid and transparent symbol of the over-the-counter cannabis culture that keeps growing in Oakland, paid $200,000 in sales tax; something that provoked an eyebrow rise in all the entrepreneurs that saw their luck disappear when the economy plummeted to the ground like a shot duck.

“People need to calm down in this mess,” said Alex Anderson, a freelance artist and playwright currently working on the adaptation of Cleopatra to a screenplay. “That’s why we’re smoking, and consumption has definitely increased amongst adults.”

With the lines blurring on the illicitness of marijuana, its legitimacy as a business is beginning to germinate. Nowhere is this more evident than downtown Oakland, where marijuana patients are granted a secure and affordable access to the medicine.

“We have had over 1,000 students in Oaksterdam University,” said Richard Lee, president of the Oaksterdam family, referring to his marijuana cultivation and business school in downtown Oakland, the first of its kind in the United States.

Lee is a present-day tycoon in Oakland, running a cluster of marijuana-oriented businesses that have bloomed in the downtown Oakland area in the past four years. And right now he says business is as good as ever.

He sees himself as both an activist and entrepreneur — pushing the boundaries for cannabis legalization while seizing the opportunity to turn a profit. His ultimate goal is what he calls “adult consumption” with marijuana being akin to alcohol sales.

So far, Lee has been winning the fight

“We already have between 250 and 300 students signed for our first Oaksterdam University seminar that will be held in Ann Arbor, Michigan in May,” Lee said, as he Xeroxed flyers for an East Bay cannabis activist organization meeting in the University’s administrative quarter.

Last November, Michigan voters passed Proposition 1, making it the 13th state to legalize medical marijuana. The California equivalent, Prop 215, passed in 1996 with 55 percent of votes.

But while Prop 215 is a valid law in California, United States Drug Enforcement Administration agents are free to enforce the federal criteria. And regardless of what Californians decide, marijuana is still illegal, in any form, under United States law. This is where raids find their explanation.

In the last few months, several cannabis clubs across Bakersfield, Modesto, Hayward and the Alameda County have suffered significant clientele shortages because of raids. “We’ve been lucky,” Lee added, while cheering Obama’s rumored drug czar pick, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. “All the patients that frequented those closed clubs are coming to us.”

With a combined $175 billion dollars spent between Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton on the drug war, Lee and his cohorts have high hopes that Obama’s slogan of “change” will translate into a more open and realistic drug policy.

Although more than 27,000 identification cards have been issued through California’s Medical Marijuana Program to date, there are still a lot of people with a medical condition but without the money to afford a prescription. “They grow their own and never see a doctor,” Lee explained while softly caressing one of the 15 to 20 plants saved for the Oaksterdam University students. “That’s why it’s so difficult to come up with a number of users.”

Measure Z in Oakland protects Richard Lee and all local medical marijuana users. It’s an alternative law proposal that makes private sales, cultivation and possession the lowest police priority; it also, according to the measure’s text, “raises city revenues by ending the wasteful war on drugs.”

In addition to technology, higher education, and tourism, the San Francisco Bay Area secretly holds another asset: It is a green oasis for medical patients and for all the new entrepreneurs who have their savings ready to be rolled up and lighted up.

Lead image: Richard Lee, President of Oaksterdam University demonstrates the instructional grow lab in Downtown Oakland campus. Howard Hsu/Oakland North



  1. Ian on March 13, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    I like this site and article, but why is it that people are so obsessed with pretending that pot is this super-medicine? The term “medicine” in reference to pot tends to elicit a knowing smile in anyone who speaks it, and the process that leads to getting a medical pot card is laughable. I just wish that the proponents of legalizing marijuana would drop the whole “medicine” angle on it and just say what they really mean: Pot isn’t that bad for you — certainly no worse than alchohol — and legalizing it (within certain parameters, like over 18 or over 21 only) could create a new revenue stream for cities and counties that are already suffering from massive budget cuts and the inability of the state to tax its citizens.

  2. andrew polowy on March 21, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    I seen you the other night on tv! Great show!! I seen the fed-ex shipping products. How do i order some seeds,plants that have been started. or even some buds! If we all get involved its even better!! I’ll support your cause;)

  3. J on December 11, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    the government is rediculous, pot alone if we made it an industry could bring jobs back, might end the war on terror open importing and exporting, you kidding? we would be producing more crops than ever and not just corn! this recession would be gone real quick, and we could prob pay off some of our debt in the U.S. It’s time to open our eyes to a booming industry before this country goes to h311

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