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How Oakland became ground zero for the legal-cannabis argument: a public tour through Oaksterdam

on November 15, 2010

On Broadway, in downtown Oakland, a small coffee shop called the Bulldog has a couple of round tables out on the sidewalk where people sit, read the paper and drink coffee, shaded by big blue umbrellas. Its neighbor, the Patient ID Center, looks like a pharmacy, with a small neon sign that glows “open” as people stream in and out buying their goods. To the unsuspecting eye, these look like regular businesses that you might find in any downtown city. It’s only when you look closer that you see the windows smattered with banners, posters and stickers that say “control and tax cannabis.”

Visiting the Bulldog and the Patient ID Center, each of which has become a certain kind of Oakland institution, kicks off the Oaksterdam walking tour. Hosted by Oaksterdam University, the walking tour teaches people Oakland’s history and legacy in working to legalize marijuana—and how the city became the epicenter of a national conversation about the controversial plant.

“The guy that started everything—Jeff Jones—he opened the Patient ID Center,” says Salwa Ibrahim, the guide on a recent tour of Oaksterdam, as she points up at the storefront. This is just one of the cannabis-associated businesses that now crowd a four-block area of downtown, which is home to Oaksterdam University, the former headquarters of the Proposition 19 campaign to legalize recreational use of marijuana, a glass-blowing shop, and more.

The story of Oakland as the premier cannabis city in the United States starts with the coalescing, more than a decade ago,  of an open-minded city council, an impoverished downtown, and a handful of determined activists. “Oakland has been on the leadership of trying to gain that leverage, that hook, because it’s a city that’s always been on the down,” Jeff Jones said in a recent interview at the Bulldog coffee shop. “For lack of a better phrase, Oakland turned over a new leaf when it came to this issue,” he said with a smile. “It shucked off the stigmatization and the feeling that this was bad or evil.”

Jones and other Oakland-based cannabis advocates have led a movement to legalize marijuana in order to make it a medical remedy, a recreational substance meriting regulation like alcohol or tobacco, and a centerpiece for urban businesses to provide legitimate jobs and raise tax revenues.  No community in the country watched Proposition 19 as intently as this part of Oakland, and these advocates believe the defeat of the voter initiative, which would have legalized recreational marijuana for personal use in California, will not dampen business here in Oaksterdam at all.   Indeed, still forging the marijuana taxation and regulation movement, the City of Oakland is now working out the rules for industrial cannabis growing, to begin next year, which council members say could bring in much-needed money and commerce to the city.

As this burgeoning business continues to develop, the Oaksterdam tours are a way to review those forces that set this whole conversation in motion.  “The City of Oakland is trying to do the first permitting process,” says Ibrahim during the tour, mentioning the city’s plans. “Everybody is looking to Oakland to see how it’s going to work.”


The Patient ID Center in downtown Oakland.

Inside the Patient ID Center, people can’t buy pot. They can buy hemp t-shirts, cannabis cookbooks, gardening gear, and marijuana paraphernalia ranging from pipes to bongs to the Volcano Vaporizer, a conical machine that allows the smokeless ingestion of marijuana. But the most important item people can pick up here is an ID card, obtainable only with a doctor’s recommendation that certifies one is entitled to buy, possess and consume medical marijuana.

During the Oaksterdam tour, Ibrahim notes that the Patient ID Center “operates very similar to the DMV.” People line up and show the counter person their doctor’s recommendation, then wait for their names to be called and receive their laminated ID. This idea of this card system originated with Jones at the Patient ID Center, and now these cards are recognized throughout California, in other states and even in Canada.

Next door, at the Bulldog, which was the second cannabis dispensary in Oakland and is owned by Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, members walk past the front counter and the espresso machines, and then show their medical marijuana ID to the guard in the back. From here, they’re allowed to enter a private room called the Measure Z Club, where they can get cannabis in all forms—traditional smoking buds, ice cream, lollipops, TV dinners—and then medicate.

These kinds of places now exist all over California. Oakland has far fewer marijuana clubs and dispensaries than other cities, in fact. But it is still on the forefront of innovation within the industry and cannabis taxation and regulation. This history stems back nearly 15 years. The first time Oakland politicians looked at accepting and controlling the drug was shortly after voters approved California’s Proposition 215 in 1996, which legalized medical marijuana throughout the state.

In the early part of 1997, Jones, a young activist at the time, sat down with Oakland city councilmember Nate Miley with a list of propositions—ones that Jones argued would help ailing people feel better, prop up Oakland’s sagging downtown, and clarify the role of the city in enforcing drug laws. “We showed him our list openly and said, ‘What do you think?’” Jones says.

“I like this one, I like this one,” replied Miley, pointing to different items as he went down the list.

“He picked out things he could work on and we focused on those and dropped the rest to the side,” says Jones. The one item that stuck the most was asking the city to allow public and open medical marijuana dispensaries. “I had a goal to institutionalize this industry,” says Jones, who has said he believes his own father’s death from cancer might have been eased by the use of cannabis.  Jones opened up a shop called the Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative, which was later renamed the Patient ID Center, and became the first legal purveyor of medical marijuana in the city.

Jones and Miley continued to work together and set up a medical marijuana task force. This group included representatives from law enforcement, the city manager’s office, the city attorney’s office and the cannabis community. “We had this very different group of people all sitting at a table together,” says Joe DeVries, who was Miley’s field director at the time. The task force came up with guidelines about how the police department should handle people using marijuana, and how to determine whether they were using it recreationally or medically. This is when the idea of issuing medical marijuana ID cards came into being—if the police found someone using marijuana and they had a card—the task force agreed that the police would honor it.

“Nate Miley is one of my political heroes,” says Jones. “I don’t know many politicians who can crack off something as controversial as what he was doing and do it.” Jones says he would take city council members on tours of different grow facilities to show them exactly what the growers were doing. The majority of the city council believed this helped legitimize Jones’ actions and aspirations surrounding medical marijuana.

But the federal government didn’t agree. In October 1998, the Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative was shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice. “We were standing there when they came in and put a big padlock on the door,” says DeVries. The federal government sued Jones for distributing medical marijuana, which was still illegal under federal law, and his case was argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oakland officials did what they could to protect Jones.  The city council members wrote a declaration of emergency and made Jones an “officer of the city” saying he was exempt from these laws. Ultimately, though, Jones still lost United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative. His punishment was a lifetime prohibition from ever dispensing marijuana again. “Then I switched to what I’m doing now—issuing cards, having meetings, being political, selling hemp related goods—and otherwise just being a thorn in their side,” he says. “They may have won the battle against me, but we won the war.”


The Bulldog Coffee Shop in downtown Oakland.

After the Bulldog, the next stop on the Oaksterdam tour is a block away on Telegraph Avenue. There are a few bars, restaurants, convenience stores and the Fox Theatre—nothing out of the ordinary. But back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, this was where all the popular medical-marijuana dispensaries and clubs popped up when the Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative was shut down.

Ibrahim points to the bar Somar—formerly a cannabis club, she says, called the Lemon-drop. Then she points across the street to the restaurant Flora—formerly a dispensary, she says, called Care. Typically, clubs are for members only, while anyone with a marijuana ID card can buy cannabis at a dispensary. “At one point,” she says, “there were up to 16 dispensaries in Oaksterdam’s heyday.”

In the years just before these cannabis dispensaries opened, much of downtown Oakland was desolate. Storefronts were boarded up and covered with graffiti.  Landlords were willing to rent to anybody. “There was nobody downtown,” Jones says, remembering when he first opened the Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative in 1996. “Half of these buildings were empty.”

Then, one by one, people who weren’t yet cannabis club and dispensary owners—but wanted to be—started stopping by the city council and requesting medical business licenses to set up shop. “It got really hopping,” says DeVries. “We had two clubs, then another popped up, then another and everyone was like, ‘Hey, this is the place to do it.’ Hence the birth of Oaksterdam.”

Most of the clubs and dispensaries were run well, says DeVries, but there was one renegade dispensary named the Dragonfly that ultimately got them all shut down. The owner would sell large amounts of pot to whoever walked through his door, DeVries says. “He had a doctor on site giving recommendations. Upstairs you’d get your doctor’s note, and downstairs you’d get your weed,” says DeVries. “It was so bad, they made his street a one-way street just in terms of traffic control.”

It became hard to ignore the fact that many of the people visiting these clubs didn’t really need “medical” marijuana. And even though downtown Oakland had sprung to life, many residents at the time believed it had just been converted into a drug bazaar. The few non-cannabis businesses that did exist downtown at the time found themselves in the middle of people coming and going from drug purchases.

In 2001, city council members decided they needed to regulate what was going on and shut the clubs and dispensaries down. Unlike the federal government, which came in and padlocked the storefronts, the city council members created a permitting process that limited the clubs and dispensaries to four. They also issued rules, such as prohibiting these places from setting up within 1000 feet of a church or school; and charged the clubs and dispensaries licensing fees. When the city council began regulating and permitting the official medical marijuana vendors, many argued this also helped legitimize the sale of the drug.

“Oakland has been the policy brain trust, and the cutting edge as far as pushing the envelope on the policy level,” says DeVries. “I think that was groundwork that we laid in Oakland.” This type of regulation only continued. By 2004, Richard Lee and the group he founded, Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance, had put Measure Z on the Oakland ballot. This measure, proposing new citywide marijuana policy, was the precursor to the statewide Proposition 19. Measure Z mandated that the city tax and regulate the adult use of cannabis, making it a substance comparable to alcohol and tobacco. “We got 65.1 percent of the vote,” says DeVries. “Resoundingly, Oaklanders said yes.”


The sign above Oaksterdam University’s front doors.

Oaksterdam University is the last stop of the walking tour. Founded in 2007, it’s a three-story building, where students can take classes in marijuana politics, horticulture, history, cooking and law. Cannabis plants, their smell musky and minty, fill the corner of one room on the third floor. Some are waist-high, with long, soft, green leaves, while others are seedlings just beginning to sprout. This ambitious instructional enterprise is the first of its kind in the U.S. It’s able to exist because of Oakland’s laws that explicitly decriminalize cannabis.

After Measure Z passed in 2004, the city council pledged to tax and regulate the adult use of cannabis as soon as possible under California law and also established that “private adult marijuana offenses” would be the lowest police priority in Oakland. Then in June 2009, Oakland voters passed Measure F, which allowed the city to tax its medical marijuana clubs and dispensaries—a measure that most marijuana advocates, like Lee, supported.

“This is to make sure dispensaries are businesses we are proud of,” says Ada Chan, policy analyst for city council member Rebecca Kaplan, “and that they contribute to the community.”  This past July, the city council went one step further and approved its citywide plan for four new large-scale industrial marijuana factories, which will also be taxed and charged licensing fees. It also voted, last week, to increase the number of cannabis dispensary permits from four to eight.

Chan explains that city staff members are encouraged to visit Oaksterdam and learn about the industry. “Rather than looking at this as a nuisance punitive activity, we looking at it differently,” says Chan. “We are looking at it as an economic opportunity.”  Lee says he was thinking along these same lines when he co-wrote Proposition 19, officially calling it the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act and becoming its number one funder.

Although defeated statewide on Election Day, Proposition 19 pulled in with well over 50 percent of Alameda County’s support. In a city that most closely resembles what an adopted version of Proposition 19 might look like, it seems the majority of voters agree full cannabis legalization would benefit the city. “That’s what made Oakland a leader,” Jones says. “It’s the fact that they were willing to take a risk when they saw that this was the right thing to do.”

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Lead image: Marijuana plants growing at Oaksterdam University.


  1. Ernst Berg on November 15, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    As long as Oakland doesn’t think they are the Canna-World for California with another Dry County Initiative.

    I am hosting a Town Meeting on the State level at

    We have the Jack Herer folks linked up already and we need the Prop 19 folks too.
    Now we need to have a consensus on what we are supporting next time not just an Oakland vision of what is right for the State of California.

    5 things I am in favor of so far!

    1: 18 as the age
    2: size of garden is whatever fits 99 plants for you. Horticulture rights Equally for all California Citizens be they in Oakland or Stanislaus county, These rights must not be revocable by law.
    3: Private sales.transfers from California Citizens to California Citizens
    5: One regulatory agency for Taxation on a State level and no local taxes like Rancho Cordova Measure o of $27,000 a year for a 5×5

    So Oakland you are not the center of Cann-Fornia listen to the rest of us this time

    I am hosting a neutral forum come people it!


  2. […] 8 and the Johannes Mehserle trial verdict. She reported on how Oakland became California’s ground zero in the marijuana legalization debate. She covered the day when Mayor Jean Quan was sworn in, and the day when we found out that the […]

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