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Richard Lee, Founder of Oaksterdam U 

Keeping his head down, seeking workable avenues for reform

Thursday, Dec 8 2011
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Richard Lee, 48, has been described as America's first legal-marijuana millionaire, although he lives in a one-bedroom apartment and drives an old car.

In 1992 he co-founded a hemp store in his native Texas. Lee moved to Oakland in 1997, where he co-founded the Hemp Research Company, supplied cannabis to the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Club and researched cannabis horticulture. He opened several outlets including the Bulldog, Coffeeshop Blue Sky and a gift shop and nursery in a run-down part of town.

In 2003 Lee founded the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance. That group helped pass Oakland's Measure Z, which made the private sale, cultivation and possession of cannabis the lowest law enforcement priority in the city and mandated that Oakland tax and regulate cannabis. Since 2005, Lee has served on the Oakland Cannabis Regulation and Revenue Ordinance Commission.

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Lee also is president and founder of Oaksterdam University (oaksterdamuniversity.com), which offers many cannabis-related classes.

The Harvard-influenced school seal includes marijuana leaves, with veritas replaced by cannabis.

With federal and local authorities seemingly launching an all-out anti-marijuana campaign, we asked him where he sees the battle going.

L.A. WEEKLY: You're best known for spearheading Proposition 19, which attempted to legalize marijuana possession in California in 2010. Reportedly, you put $1.5 million of your own money into the campaign.

RICHARD LEE: Yes, I'm a "former millionaire." I always thought the money was for the war effort, not mine.

With the decriminalization of possession signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the relatively easy availability of medical marijuana, do you still think legalization is important?

Definitely. We see lots of problems from semi-legalization. You have an agricultural crop grown in residential areas where it doesn't fit, people growing in backyards and annoying the neighbors, all the prohibition violence, people going to prison, getting harassed. What we have now is the cops playing doctor: "You don't look sick to me."

Are you involved with legalization efforts on the 2012 ballot?

No. I support them all. Right now there are four, including Regulate Like Wine (regulatemarijuanalikewine.com), the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act of 2012 (sensiblecalifornia2012.org) and a couple others. I don't have any money. I also bring baggage — a lot of growers came out against Proposition 19.

I've never been a real lover of politics. I do it because I have to.

Tell us about something you do care about: Oaksterdam University.

We've had more than 15,000 students, with about 200 in weekly classes. A lawyer comes in to teach the law class, which is a prerequisite before they can go on to the fun stuff like hash-making, bud-tending, cooking and the business of operating a dispensary.

More than half of our students are from out of state, many from states where it's not legal, so they're ready when it happens.

Where are we today in terms of medical marijuana in California?

There's been a lot of backlash, especially down south where you have a different culture. L.A. has been a little more of a Wild West scene.

What do you think will be the impact of the recent Riverside ruling that appears to allow cities to use zoning laws to ban dispensaries?

I'm not sure. We already have the wet/dry county model, with pot more welcome in certain cities like Oakland that tax it and use it to bring in jobs. Other places don't want it, but over time more places will become "wet." Even to this day there are dry counties in Texas, where you can possess alcohol but can't buy it. So there are county-line liquor stores where you can drive to pick it up. To a certain degree, that's the way it has been [with pot] and will be the way it is until federal law changes.

I don't think L.A. really wants to outlaw dispensaries. It's been a regulatory mess. ... They're still learning how to regulate. There's the big problem with federal law.

Why do you think the Obama administration, which many medical marijuana advocates had high hopes for, is cracking down?

For the first time, the CAMP [Campaign Against Marijuana Planting] seizure numbers fell in half instead of doubling. The pot wasn't being grown in the national forests but on rented farmland in the San Joaquin Valley and under medical marijuana auspices in various counties. So it has local law enforcement's attention and they're fighting back.

It's prejudice and bigotry. Law enforcement is the only really organized group against legalization. The initiatives by the feds are done in conjunction with sheriffs and [district attorneys]. I don't think Obama knows or cares. He's not worried about losing votes in California, is he?

How can ordinary medical marijuana users fight against local and federal attacks on their rights?

I think it's time to talk about adult legalization, not just medical marijuana. The California Medical Association came out for legalization, and polls say more than 50 percent of Americans support it.

Legalization doesn't change the numbers. The same people are smoking, it's just a question of whether it creates jobs that pay taxes and health insurance.

In Oaksterdam, we've used it to revitalize an area, cut crime and prioritize our law enforcement.

In addition to creating crime, prohibition is counterproductive. Kids want to consume cannabis because of the forbidden-fruit aspect.

What about government tactics like pressure on landlords and through the IRS?

In San Diego, juries acquitted dispensary operators. So they're bringing IRS and landlord pressure now rather than prosecution — because of government concern they might not win in court. James Dean Stacy got probation rather than have the government take him to go to trial. [Stacy, who faced up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of cultivating marijuana, instead is serving two years of federal probation.] But I don't want to taunt the opposition. I realize they can crush me like an ant whenever they want.

So is the glass half-empty or half-full?

Even without changing federal law, we can do a lot on the local level. In Oakland, 65 percent voted for Measure Z.

I like to watch war movies, so for me it brings up the Churchill quote, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

We haven't made much progress legally. Culturally, we have. Six years ago there were no cities permitting and taxing; now there are several. A medical marijuana bill, H.R. 1983, had 18 co-sponsors, just 3 percent of the House. But six years ago, we had no bill and no co-sponsors. There are two Republican presidential candidates for legalization, Gary Johnson and Ron Paul.

The laws and reality are way far apart. Either reality is going to go back to what the laws say or the law is going to catch up with reality. I'm betting on the latter.

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