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10 Years of Higher Learning

America’s first “cannabis college” is right here in the Bay Area, and about to celebrate a full decade of teaching the green arts of medical marijuana.

Oaksterdam University, located on Telegraph Avenue in Uptown Oakland, will launch another batch of ganja graduates into the cannabis industry at its annual commencement ceremony and 10-year anniversary celebration later this month.

Oaksterdam is now a successful institution running cannabis seminars all over the country. But the 10 years haven’t always been easy, and Oaksterdam has survived a series of sticky run-ins with police, the DEA, and the IRS. The school’s roots trace to California’s original medical cannabis law, Prop. 215, which voters passed in 1996. Medical marijuana was suddenly legal — but dispensaries weren’t. There was absolutely no mechanism for legal cannabis sales in the late 1990s. Medical card holders could legally possess marijuana, but they effectively couldn’t buy it. Very few patients were willing or capable of successfully growing marijuana plants, so most of them still had to buy their weed from illegal street dealers.

Oaksterdam identified the need and planted the seed.

Back then, it wasn’t called Oaksterdam. There were a couple outlaw dispensaries, like the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective and the Berkeley Patients Group, purposefully flouting the federal government by selling cannabis to people who needed it. They were trying to legitimize medical marijuana transactions, and in George W. Bush’s America, the federal government regularly hauled their asses to court.

A 2001 case over the shuttering of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective went all the way to the U.S Supreme Court — which ruled 8-0 against the dispensary — so cannabis activist and AIDS patient Jim McClelland started an underground dispensary, The Zoo.

The name “Oaksterdam” didn’t come from the school. The term comes from a strain of weed called “Oaksterdam Goo,” a term McClelland coined. Oakland’s Measure Z essentially

legalized dispensaries within the city in 2004. The Zoo would be joined by fellow outlaw dispensaries that opened within a few blocks. The neighborhood was nicknamed Oaksterdam, and those dispensaries would come together to form the cannabis college of the same name.

Oaksterdam University was founded in 2007 by Richard Lee, a rock concert light technician who’d suffered a severe spinal injury in 1990 that left him a paraplegic. Lee was inspired by a cannabis college he’s seen while visiting Amsterdam, and decided to emulate the same idea back in Oakland.

The first Oaksterdam classes were essentially weekend seminars, with a few advanced level courses on horticulture, packaging, and budtending. A total of 22 people took the courses in November 2007.

By 2009, Oaksterdam University would have thousands of graduates from around the world.

Lee would become the driving force behind Prop. 19, a 2010 statewide ballot measure that was the initial attempt to legalize recreational marijuana use to all Californians — with or without a medical card. That proposition just barely failed, but it laid the groundwork for the eventual passage of the Prop. 64 that legalized adult use in 2016.

Meanwhile, Oaksterdam University was still hosting monthly Sunday block parties and became recognizable for the gigantic, 7,300-square-foot, green-on-white block-letter painting at Broadway and 17th Street that said “Oaksterdam University” alongside the school’s shield-shaped logo. The Oakland Planning Commission had generally been receptive to Oaksterdam University, but they were not receptive to this.

The Planning Commission declared that it was clearly an advertisement, not a mural, and therefore ran afoul of city law, ordering the sign be painted over.

A beautiful new mural by R.B. Morris III and Munir Munir went up in 2011 celebrating the revitalization of the neighborhood once called Oaksterdam. The colorful new painting was a neighborhood centerpiece, showing the Oaksterdam logo and a scholar reading from a marijuana textbook, but also featuring landmarks like the Fox Theater marquee, the Oakland Tribune clock tower — and, of course, an oak tree.

Regrettably, the mural was a constant target for taggers, and was painted over in all-white in December 2012. At that point, though, the mural was the least of Oaksterdam University’s worries.

When federal agents famously raided Oaksterdam on the morning of April 2, 2012, the feds didn’t just raid the school. They also raided Lee’s home and all of his retail businesses. The squeeze was on, and Lee quit the cannabis business to focus on beating the rap.

Though it was widely reported as a Drug Enforcement Agency raid, the raid on Oaksterdam was primarily an IRS operation with some DEA agents and U.S. Marshals involved. They seized marijuana plants, computers, and all student records, sending a huge panic through the Oakland cannabis scene.

But that raid was essentially a glorified audit, primarily meant to pinch more money from Lee. Only one criminal charge came out of it: KPFA reporter Jose Gutierrez was charged for scuffling with a federal agent. Gutierrez would be sentenced to five years probation and 300 hours of community service, but not one person ever served jail time over the Oaksterdam raid.

Oaksterdam University was forced to move out of the location, and faced a deeply uncertain future. The damage was done — until it was undone by the remaining Oaksterdam University faculty.

Executive chancellor Dale Sky Jones took over as President and CEO of Oaksterdam to ensure the institution’s survival. The school would find a new home just a half-block from its old home, and now thrives at Telegraph Avenue and 17th Street.

More than 30,000 students have now taken courses at Oaksterdam University, and the school serves as a model for legal cannabis courses that fully accredited universities have begun to adopt.

And founder Richard Lee is undaunted and back in the game. Lee will deliver the keynote address at Oaksterdam’s 10 Year Anniversary Celebration later this month.

Since those outlaw days of 2007 and the frightening raid of 2012, legal marijuana has become a $6 billion industry in the U.S. But it was Oaksterdam that planted the seeds, and much of that success stems from its 10 years of risk-taking and career-making.

The Oaksterdam University
10-Year Anniversary Celebration,
Saturday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m. at
the Scottish Rite Center, 1547
Lakeside Drive, Oakland;
oaksterdamuniversity.com.