Oaksterdam University Celebrates Its 10-Year Anniversary 

The Oakland institution has been a leader during the past decade in transforming the cannabis industry.

click to enlarge The anniversary event was also an opportunity to celebrate founder Richard Lee. - PHOTO BY JOHN GELUARDI
  • Photo by John Geluardi
  • The anniversary event was also an opportunity to celebrate founder Richard Lee.

Hundreds of people packed into Oakland's Scottish Rite Center last Saturday to celebrate Oaksterdam University's 10 years of education, activism, and innovation. During the past decade, the trade school has been a leader in transforming the cannabis industry from a scorned, black market activity into a legal profession and a dynamic contributor to California's economy.

The event also featured elected officials who championed pro-medical cannabis legislation over the years, including Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan and former San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. "What are we celebrating? Surviving and striving," said Oaksterdam University Chancellor Dale Sky Jones. "And that's no small thing given how much the government did not want us to survive."

Sky Jones was referring to a federal, multi-agency raid on Oaksterdam University in 2012 in which all of the school's computers and various learning materials were confiscated.

The anniversary also marked a moment in the waning days of pot prohibition in California. And it was an opportunity for Oaksterdam University's administration and faculty to give themselves a well-deserved pat on the back and reflect on the institution's advocacy for those unjustly imprisoned for marijuana-related convictions and for its role in forging pro-cannabis legislation and creating a professional industry. Sky Jones said the university looks forward to its new role as advisor to government agencies on issues of safe-growing practices, communication, and ways to attain mutual goals for government and the industry. "We've graduated 30,000 students from 30 different countries," Sky Jones said. "And now we're beginning to educate some of the same government agencies that once tried so hard to shut us down."

The anniversary event was also an opportunity to celebrate the vision of Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee, a slender, bespeckled Texan who at first glance might be dismissed as geekish, given his Bill Gates-style haircut and an enduring boyish appearance despite being in his mid-50s. Furthermore, Lee suffered a spinal cord injury nearly 30 years ago and has since used a wheelchair. But to dismiss Lee based on appearances would be a colossal blunder. Since arriving in Oakland, he has proven himself to be ambitious, courageous, politically astute, a shrewd entrepreneur, and, perhaps most important, a pioneer.

Lee, who has not been involved with Oaksterdam since the 2012 raid, was presented with the Living Legend Award for his steadfast work in promoting legalization, preparing a generation of cannabis workers, and calling attention to the injustice of pot prohibition. "In 2007, I placed an ad in the East Bay Express and the calls came flooding in from people who were interested in a trade school for cannabis," Lee said. "We had 20 students in our first class and went from there."

Oaksterdam's curriculum includes horticulture, extracts, politics, history, and justice issues. The new school also drew some respected names in the medical marijuana movement to be teachers, including Denis Peron, Jeff Jones, Dale Sky Jones, and Ed Rosenthal. At its height, Oaksterdam had four campuses — Oakland, Sonoma County, Los Angeles, and Michigan.

Lee first arrived in Oakland in 1997, shortly after California voters legalized the medical use of pot with the passage of Proposition 215. Lee started growing weed for a collective, and within two years he was operating a dispensary cafe. The city was open to the medical cannabis industry in a casual way back then, and Lee was effective in working with City Hall to turn Oakland's tacit approval of the new industry into new city laws. Part of Oakland's Uptown district also became known as Oaksterdam.

Part of Lee's success was organizing people to participate as activists at city council meetings. "Essentially, Richard guided patients into becoming active citizens," Sky Jones said. "Not only did he get them to show up at these meetings, but he showed them how to say the right things. That hadn't been done before."

In 2010, Lee turned his attention to legalization and used his savings to put Proposition 19 on the California ballot. He did so against the advice of other industry leaders who said that it would be more prudent to wait until the presidential election of 2012. Lee's proposition was simply written and included protections for the general public by not allowing pot consumption in public places or in front of children in the home. It also allowed local municipalities to decide for themselves if they wanted to allow the cannabis industry into their communities.

The measure failed at the polls, but it won the support of respected police officials, including Joseph D. McNamara, the former San Jose police chief and respected law enforcement innovator, and former Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray. And most important, it won backing from a demographic that had been the most skeptical of legalization: Many mothers were persuaded by Sky Jones who campaigned for Prop. 19 while conspicuously pregnant — a controversial move at the time.

"Prop. 19 established a model for legalization campaigns in Colorado and Washington, which put mothers out front," Sky Jones noted. "And Prop. 19 was simple — five pages — a simplicity a lot of people probably wish for now."

Sky Jones was referring to Proposition 64, a 62-page measure that California voters approved in November 2016, and one that many regard as too restrictive, expensive, and slanted against small businesses and longtime, mom-and-pop cultivators who may be left in the shadows of the black market.

"Prop. 19 shifted the conversation about legalization," Sky Jones said. "For the first time, families could talk about cannabis. It was no longer, 'Son! What are you thinking?!' All of a sudden it was, 'Son, what are you thinking?'"

At the anniversary celebration, Sky Jones announced that Oaksterdam University is also now offering its courses online. 


Disclosure: John Geluardi is a part-time lecturer at Oaksterdam University. 

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