On the corner of Broadway and 17th Street in downtown Oakland, nudged between a Chinese restaurant and a hat shop, Oaksterdam University greets passersby with a life-size cutout of Barack Obama and the sweet smell of fresh marijuana drifting from a back room. Inside, dutiful students flip through thick plastic binders of the day's lessons, which, on a recent Saturday began with "Pot Politics 101," taught by a ponytailed legal consultant who has authored a number of books on hemp. The class breaks for lunch around noon and resumes an hour later, with classes on "budtending," horticulture, and cooking, which includes a recipe for "a beautiful pot pesto." There are 50 students in this class, the majority of them Californians, but some have come all the way from Kansas. In between lectures, the university's founder, Richard Lee, 47, rolls in and out on his wheelchair greeting students, looking the part of a pot-school dean in Converse sneakers, aviator glasses, and a green "Oaksterdam" T shirt.
Locals refer to the nine-block area surrounding the university as Oaksterdam—a hybrid of "Oakland" and the drug-friendly "Amsterdam," where marijuana has been effectively legal since 1976. Nestled among what was once a rash of vacant storefronts, Lee has created a kind of urban pot utopia, where everything moves just a little bit more slowly than the outside world. Among the businesses he owns are the Blue Sky Coffeeshop, a coffeehouse and pot dispensary where getting an actual cup of Joe takes 20 minutes but picking up a sack of Purple Kush wrapped neatly in a brown lunch bag takes about five. There's Lee's Bulldog Café, a student lounge with a not-so-secret back room where the haze-induced sounds of "Dark Side of the Moon" seep through thick smoke and a glass-blowing shop where bongs are the art of choice. Around the corner is a taco stand (Lee doesn't own this one) that has benefitted mightily from the university's hungry students.
An education at Oaksterdam means learning how to grow, sell, market, and consume weed—all of which has been legal in California, for medicinal use only, since 1996. For the price of a half ounce of pot and a couple of batches of brownies (about $250), pot lovers can enroll in a variety of weekend cannabis seminars all focused on medicinal use. But "medicinal" is something of an open joke in the state, where anyone over age 18 with a doctor's note—easy to get for ailments like anxiety or cramps, if you're willing to pay—can obtain an ID card allowing access to any of the state's hundreds of dispensaries, or pot shops. ("You can basically get a doctor's recommendation for anything," said one dispensary worker.) Not all of those dispensaries are legally recognized, however: there's a growing discrepancy over how California's laws mesh (or don't mesh) with local and federal regulations. But Oakland is unique in that it has four licensed and regulated dispensaries, each taxed directly by the city government. This past summer, Oakland voters became the first in the nation to enact a special cannabis excise tax—$18 for every $1,000 grossed—that the city believes will generate up to $1 million in the first year. Approved by 80 percent of voters, and unopposed by any organization, including law enforcement, the tax was pushed by the dispensary owners themselves, who hope the model will prove to the rest of California that a regulated marijuana industry can be both profitable and responsible. "The reality is we're creating jobs, improving the city, filling empty store spaces, and when people come down here to Oakland they can see that," says Lee, who smokes both recreationally and for his health, to ease muscle spasms caused by a spinal cord injury.
The arguments against this kind of operation are easy to tick off: that it glamorizes marijuana, promotes a gateway drug, leads to abuse. Compared with more-serious drugs like heroin, cocaine, or even alcohol, studies have shown the health effects of marijuana are fairly mild. But there are still risks to its consumption: heavy pot users are more likely to be in car accidents; there have been some reports of it causing problems in respiration and fetal development. And, as the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, put it recently, there are a number of medical professionals, and many parents, who worry that the drug's increased potency over the years has heightened the risk of addiction. "It's certainly true that this is not your grandfather's pot," says Mark Kleiman, a drug-policy expert at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, like much of the country, Oakland is suffering economically. The city faced an $83 million budget deficit this year, and California, of course, is billions in the red. So from a public-coffers perspective, if ever there were a time to rethink pot policy, that time is now. Already in Sacramento, there is a legalization measure before the state assembly that the author claims could generate $1.3 billion in tax revenue. And while analysts say it has little hope of passing (it faces strong opposition from law enforcement), the figures prompted even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—who's vetoed every marijuana-related bill to come across his desk—to proclaim, "It's time for a debate." On a federal level, marijuana is still illegal—it was outlawed, over the objections of the American Medical Association, in 1937. But in February, Attorney General Eric Holder stunned critics when he announced that the feds would cease raiding medical-marijuana dispensaries that are authorized under state law. "People are no longer outraged by the idea of legalization," wrote former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown in a recent op-ed. "And truth be told, there is just too much money to be made both by the people who grow marijuana and the cities and counties that would be able to tax it."
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has estimated that the cost of cannabis prohibition is $13 billion annually, with an additional $7 billion lost in potential tax revenue. Even the students at Lee's Oaksterdam University cite the job market as a reason for showing up: one man, there with his 21-year-old son, told NEWSWEEK he'd lost his business in the housing bust; another was looking for a way to supplement his income as a contractor. "Alcohol prohibition, the result of a century-long anti-alcohol crusade, was fairly quickly repealed in part because of the onset of the Great Depression," says Craig Reinarman, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz and the coauthor of Crack in America. "I think we're in a similar situation now, where states are so strapped for money that any source of new revenue is going to be welcomed."
Oakland has become a kind of test lab for what legalized marijuana might look like. City Council member Rebecca Kaplan tells NEWSWEEK that the new tax revenue will help save libraries, parks, and other public services, and that the once destitute area where Oaksterdam now thrives has seen a clear boost. Over the past six years, 160 new businesses have moved into downtown Oakland, and the area's vacancy rate has dropped from 25 percent to less than 5, according to Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency. And while that can't be attributed to Oaksterdam directly, some local business owners believe it's played a key role—particularly as it relates to local tourism. Lee hosts 500 students at Oaksterdam University each month—about 20 percent of them from out of state—and has graduated nearly 4,000 since he opened the school in late 2007, inspired by a "cannabis college" he discovered on a trip to Amsterdam. The Blue Sky Coffeeshop serves about 1,000 visitors a day, half of them from out of town, and neighboring stores say the traffic has helped drive business their way. Regulation, say advocates, has also made consumption safer. They say it gets rid of hazardous strains of the drug, and eliminates the crime that can accompany underground dealing.
Presently, 13 states allow medical marijuana, with similar legalization campaigns underway in more than a dozen others. And a number of cities, such as Oakland and Seattle, have passed measures making prosecution of adult pot use the lowest law-enforcement priority. Now Lee, along with an army of volunteers, has begun collecting signatures for a statewide legalization measure (for Californians 21 and over) that he plans to place on the November 2010 ballot. Backed by former state senate president Don Perata, he's already collected a fourth of the needed 434,000 signatures, and pledged to spend $1 million of his own funds to support the effort.
In California, where voters rule, getting an amendment on the ballot doesn't take much more than a fat wallet, but the amount of attention Lee's campaign has received has drawn attention to just how far American attitudes have changed over the past decade. In April, an ABC/Washington Post survey showed that 46 percent of Americans support legalization measures, up from 22 percent in 1997. And in California, a recent Field Poll showed that 56 percent are already on board to legalize and tax the drug. "This is a new world," says Robert MacCoun, a professor of law and public policy at UC Berkeley and the coauthor of Drug War Heresies. "If you'd have asked me four years ago whether we'd be having this debate today, I can't say I would have predicted it."
The fact that we now are debating it—at least in some parts of the country—is the result of a number of forces that, as MacCoun puts it, have created the perfect pot storm: the failure of the War on Drugs, the growing death toll of murderous drug cartels, pop culture, the economy, and a generation of voters that have simply grown up around the stuff. Today there are pot television shows and frequent references to the drug in film, music, and books. And everyone from the president to the most successful athlete in modern history has talked about smoking it at one point or another. "Whether it's the economy or Obama or Michael Phelps, I think all of these things have really worked to galvanize the public," says Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the coauthor of a new book, Marijuana Is Safer; So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? "At the very least, it's started a national conversation."
That conversation, in some sense, has always existed. In 1972—a year after President Nixon declared his "War on Drugs"—the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse urged Congress to decriminalize possession of marijuana for personal use. That never happened, in part because marijuana regulation has always been more about politics than actual science, say advocates. But these days, the masses, at least in California, seem to be heading toward, shall we say, greener pastures. "This is sort of the trendy thing to do right now, but I also think there's an expectation that the time has come to simply acknowledge the reality," says Armentano. "Hundreds of thousands of Californians use marijuana, and we should regulate this commodity like we do others." It's a fight that's heating up. And the pro-pot crowd in Oakland is ready to light the way.