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Oaksterdam's Richard Lee: Make weed legal like Budweiser, not orange juice

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richard Lee is credited with getting recreational cannabis use on California's ballot
  • Oaksterdam University founder said carjacking led him to join legalization movement
  • To become a viable industry, pot must become part of the establishment, he says
  • Lee: Civil Rights Act did not end racism, nor will pot legalization change all attitudes

Oakland, California (CNN) -- Richard Lee sits before a classroom in Oakland explaining how the term marijuana has racist origins because it was first popularized to make Mexicans appear criminal and sinister.

Lee, credited with almost single-handedly getting a vote to legalize marijuana on California's November ballot, is the founder of Oaksterdam University. Here, students from as far away as Florida and New Jersey learn to grow and market marijuana.

But that's only after completing their core requirements, such as Lee's politics and history class.

"We start off with politics and legal issues. That's a prerequisite," he said. "And then from there, we move on to horticulture, cooking with cannabis, hash-making, bud-tending, management, starting your own business, or incorporating, organizing."

An array of students attend Oaksterdam. Some are interested in the legalization movement. Others want to work in a dispensary or production facility. A few have more entrepreneurial aspirations. The school took in about $1.5 million in tuition last year and is on track to collect $2 million this year.

An activist, entrepreneur and professor, Lee pumped more than $1 million of his own money into collecting the signatures to get adult marijuana use on the ballot.

Video: Welcome to 'Oak-sterdam'
Video: Pot-growing grandmother
Video: Legalizing pot: Who supports it?
Video: Glover, Etheridge: Legalize marijuana

It will take considerably more time and money to see the ballot passed, experts say. Not only do Californian opinions on legalization run the gamut, but experts also expect millions of dollars in special interest money to have an effect on public opinion.

"Like any issue you're going to have, everybody has their own opinion. You try to come to a consensus and compromise. That's politics," Lee said.

What follows is a question-and-answer session with Lee. It has been edited for flow and length.

Why was it so important to do it this year?

Because we need to end cannabis prohibition as soon as possible. We need to get the people out of prison who shouldn't be there. We need to stop the unnecessary violence, like the violence down in Mexico, the environmental damage. We need to prioritize our police. We need law enforcement to be going after the real criminals. Oh, and we need the tax money, too.

The state has estimated it could collect $1.4 billion in taxes if marijuana were legalized. Too high or too low?

That only covers the sales taxes and excise taxes, but there's lots of other taxes. There's payroll taxes, not to mention the other businesses, such as Oaksterdam University here. ... Over half of our weekend seminar classes are people from other states. So those people are all renting hotel rooms and buying food and transportation, so that's more jobs that are created and more taxes that will be collected. When I go to Amsterdam, I spend more on taxis and hotels than I do on cannabis.

How did you get involved with the legalization movement?

I was the victim of a carjacking and then the police response time was very slow, and that made me as mad as the carjacking. So I started thinking about what could be done to get better law enforcement. And that's when I thought about cannabis prohibition wasting our law enforcement, that the cops are out there looking for people like me and my friends, who don't want to hurt anybody, instead of going after the real sociopaths and predators.

What's the purpose of Oaksterdam?

Well, it's a couple things. One was to promote the idea of a legitimate cannabis industry, that it's not just a few people giving it away to a few sick people to make them feel better. This is like other medicine and other industries, a real industry that creates real jobs.

The other thing is to train people, teach people about how to do it right. We saw there were a lot of people who wanted to get involved, who wanted to get into the politics and help end cannabis prohibition, but they didn't know how. ... They wanted to start a dispensary or work at a dispensary, but they didn't know anything about it, so we saw the need for training.

Referendum Highlights
California will vote on the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 in November. Among the referendum's provisions, it:

• Allows people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.
• Allows for the cultivation, in plots no larger than 25 square feet, and transportation of marijuana for personal use.
• Enables local governments to tax the estimated $15 billion in marijuana transactions each year.
• Allows local governments to maintain prohibitions on marijuana, much like a dry county would alcohol.
• Permits the legislature to develop a statewide regulatory system for commercial cannabis.
• Bans public consumption, possession on school grounds, smoking in front of minors and providing marijuana to those younger than 21.
• Maintains prohibitions against driving under the influence of drugs.

Source: Tax Cannabis 2010

There has long been an anti-establishment vibe surrounding marijuana, but it seems you're trying to make it part of the establishment. Is that true?

Sure. It's a legitimate business, legitimate industry like other ones. Just like the alcohol industry is a real business, whether it's made illegal or not. All that does is increase crime, as we saw with alcohol prohibition. It just led to Al Capone and Chicago-style drive-by murders, drive-by shootings, which is just what we have now, right?

Why is it important to be part of the establishment?

If we're going to change the laws and end prohibition, we need a majority of the voters to be for it. And that means that we're going to have to work with the current political and economic structure that's here.

How do you do that specifically?

We are big supporters of local charities and other things going on, such as the Fox Theater renovation. We were the No. 2 donor to that. We have a plaque in the sidewalk next to Bank of America, the No. 1 donor. And we donate to other charities, such as charter schools and senior associations. Member of the Rotary Club. The Chamber of Commerce came and helped us with the ribbon-cutting for the new school location here.

How are your interactions with the Oakland police?

The local Oakland police officers are very supportive. They know that we've helped improve the neighborhood and that we aren't causing problems -- if anything, that we're part of the solution. And so we've always gotten a lot of support from them.

Describe this part of Oakland before Oaksterdam set up shop.

There were a lot of empty storefronts, and homeless people sleeping in the doorways. It was very empty. I remember when I first opened the Bulldog Coffee Shop in '99, I didn't know where any of the parking garages were around here because you could park on the street right in front. Now you can't find a parking space. You have to use the parking garage because all the street parking is so full.

Is economic revitalization a handy tool in selling the movement?

When you talk to the neighbors around here ... they love us. We bring in lots of traffic. We bring in lots of business. Lots of our customers go there and buy stuff. ... The Oakland city administrator has done two reports that the cannabis dispensaries have caused very little problems. They've caused much less problems than the places with alcohol permits.

Even if it is legalized, there will be people against it and cities that refuse to take part?

Not to get into a rant here, but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not end racism. It only ended the laws that encouraged or validated racism, right? But even after we get rid of the laws against cannabis, there's still going to be people who are against it no matter what the law is. I see this as like turning around a supertanker. It doesn't turn on a dime and so the laws are just one part of changing the culture that's prejudiced and bigoted against cannabis consumers.

There's a big difference between legal like Budweiser and legal like orange juice.
--Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee
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Give an example of government regulations that help the industry.

I think it's already happening with medical marijuana, where you see, for instance, zoning, reasonable zoning just like we have zoning for liquor stores and bars. We don't have those open up right next to elementary schools.

So I think reasonable regulations like we have for alcohol will get more people to understand the difference between prohibition and regulation because some people are confused. They think that legalization means it's going to be free and legal, vending machines in the elementary schools, things like that. There's a big difference between legal like Budweiser and legal like orange juice.

What about the black market? We still have one for alcohol almost 80 years after prohibition.

How many moonshiners are there, though? You don't hear much about violence between moonshiners shooting it out for street corners.

If the ballot passes in November, what --

When the ballot passes, when it passes.

OK, when the ballot passes in November, what do you see happening across California?

Loud cheers by all the people who have always seen this as hypocritical and unfair and unjust -- that alcohol is legal, not only legal but advertised on television and radio to kids during sports programming. Meanwhile, we say we have to lock people up for cannabis. So the big thing will be moving us one step closer to changing federal law.