Magazine article The New Yorker

Pot 101

Magazine article The New Yorker

Pot 101

Article excerpt

The nine-block area of downtown Oakland known as Oaksterdam lacks Amsterdam's trademark tulips, canals, and storefront brothels. The nickname arises from the region's plenitude of medical-marijuana dispensaries and cafes--which stand in nicely for the absent Dutch emblems, as they amalgamate a beloved plant, a means of transport, and a rampant vice. The place has even done Amsterdam one better in exalting marijuana: its Oaksterdam University, which opened in 2007, aims to reposition pot-smoking as both a civil right and as the stuff of empire. The school has already matriculated more than eleven thousand graduates, from dropouts to soccer moms, all well versed in such subjects as Politics & History, Legal Issues, and Methods of Ingestion: Vaporizing.

The university's founder, president, and horticulture professor is Richard Lee, who also owns seven local enterprises that have helped revitalize the once derelict neighborhood, five of them so-called "canna-businesses." Lee, a soft-spoken forty-seven-year-old with a Jimmy Connors haircut, has used a wheelchair since 1990, when he took a bad fall and was paralyzed from the waist down. Over lunch at Jimmy's Snacks and Deli, downstairs from Oaksterdam's classrooms, he explained that after he discovered that marijuana alleviated his post-accident back spasms he became an advocate for its legalization. "I fell into it, right?" he said with a tight grin.

California legalized medical marijuana, in 1996, and Oakland made the drug a matter of "lowest law enforcement priority," in 2004--and just two weeks ago decided to permit large-scale indoor marijuana plantations. Still, the sale or use of the drug remains a federal crime. When asked how he'd avoided arrest, Lee knocked on the metal tabletop and then rapped the plaster wall, seeking the safeguard of wood. "We've got a tremendous amount of local support here," he said. "All three candidates for mayor are for Prop 19"--a Lee-sponsored initiative, on the ballot in November and faring well in the polls, to legalize marijuana statewide--"and our city attorney has even written op-eds for us. Amazing, huh?" Lee argues that legalization will help the police by allowing them to focus on weightier matters, even as it weakens the Mafia: "I mean, come on--didn't Prohibition help Al Capone?"

It's the type of analysis that he's trying to inculcate at the university, with mixed success. (In that morning's Dispensary Management class, several students displayed an acuity more reminiscent of Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli. …

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