April 16th, 2009 – UNDER A MICROSCOPE, it’s easy to tell really good marijuana from schwag. Look for trichomes. On the best pot, they cluster, thick and crystalline, indicators of potency. If you’re training to become a professional pot dealer, as I was last fall, it’s important to be able to pick out the good stuff. Your livelihood will depend on it. Fortunately, I had expert instruction, along with strains of varying quality to examine for my pedagogical benefit. Ranked from best to worst, they were Blueberry, Grand Daddy Purple, and Mango. Appraising them was, truth be told, slightly nerve-racking, since the assignment was sprung as a sort of pop quiz. It was part of an advanced seminar on growing and selling marijuana in which I had enrolled at the Los Angeles campus of Oaksterdam University, a new trade school founded in Oakland and devoted to the booming business of growing and dispensing medical marijuana. Or, as we liked to call it around campus, “cannabusiness.”
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, a referendum legalizing medical marijuana. Although federal law prohibits the cultivation, sale, or use of cannabis, a series of subsequent state laws and court decisions cleared the way for what has become a thriving industry. Recent studies say that Californians grow more than 20 million pot plants. Their bounty, valued at as much as $14 billion, is distributed to the state’s 200,000 physician-certified users through hundreds of dispensaries, which advertise through billboards, flyers, and even bikini-clad barkers on Venice Beach. Given California’s well-publicized budget crunch, it’s worth noting that legal pot sales generate $100 million in state tax revenue a year. As Don Duncan, the proprietor of dispensaries in Berkeley and Hollywood and an Oaksterdam professor, put it, “Marijuana has evolved from a countercultural experience to an over-the-counter experience.”
A veteran pot activist named Richard Lee founded Oaksterdam in 2007 to serve this new and lucrative trade and add a veneer of respectability to an industry operating in a legal gray area. (The feds have adopted a mostly hands-off policy, though they occasionally swoop in to make an example-setting arrest, like that of the comedian and stoner icon Tommy Chong, in 2003, for running a head shop.) State law requires no formal training to operate a dispensary, so an Oaksterdam degree is more showpiece than necessity.
My introductory class had consisted of two sessions. The first taught the legal and business aspects of running a dispensary and, because the faculty is active in the cannabusiness, emphasized such practical concerns as not getting robbed (keep your stash in a gun safe) and not getting busted (exude good corporate citizenship—incorporate, pay your taxes, join the Chamber of Commerce; Duncan won over suspicious neighbors by cleaning up all the dog poop on the block). Learn your bud: what’s good, what’s bad. Carry a variety of strains, at different price points. Know their effects. For instance, you’ll need to explain to customers that sativas produce a clear, heady high, while indicas cause a drowsier, full-bodied kind of lift (and munchies). You’ll want to sample everything.
The second session was Grow Lab, taught by a reed-thin young man in a kimono shirt, who introduced himself as Joey the Horticulturalist. State law allows patients and caregivers to grow 12 plants, but some localities set higher limits (Oakland, for instance, allows 72), so if you prefer to do without external suppliers, you can grow your own. Joey had assembled a nylon “Hydro Hut,” with lights, ventilator fans, and a grow table—your basic beginner setup. While explaining how everything fit together and how we would plant, grow, and harvest a crop as a class project, Joey effortlessly fielded a series of increasingly technical questions, earning respectful nods. For raw botanical skills, Martha Stewart can’t hold a candle to Joey.
The vibe at Oaksterdam was friendly, but without quite encouraging intermingling. I struck up a conversation with the guy behind me. Balding and bearded, with a ponytail and a tie-dyed shirt, he looked to be about 60 and introduced himself simply as “Hawkeye.” Hawkeye had ambitions to be a large-scale commercial grower—not strictly legal, although I did not sense concern. Yet he was the only cliché-worthy specimen I encountered at pot school. My 30 or so classmates encompassed every age, gender, and ethnicity; paid careful attention; and asked pointed, intelligent questions. Save for perhaps a slight overrepresentation of piercings and tattoos, nothing indicated an unusual field of study. The atmosphere of purposeful endeavor was like what you might find at a night-school business class of aspiring franchisees.
This is fitting, because Oaksterdam has big ambitions. Richard Lee hinted at them when he founded the school, by creating a seal, or, more accurately, remodeling one—Harvard’s, actually, the Latin VERITAS replaced by CANNABIS and the oak clusters swapped for marijuana leaves. Like the great universities, Oaksterdam seeks to imbue its students with a vision of the world and the zeal to go forth and change it. As Ilia Gvozdenovic, Oaksterdam’s sallow, 20-something chancellor, explained, the aim is to mold a generation not just of pot dealers but of pot idealists, comrades in the struggle against federal persecution. So, really, Oaksterdam is less like Harvard and more like the University of Chicago, only with the complaint against government intervention in the market confining itself specifically to the market for cannabinoids.
Not convinced? You need to think with an open mind. And I can help you there—I’m a trained professional.