Richard Lee, President of Oaksterdam University helped convince Oakland voters to tax medical marijuana dispensaries and make them more legit. Now he’s taking the idea state-wide through the initiative.


October 18th, 2009 – Oakland International Airport may be the nation’s only airport with a specific policy letting users of medical marijuana travel with the drug.oakland-airport-shuttle-pickup

The policy is spelled out in a three-page document quietly enacted last year by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. It states that if deputies determine someone is a qualified patient or primary caregiver as defined by California law and has eight ounces or less of the drug, he or she can keep it and board the plane.

Deputies warn the pot-carrying passengers that they may be committing a felony upon arrival when they set foot in a jurisdiction where medical marijuana is not recognized. But they say they don’t call ahead to alert authorities on the other end.

“We never have. We’re certainly within our right to, but we never have,” said Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office. “Our notification of the passengers is for their own safety and well-being.”

California voters approved medical marijuana use in 1996, while federal law still bans all possession and use.

But Oakland attorney Robert Raich notes the Code of Federal Regulations says a prohibition on operating a civil aircraft with knowledge that there is marijuana aboard doesn’t apply to carrying marijuana that’s “authorized by or under any Federal or State statute.”

The federal Transportation Security Administration does the screening and when marijuana — or any suspected contraband — is found, the sheriff’s deputies are summoned.

Low profile
Oakland’s airport policy was enacted in February 2008, but Raich said he didn’t want to publicize it until recently lest the Bush administration change federal regulations, or lest it become an issue in Obama administration drug officials’ confirmation hearings.

“All other airports in medical cannabis states should have similar policies but they don’t,” he said, adding that he hears San Francisco International and Los Angeles International airports are relatively kind to medical marijuana users while airports in Burbank, Ontario and San Diego are not.

Raich, who has seen two of his medical marijuana cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and has taught Oakland Police cadets about medical marijuana issues, said medical marijuana users generally didn’t have much trouble when Oakland Police used to patrol inside the airport terminals. But that changed when the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office took over in mid-2007. That summer TSA screeners referred to deputies a traveling medical-marijuana user from Washington state.

“The sheriff’s deputies so harassed this person, it was heart-wrenching,” Raich said. “They took his medicine, they broke his bong, they took his edibles. They were threatening him.”

‘Pinball machine’

Raich said he found that the sheriff’s office was unwilling to change its policy. So he consulted various officials including those at the Port of Oakland, which owns and operates the airport.

“I felt like a ball in a pinball machine,” he said. “I felt like I’d talked to every single employee at the port and they all seemed sympathetic but they all told me the same thing: ‘That’s not our policy “… that’s the sheriff doing that on his own.’ ”

Raich eventually went to the Alameda County counsel’s office.

That office “finally told (Sheriff Greg Ahern) he had to comply with California law whether he liked it or not, and only then did he adopt a policy,” Raich said.

“Greg Ahern is out of touch with the people of California who voted for Prop. 215 and medical cannabis in 1996 and have continued to support it by wide margins ever since,” Raich said. Sheriff’s spokesman Nelson said the sheriff “neither supports nor opposes the medical marijuana law.

“He’s had no position on that,” Nelson said. “He’s just trying to do the best he can when a state law conflicts with a federal law.” Source.

October 16, 2009 – A nine-block section of downtown Oakland, Calif., has become a modern marijuana mecca—and a model for what a legalized-drug America could look like. Why the stars are aligning for Picture 22the pro-weed movement.

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-sized 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 sneaker, 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 coffee house 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 an 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 chord injury.

The arguments against this kind of operation are easy to tick off: that it glamourizes marijuana, promotes a gateway drug, leads to abuse. Compared to more serious drugs like heroine, 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 proclaimed that “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 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 greener, shall we say, 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. By Jessica Bennett. Source.

August 24, 2009 – In these tough financial times, states and local municipalities are struggling to find new and creative ways to generate money to close budget gaps.schwarzenegger_smoking_joint

In the state of California, some legislators are turning to another kind of green to generate some that can be spent.

With an estimated $14 billion worth of marijuana being sold in California annually, one state assemblyman sees an opportunity missed and is attempting to smoke out some additional revenue.


On Feb. 23, first-term legislator Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill called the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education act which would create a regulatory structure similar to that used for beer, wine and liquor, permitting taxed sales to adults while barring sales to or possession by those under 21.

“With the state in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the move toward regulating and taxing marijuana is simply common sense. This legislation would generate much needed revenue for the state, restrict access to only those over 21, end the environmental damage to our public lands from illicit crops, and improve public safety by redirecting law enforcement efforts to more serious crimes,” Ammiano said in a press release earlier this year. “California has the opportunity to be the first state in the nation to enact a smart, responsible public policy for the control and regulation of marijuana.”

Since its introduction, the bill has been shelved, although Ammiano said it will be re-introduced in the next legislative session.

Even as the bill’s future is uncertain, the conversation about legalizing marijuana in order to regulate and tax it is ongoing.


In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215 which allowed for medical marijuana to be possessed and used by people with a valid prescription from their doctor. Since then, 12 other states have enacted medical marijuana legislation although specific laws do vary from state-to-state.

In California however, the medical marijuana dispensaries are regulated and taxed at a rate which varies from place to place. Some cities and towns collect fees from the businesses while others don’t, and the businesses are often seen as residing in the shadows, according to Dan Bernath, the assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based lobbying firm.

Oakland voters overwhelmingly approved a measure in July that will increase the tax imposed on the dispensaries from $1.20 per $1,000 in business revenues to $18 per $1,000 under a new cannabis business tax classification, creating an estimated increase of $294,000 in revenue per year.

“It’s not often that you see people coming out to say they want to be taxed, but the dispensaries are eager to pay their fair share,” Bernath said. “They’ve been marginalized in a way and the special tax designation in Oakland finally legitimizes their business.”


In the TV show Weeds, which can be seen on Showtime, a suburban single mother sells marijuana in order to support her two children and pay the mortgage on the home that she and her husband bought before he passed away.

She attends her youngest son’s soccer games and sells bags of marijuana to lawyers, doctors, teachers, city councilmen and others considered society’s most respected and influential.

And despite what some people may believe, that theatrical presentation may not be far from the truth.

“The truth is that there isn’t just one kind of person using marijuana in the U.S. – it’s used mostly by people who are otherwise law-abiding citizens,” Bernath said. “The preconceptions that people have show the general misunderstanding out there about marijuana and who uses it.”

Bernath cited federal surveys which concluded what many were thinking all along – more people are using marijuana than you might think.

“Around 15 million people have said they use marijuana every month, 25 million said they use it every year and over 100 million people said they have used it in their lifetime,” he said. “That’s about 40 percent of the population – not some small group of people.”

And although marijuana use among teenagers is down, according to federal data released over the last few years, the general trend has been a 35-year increase.

“The fact that 85 percent of teenagers said that marijuana was easier to get than alcohol shows that regulation is a better alternative to prohibition,” Bernath said. “Since we started cracking down on asking for I.D. to buy alcohol and cigarettes, the rates of teens using them have declined, and a lot of tax money is being made.”

It has been argued that legalizing marijuana would only drive some users further underground in an attempt to avoid taxation, but Bernath suggests legalization would actually lower marijuana prices – even with a steep tax added on.

“It is not a hard plant to cultivate but when you are at risk from law enforcement for doing so, it increases the price – resulting in an inflated market,” he said. “Legalization would ensure that marijuana is regulated by the government instead of drug dealers, which would mean it has less of a chance of getting to children. And although the tax money wouldn’t be the sole solution to the budget woes everywhere, it would begin collecting money that is out of reach at this point.” By Robert Rizzuto. Source.

July 29, 2009 – SAN FRANCISCO — Oakland pot activists fresh off a victory at local polls on the taxing of medical marijuana took their first official step Tuesday oaksterdam1toward asking California voters to legalize pot.

A proposed ballot measure filed with the California attorney general’s office would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of pot. Homeowners could grow marijuana for personal use on garden plots up to 25 square feet.

The measure’s main backer is Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee, who helped push a first-of-its-kind tax on city medical marijuana dispensaries that passed with 80 percent of the vote last week.

The statewide measure needs nearly 434,000 signatures to make the November 2010 ballot.

“It’s one more pretty amazing element in the momentum toward ending statewide prohibition,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance.

His group would rather wait until 2012 to build more support for a ballot initiative but would be happy with an earlier victory, he said.

A similar but less restrictive pot legalization initiative was filed two weeks ago by a group of Northern California criminal defense lawyers.

The Tax, Regulate and Control Cannabis Act of 2010 would set no specific limits on the amount of pot adults could possess or grow for personal use. The measure would repeal all local and state marijuana laws and clear the criminal record of anyone convicted of a pot-related offense.

Both ballot measures would be competing with a bill introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol.

The San Francisco Democrat is pushing legalization as a way to generate revenue for the cash-starved state from California’s massive marijuana industry. He plans to hold hearings on the legislation this fall. By MARCUS WOHLSEN. Source.

July 26, 2009 – Oakland attracted national attention last week with the country’s first voter-approved medical marijuana business tax — a 15-fold increase that won 424696968_4b9269d301easy victory in a special election Tuesday.

Some supporters — including some operators of the dispensaries that will be taxed — see the measure as a step toward legalizing marijuana. Cities with dispensaries are eyeing the move as a way to fill empty municipal coffers in the wake of crushing local and state budget deficits, and to standardize their approach to medical marijuana outlets.

Other California cities, including Berkeley, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, have all discussed a tax on medical marijuana or have plans to pursue a tax.

“It’s just smart economics,” said San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. His District 5 includes four of the city’s 16 licensed outlets; estimates of overall outlets number as many as 40. “It is a progressive tax on a widespread practice and a readily accessible product.”

California dispensaries generally pay license and registration fees, as well as payroll and state sales tax.

The Oakland pot club levy raises an additional $16.80, for a total of $18, for every $1,000 of medical marijuana sold by taxing overall gross receipts. It could begin generating an additional $294,000 a year for the city when it takes effect Jan. 1.

To impose a similar tax, San Francisco would have to create a gross receipts tax for
pot clubs — a plan that Mirkarimi said he sees coming before supervisors this year.

The board shelved a similar plan 31/2 years ago, he said. But it was encouraged to dust off the legislation because the Obama administration announced that federal agencies would not continue raids in states where the use of medical marijuana has been legalized. Such raids were actively pursued during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The new stance opened up the idea of a tax for other cities, as well. Los Angeles City Council members brought forth a motion July 15 to explore a tax on legal medical marijuana sales.

“A tax on medical marijuana could enable the city to continue providing services we might otherwise have to cut,” Councilwoman Janice Hahn told reporters.

But hurdles remain before the measure can advance, including the need for a permanent ordinance regulating dispensaries, expected to be finalized in October, officials said.

An estimated 600 to 800 dispensaries operate in Los Angeles in addition to the 186 that were registered before a 2007 moratorium.

Berkeley council members also have discussed a motion similar to Oakland’s. But the idea “just hadn’t crystallized,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose District 7 includes a dispensary on Telegraph Avenue.

Likewise, Santa Cruz lawmakers have been receptive to a tax on dispensaries but have no formal plans, Councilmember Mike Rotkin said.

He called the tax a “no-brainer” even though the Santa Cruz City Council is on the verge of approving a temporary freeze on marijuana clubs in the city.

Two clubs are now licensed to operate in Santa Cruz. A few more might be acceptable in the future, but Santa Cruz doesn’t want to become the pot center for the area, Rotkin said.

But having so few clubs would minimize the revenue a tax could generate, he said.

“The tax is just an additional benefit,” Rotkin said. It shows support for medical marijuana, he said.

“And anything that brings back more money to the city will be attractive,” he said, “even if it’s a small amount.”

On the state level, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill this year to legalize and tax marijuana. The bill could generate nearly $1.4 billion in revenue for the cash-strapped state, according to an analysis by California tax officials.

In addition, a group of California criminal defense attorneys submitted a pot legalization measure to the state Attorney General’s Office. The “Tax, Regulate and Control Cannabis Act” needs 443,000 signatures to be included on the November 2010 ballot. The bill is backed by Oakland dispensary operator Richard Lee.

The legislation would not completely resolve the federal-state stalemate over marijuana, which the nation’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, said the federal government will not support legalizing. Kerlikowske, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, made the comments Wednesday in Fresno, where agents seized $1.26 billion worth of pot plants and arrested 82 people in 10 days, according to the Fresno Bee newspaper.

Nationwide, police arrested a record 872,721 people for marijuana violations in 2007, according to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report.

Worthington applauded Oakland for being the first city to pass the medical marijuana dispensary sales tax. The motion to tax Berkeley’s three dispensaries would have to wait until the 2010 election because running a special vote for one measure is too expensive, Worthington said.

He predicted widespread acceptance for a similar measure among Berkeley voters judging by their support for past legislation that eased marijuana laws and the perception that the “war against drugs is a waste of time.” By Angela Woodall. Source.

July 23, 2009 – OAKLAND, California — Oakland’s bid to become the first U.S. city to tax proceeds on medical marijuana passed Tuesday by a landslide vote. About 80 percent of people voting in the Oakland election approved the new medical marijuana

About 80 percent of people voting in the Oakland election approved the new medical marijuana tax.

About 80 percent of voters chose to impose the tax on Oakland’s medical marijuana facilities, according to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters.

Some celebrated the news at Oaksterdam University by hand-rolling large marijuana cigarettes or stuffing cannabis into pipes. The school trains students for work in the medical marijuana industry.

“It is important because the city of Oakland is facing a massive deficit like many jurisdictions in California,” said Steve DeAngelo, a leader of one of the city’s cannabis clubs. “And we decided to step up to the plate and make a contribution to the city in a time of need.”

DeAngelo, one of the people who led the effort to get the tax approved, said his business will now have to pay more than $350,000 from the new tax next year. Video Watch report from CNN’s Dan Simon »

Oakland’s City Council was also behind the move.

“Given that the medical cannabis dispensaries are something that was legalized in California, why not have revenue from it?” said councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.

There was no formal opposition to the effort, but some drug fighters say the tax sends the wrong message.

“The taxation of a federally unlawful drug is just not something that the community should accept,” said Paul Chabot of the Coalition for a Drug Free California. “With the state in dire straits in finances and the country looking for ways to pay down debt, looking at illegal drugs is the absolute wrong thing to do.”

The measure, passed in special mail-in election Tuesday, imposes a 1.8 percent gross receipts tax on the four licensed medical cannabis dispensaries in Oakland.

These facilities would have to pay about $18 in taxes for every 1,000 in marijuana sales. Source.