Pubdate: Mon, 26 Mar 2012
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2012 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht


OAKLAND  For the school renowned as the Princeton of Pot and the 
Harvard of Hemp, the high times have wafted into a downer.

Enrollment has plummeted at Oaksterdam University, the Oakland 
college that since 2007 has attracted 15,000 students to study 
cannabis cultivation and related careers, while boosting commerce in 
one of America's most pot-friendly cities.

The pilgrimage for pot scholarship in Oakland is waning as 
California's four U.S. attorneys wage a crackdown on medical cannabis 
dispensaries. And yet, at Oaksterdam and elsewhere in the city, 
neither fewer students nor heightened federal scrutiny of the 
cannabis business seems to be killing Oakland's vibe for promoting 
the possibilities of pot.

Despite the closing of hundreds of dispensaries elsewhere in 
California, Oakland is doubling down. It is seeking to license four 
new marijuana stores and attract new local pot tax revenue on top of 
the $1.7 million it gets from its four current dispensaries.

And Oaksterdam University  with its leafy green "CAN-NA-BIS crest 
mimicking Harvard's crimson VE-RI-TAS seal  was drawing students last 
week from California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Florida, Washington, 
Puerto Rico and even Japan.

The mere prize of an Oaksterdam diploma was enough for Aats Otoina, 
33, a rice and spinach farmer from Chiba, Japan. His country imposes 
strict penalties for pot possession. Yet Otoina wants to use his 
status as an Oaksterdam grad to lecture on Japan's cannabis 
traditions under the ancient Shinto religion.

"You can't talk about the Japanese spirit without talking about 
marijuana," he said.

Puerto Rican-born Jose Alberto Irizarry enrolled in Oaksterdam's $300 
weekend seminar in cannabis law, cooking and horticulture, convinced 
that marijuana jobs will survive despite federal property seizures of 
California pot outlets.

Irizarry moved to Oakland two weeks ago from Florida. He got a 
California physician's recommendation for cannabis for anxiety and 
sleeplessness, and applied on Craigslist for a job delivering 
marijuana to medical users.

"I'm tenacious," he said. "Where I come from, it is totally illegal. 
I wouldn't be able to get an education like this and a job on a regular basis."

Skittish about exposure, many students who enrolled in the recent 
Oaksterdam seminars would not divulge their full names.

Maya, a Bay Area property manager, said she went to Oaksterdam to 
plot a career producing gourmet cannabis products. She listened 
raptly as professor Sandy Moriarity, acclaimed for "Aunt Sandy's 
Medical Marijuana Cookbook," taught how to prepare savory chicken and 
breaded sole with cannabis flour or butter with just a pinch of hash.

While federal actions target California, Maya said jobs may arise in 
other states that have legalized medical marijuana. "I'm willing to 
take a calculated risk," she said.

Crackdown takes toll

Oaksterdam's enrollment began falling as some California cities 
seemed oversaturated with cannabis businesses. The number of students 
dropped sharply last fall when U.S. attorneys began sending seizure 
notices to dispensary landlords and threatening cultivators. The 
prosecutors claimed California's marijuana industry  supposedly 
nonprofit  had been "hijacked by profiteers" operating in violation 
of both state and federal law.

Oaksterdam once ran seven classes, each with 70 students paying $700 
to $800 a semester. Now, it has one class of 50. Introductory two-day 
weekend programs and advanced seminars in how to run dispensaries 
draw about half the peak attendance of 120 students.

Some students who do sign up want to hear whether they can even 
contemplate cannabis careers in the current climate.

"Hell yes, it freaks me out," said Michael Lewis, 53, referring to 
the federal crackdown. The former U.S. Marine and firefighter at the 
Alameda Naval Air Station, who said he suffers from post-traumatic 
stress and rheumatoid arthritis, helped start a dispensary in 
Placerville in 2005.

Lewis wants to open a Bay Area medical marijuana delivery service. 
But he wasn't getting the assurances he wanted, even as faculty 
members touted the medicinal benefits of cannabis, advocated for its 
legalization and taught how to grow plants glistening with potent 
psychoactive crystals.

James Silva, an Oakland trial lawyer specializing in medical 
marijuana cases, started his Saturday seminar telling his students 
not to talk freely about what they do. "Please don't raise your hands 
and say I'm growing 500 plants in Mendocino," he said.

Lewis winced as Silva said California's 1996 medical marijuana law 
can provide a legal defense to prosecution but won't necessarily keep 
someone from being arrested or convicted for selling pot. Silva 
added: "There is no medical marijuana defense under federal law. Is 
that clear to everyone?"

"This is very, very stressful," Lewis said.

Pot proponent undeterred

Richard Lee, who founded Oaksterdam and bankrolled the unsuccessful 
2010 ballot measure to legalize pot for adult recreational use in 
California, characterized down times for his school and livelihood as 
a mere passage in history.

The landlord for Lee's Coffeeshop Blue Sky dispensary got a letter 
from San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, threatening to 
seize the building unless its marijuana sales ceased within 1,000 
feet of a charter school that had opened years later.

Lee closed his famous downtown Bulldog Coffee Shop, a popular haven 
for marijuana smokers under liberal Oakland laws making pot the 
lowest priority for police. The place had stopped operating as a 
dispensary in 2004, but Lee shut it down anyway when a U.S. 
forfeiture notice scared the building owner.

He moved his one dispensary  now called Oaksterdam Blue Sky  to a 
former college site that now houses a cannabis museum. It features 
hemp product exhibits and a display of turn-of-the century cannabis 
medicine bottles called "Marijuana Before the Drug War."

"I think this thing is just going to be a blip in the overall drug 
war," Lee said of the current battle. "The big thing now is 
legalization is almost here."

His attitude reflects a city where Mayor Jean Quan last week hailed 
Oakland for being in "the forefront of the compassionate-use 
movement" for seeking to license four new dispensaries, even after 
federal threats forced it to junk earlier plans for massive marijuana 
cultivation centers.

But, notably, Oaksterdam's lowest-attended seminars last week were on 
running marijuana dispensaries.

In his "Patients Relations" class, Dave McCullick of the Sonoma 
Patient Group dispensary in Santa Rosa told students to learn enough 
about marijuana varieties to satisfy the "bud snobs." He urged them 
to comfort first-time customers and guide them to less potent pot. He 
also said this isn't the time to give up on dispensary careers.

"I would encourage people to go ahead and open them," McCullick said. 
"We have to keep taking the fight. Revolutions do not go backwards."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom