Pubdate: Mon, 16 Nov 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Sara Solovitch


Jean Kennedy has a BS in biology and a master's in special education. 
Now, she's trying to decide what to do with her third degree: a 
certificate of achievement from Oaksterdam University, the Harvard 
Business School of marijuana.

"I'm Italian," said Kennedy, 56, a retired high school biology 
teacher with graying hair and a heavy New York accent. "You know 
Italians, we grow tomatoes. Maybe I'll grow some plants."

Horticulture 102 is one of the many subjects Kennedy studies at 
Oaksterdam, whose storefront campus is set amid the hip cafes, 
restaurants and cannabis dispensaries of downtown Oakland. Founded in 
2007, the school sees itself as a training ground for citizen 
advocates in the fight to legalize marijuana.

Oaksterdam is rebounding after a 2012 raid by the federal government, 
which deems marijuana a Schedule 1 illegal drug, the same category as 
cocaine and heroin. Federal agents, many of them masked and armed, 
broke down the doors of the school with battering rams and 
sledgehammers, carting away an estimated 60,000 cannabis plants and 
scattering the school's terrified faculty and students.

The university was devastated by the raid, which Oaksterdam founder 
Richard Lee dismissed as a "last-ditch effort" by federal authorities 
to enforce marijuana laws that were out of step with the times. 
Medical marijuana was approved by California voters in 1996. In the 
years since the raid, four states and the District of Columbia have 
legalized pot, making marijuana a legitimate business in parts of 
America, worth an estimated $3.5 billion a year.

Still, as Oaksterdam preaches the gospel of pot entrepreneurism, its 
history offers a lesson in harsh reality. Robert Raich, a lawyer who 
has twice argued legalization cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, 
makes that lesson explicit in Cannabusiness 102, where he warns 
students of the risk inherent in cultivating a Schedule 1 drug.

"Until the federal government changes the Controlled Substances Act," 
Raich said, "I teach how to create defenses against possible hostile 
action by the government."

Business at Oaksterdam is booming despite that risk. Today, the 
school employs 20 staff members and 150 instructors, including some 
of the biggest stars in the cannabis universe. Debby Goldsberry 
co-founded the Berkeley Patients Group medical cannabis collective, 
and Ed Rosenthal is often cited as the world's leading authority on 
marijuana cultivation. The Oakland lecture hall holds 50 students and 
every seat is paid for.

The school is also branching out to satellite locations. There is a 
new campus in the works in Las Vegas, where two four-day seminars 
sold out this year, with 250 students paying as much as $995 apiece.

Last month, the school conducted a conference in Orlando, where about 
300 doctors and nurses earned continuing education credits after 
learning to use cannabis to treat an array of medical conditions, 
including glaucoma and glioblastoma.

And the school routinely advises politicians from places including 
California and Jamaica on topics such as how to appraise applications 
for medical marijuana and dispensary licenses, and how to promote 
marijuana research and development.

At the main campus, the walls display photos of the school's 23,000 
graduates, who range in age from 18 to 65 and represent every state 
and 30 countries. Last month, about 30 California lawmakers drove 
from Sacramento for lectures on taxation and regulation, studying up 
for the possible passage next fall of an initiative that would 
legalize marijuana for recreational use.

Aseem Sappal, the school's provost and dean, said he wants to build 
Oaksterdam's credibility as a serious institution of higher learning.

"We have high school grads sitting next to oncologists and city 
council members. We have senators, governors, former congressmen - 
this is who we're working with," Sappal said. "We have skepticism 
because it's a big joke, people just smoking pot. But the country is 
moving in this direction for a reason."

As the legalization movement grows, Oaksterdam is even attracting 
students who say they have never smoked pot. One is Kennedy, the 
retired biology teacher, whose primary interest is in the plant's 
medicinal benefits.

"My own sister thinks I've lost my mind," she said. "But these are 
not crazy people. These are not potheads. When you come here, you see 
it: These are businesspeople."

Kennedy is enrolled in the Classic Semester - 35 credit hours of 
basic and advanced classes during which an instructor lectures on the 
history and politics of cannabis, the plant's nutritional and water 
requirements, its medical benefits, culinary delights and methods of 
ingestion. (A Classic Semester lasts 14 weeks and costs about $1,200.)

There are also classes on economics, business management, legal 
rights and cannabusiness. One of the messages implicit in an 
Oaksterdam education is that there is a lot of money waiting to be made.

"But it has to be done in a responsible, politically astute way," 
stressed Chris Conrad, who lectures on cannabis history and politics. 
He is the author of several books on cannabis and hemp, and he has 
testified as an expert witness on the subjects in hundreds of state, 
federal and military trials.

"Oaksterdam has helped people understand that cannabis is just 
another business," he said. "They don't let you sell a hamburger 
without a license, and they won't let you sell marijuana without a license."

That makes sense to Chris Bergan, 22. About a year ago, Bergan 
dropped out of West Chester University in West Chester, Pa., to go 
into medical marijuana delivery.

"Business took off, and I started making way more than I would ever 
have with my English degree," said Bergan, who runs his business 
entirely on his iPhone.

Oaksterdam offers a superior education as well, Bergan said.

"Over the last month, I've learned more about something I've been 
consuming since I was 14 than in all the years in between. It's an 
incredible education. Did you know that there are 22,000 
peer-reviewed studies on marijuana in the medical literature? I had no idea."

The business potential of pot looms large at Oaksterdam. Australia is 
on the verge of approving medical marijuana. Canada is expected to 
legalize recreational use for adults. And a new study by CBRE 
Research, a commercial real-estate research company, shows that pot 
has powered the Denver real-estate market since Colorado legalized 
marijuana last year: More than a third of industrial space leased in 
the city is now used for marijuana cultivation.

Bergan says he hardly knows which prospects to pursue first. Whatever 
he decides, Oaksterdam says it is there to help.

"You have no idea how many people come here and end up going into 
partnership with someone they meet," Sappal said. "If there's a 
student in a class of 50 who's an electrician, that's a tremendous 
opportunity for networking. Because when you have an indoor grow, 
who's going to set it up? You want someone who's friendly."

When Lee founded Oaksterdam in 2007, there was no place like it in 
America. A paraplegic who smoked pot to prevent leg spasms, Lee was a 
strong advocate for legalizing, regulating and taxing medical marijuana.

Then he went to Amsterdam, where he noticed "a teaching thing called 
Cannabis College, a little cultivation place next to one of the seed 
companies." Back in Oakland, he placed a classified ad in the back of 
an alternative newspaper and, "as soon as the paper hit the racks, 
the phone started ringing."

Thus, Oaksterdam - an amalgam of Oakland and Amsterdam - was born.

The school quickly grew to include 100 instructors on a 
30,000-square-foot campus. But it also became a federal target. To 
save Oaksterdam - and himself - Lee cut off all involvement with the 
school and its related businesses, which include a dispensary and a 
plant nursery.

Although Oaksterdam never closed, it lost its lease and was forced to 
relocate from its old three-story building to a much smaller 
storefront. Its staff shrank overnight from 53 to three.

Ultimately, no charges were filed against Lee or the university. 
These days, he mostly works alongside his mother, Ann Lee, who in 
2012 founded Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition.

And the school is so much a part of local politics that Oakland Mayor 
Libby Schaaf (D) held a fundraiser at Oaksterdam a few weeks before 
her election last year. Meanwhile, students are once again pouring in 
from all across the nation.

On a recent morning, instructor John Geluardi addressed 42 students 
in a lecture hall crowded with grow tents packed with pungent plants 
under full-spectrum lights. When Geluardi asked how many people were 
from California, three students raised their hands.

Geluardi is a journalist and the author of "Cannabiz: The Explosive 
Rise of the Medical Marijuana Industry." He teaches economics, 
predicting boom times to come if marijuana is legalized and taxed nationwide.

But those riches will be harder to realize until Congress changes the 
Controlled Substances Act, Geluardi said.

"Federal law makes it very difficult to do business. If you're 
running a medical cannabis dispensary, you're always on tenterhooks," 
he told his students.

"Becoming a white market economy," he said, would be "cannabis heaven."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom