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  • PAUL KITAGAKI JR. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    In a class at Oaksterdam, horticulturist Ed Rosenthal autographs books he authored on the cultivation of marijuana.

  • PAUL KITAGAKI JR. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    Mike Parker inspects pot plants at Oaksterdam University, where enrollment in seminars on marijuana dispensaries has fallen as federal attorneys move to curtail such businesses. Despite the crackdown, Oakland wants to license four new dispensaries.

Feds' crackdown is a bummer for Oakland marijuana university

Published: Monday, Mar. 26, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 27, 2012 - 9:29 am

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 and competing marijuana schools opened. 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 semester-long classes, each with 70 students paying $700 to $800. Now, it has one semester class of 50, plus specialized sessions in indoor and outdoor growing and cannabis products. 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."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Peter Hecht



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