OAKLAND Multiple federal agencies unleashed raids Monday on the home and businesses of one of California's most famous marijuana advocates, Richard Lee, founder of the renowned cannabis industry trade school known as Oaksterdam University.
Lee, who spent $1.6 million to bankroll Proposition 19, an unsuccessful 2010 measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use, was neither arrested nor charged.
But federal authorities from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Marshals Service swooped in early Monday, targeting five locations, including the school on this city's Broadway that has trained 15,000 people in marijuana cultivation and careers since opening in 2007.
Other locations raided were Lee's Oaksterdam Blue Sky marijuana dispensary, his home and two downtown storefronts he leased.
Amid a continuing federal crackdown on medical marijuana businesses in California, Monday's raids touched a nerve in downtown Oakland, where the Oaksterdam district serves as the activist heart for one of America's most marijuana-friendly cities. As word of the raids spread, scores of people descended upon the streets outside Oaksterdam to protest the government's actions.
Lee, dubbed "the mayor of Oaksterdam" as he became a familiar sight propelling his wheelchair between his cannabis school and other businesses, said he couldn't comment on the raids. But others spoke out angrily as federal agents hauled out trash bags, containing what looked like marijuana plants grown at the university.
"What a sad day it is to see American agents going in and raiding a university," said Steve DeAngelo, executive director of the Harborside Health Center, an Oakland dispensary that bills itself as the largest medical marijuana outlet in the world. "They didn't distribute cannabis at this university. They distributed knowledge.
"It's not a coincidence they went after Richard Lee," DeAngelo added. "They are trying to silence him."
Special Agent Joycelin Barnes, from the DEA's San Francisco office, said she couldn't comment on the government's actions or the nature of the probe. "Everything is under seal. There is no information that I can give out," Barnes said.
Arlette Lee, an IRS spokeswoman for Northern California, confirmed agents were at Oaksterdam as part of an investigation but also declined to offer details.
Protesters crowded around federal agents and Oakland police, blocking the entrance of Oaksterdam's 30,000- square-foot campus as handcuffed employees were detained inside. The employees were released later Monday.
"Shame! Shame!" and "DEA, go away!" the crowd chanted.
Some protesters laid down before a caravan of federal vehicles, including SUVs and a rental truck used to load confiscated items. Some lit up marijuana joints. Mira Ingram, 44, moved her motorized wheelchair to block a government pickup.
"We need to stop them from leaving," said Ingram, who said she uses marijuana to treat nerve damage from diabetes.
Dale Sky Jones, Oaksterdam's executive chancellor, said the raids represented "a calculated attack on everybody who was trying to bring the cannabis industry into the light."
"They're going after the leaders of this industry, one by one," she said.
Lee has deep roots in the history of medical marijuana in California. Before opening Oaksterdam and his own dispensary, he worked for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, which was charged with growing and dispensing pot in violation of federal law in 1998.
The club's former operator, Jeff Jones, took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2001 that "no medical necessity exemption" exists for marijuana. Lee called Jones as the federal raids erupted Monday.
"He said 'I'm not arrested, but I don't know what I'm going to do now,' " said Jones, who is married to Dale Sky Jones.
Dan Rush, director of the Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said the union represents about 100 employees at Oaksterdam University, Lee's Blue Sky marijuana dispensary and related businesses. He said the raids threaten the livelihood of workers who earn up to $60,000 a year, plus health insurance and other benefits.
"We're here to stand by our members," Rush said.
Recently, Lee moved his Blue Sky dispensary after San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag threatened to seize the property on the grounds it was distributing marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school. He reopened the business at a former Oaksterdam University site that now houses a hemp and cannabis museum, including exhibits on the history of "the drug war."
"He didn't get in this to be a pot dealer," Jeff Jones said of Lee. "He's in this to change the law. He's not going to back down."