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How Oaksterdam Helped Shape Cannabis As We Know It

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By Sevada Hemelians

Attitudes and laws regarding cannabis have changed drastically throughout the state and the country in recent years. It would be remiss not to acknowledge the part Oaksterdam played in that evolution.

Growing, processing and the way cannabis is used has been heavily influenced by the actions and commitment of individuals leading Oaksterdam University and other cannabis-based educational institutions. 

The educational facility actively garnered support from the general public through education and outreach efforts going back to 1995. The institution became official in 2007 and since then, the organization has been committed to legitimizing cannabis use for medical and recreational purposes. 

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s classification of marijuana as a “Schedule 1” drug posed a constant threat of severe legal penalty for cultivation, sale and use of the herb. Oaksterdam set out to limit the law’s heavy hand on the substance.

By lifting the law, medical professionals would be free to prescribe cannabis to their patients, parents would not have their kids taken for responsible use and streets would be safer. 

Oaksterdam University. Photo by helloandyhihi/Flickr.

Cannabis activist and Houston import Richard Lee masterminded Oaksterdam University, but that came after years of attempts to break through legal barriers with hemp research and cannabis-focused coffee shops. In 2003, he formed the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance, which was responsible for passage of Oakland’s deprioritization bill, known as Measure Z.

“Oaksterdam” first popped up as a quarterly newsletter run out of one of his coffeeshops, until he received a cease and desist letter that forced his mission back into the shadows to some degree. But the retrieval would not last.

A trip to Amsterdam in 2006 inspired what we would later come to know as Oaksterdam University, with the goal to “legitimize the business and work to change the law to make cannabis legal.” 

The university was officially born in 2007 with an ad in the East Bay Express, which read:

“Cannabis Industry, Now Hiring.”

He taught the first group of students in a tiny 15th Street storefront. The school and the area would later grow to be the heartbeat of the cannabis legalization movement.

It’s since been a long road of starts and stops with attempts for taxation and regulation ballot measures, rescheduling efforts and a push for a federal banking system in the industry. Much of that work is still to be done, but we have come a long way and in part, due to Lee’s commitment to the cause.

As the state was experiencing huge debts in 2009, the possibility of cannabis taxation became attractive to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who  called for a debate on marijuana and its legalization.  

Around the same time, a Harvard economist calculated that prohibition actually cost about $13 billion yearly. 

Through the revelations, OU continued along in their mission to educate the people. Investors were beginning to show interest when the federal government saw fit to conduct a raid on the university and associated businesses around them. 

In 2012, the DEA, IRS and the U.S. Marshall conducted an attack on the Oaksterdam Museum and the affiliated Blue Sky Coffee Shop. 

Oaksterdam mural. Photo by Eric Golub/Flickr

Operations were at a stand-still for a day. The confiscated assets, including banking accounts, operational records and other essential documentation did not deter the university from reopening less than 48 hours later. 

Although things were starting to shift, the raid made it very apparent that California still had still a long way to go. Lee and the university were up to the challenge and remain in tact today. 

They claim to have trained more than 25,000 students in different aspects of the marijuana industry and pride themselves on being pioneers. 

The school provides a comprehensive curriculum on horticulture that will ensure quality plants with maximum yields. They offer legal studies that provide individuals an advantage in advocacy and in dealing with law enforcement. 

The university continues to introduce and help individuals start their business while venturing into other creative functions, including cannabis cooking courses. 

Even though OU continues to impart knowledge to more people each day, and despite the growing body of research that indicate the herb’s benefits, they still face federal government opposition.

Until cannabis is rescheduled, the fight between state and federal law will continue. Oaksterdam University remains up for the fight.


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