“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.
A grow tent has different strains of cannabis plants used for demonstration purposes. (Peter DaSilva/For The Washington Post)
Oaksterdam is rebounding after a 2012 raid by the federal government, which deems marijuana a Schedule 1 illegal drug, the same category as 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.”
Solovitch is a freelance writer.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified cocaine as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin and marijuana. Cocaine is listed under the federal Controlled Substances Act as a less-dangerous Schedule 2 drug. The story also overstated the number of industrial leases in Denver dedicated to marijuana cultivation. Between 2009 and 2014, a third of new industrial leases were devoted to that purpose.