Reporting from Oakland — Richard Lee rolled his wheelchair up the ramp and glided onstage, steering himself to a table draped in a green cloth with "Oaksterdam University" spelled out in gold, varsity-sweater letters.
The founder of the nation's first marijuana trade school was there to deliver a few inspirational words to about 70 students hoping to become the next Richard Lee, an entrepreneur who says his medical marijuana dispensary, nursery and other pot-related businesses bring in as much as $7 million a year.
Lee fiddled with a camera pointed at a leafy plant until an image came into focus on an overhead screen: a ready-to-harvest marijuana bud.
But when he spoke, it was about the business, not the bud. To Lee, the pot business is a political tool to achieve "the most important thing," an end to decades of prohibition. He believes Americans can be persuaded to legalize pot if they see it toked and taxed without dire consequences.
"When I started, they were like, 'No, that'll never work. It will lead to chaos, end of the world, apocalypse, dogs sleeping with cats. It'll just, you know, never work.' And so we had to just basically do it," Lee said. "So that's why I remind you to not be about growing bud and selling bud and making money.
"Be involved in the politics," he said, "and good luck to you. Be careful."
Buds and politics are his life. Lee, 47, has built his pot businesses into a kind of legalization pilot project in Oakland. Now he hopes California voters will take the next step. He is the driving force behind Proposition 19 on the Nov. 2 ballot, which would let people 21 and older grow and possess marijuana and allow local governments to permit retail sales and collect taxes. So far, he has spent $1.5 million to draft the measure, get it on the ballot and sell it to voters.
With his cowlicky hair, aviator glasses and reticent smile, Lee looks disarmingly boyish, as if time stopped in 1982 when Nancy Reagan told Oakland schoolchildren to just say no. But he has become one of the most visible and effective spokesmen for legalization. He comes across on television as earnest, knowledgeable and surprisingly candid for a man who became a millionaire selling a drug that is still illegal under federal law.
Oaksterdam University, founded three years ago, gave Lee a platform. The school started as a lark when he ran a newspaper ad touting "Quality Training for the Cannabis Industry." He didn't intend to provide it, he says. It was agitprop meant to stir media attention.
"I was trying to figure out the best way to promote the idea of a cannabis industry," Lee said, "instead of all this nonprofit cooperatives, a bunch of hippies, peace and love, sharing their bud together, like a Coca-Cola commercial — you know, teach the world to sing. No, this is like Budweiser and Jack Daniel's. It's a business."
Within days, Lee had a list of applicants, and a joke became a school. It still reflects Lee's subversive sense of humor. The seal is modeled on Harvard's, but with the motto "Veritas" replaced by "Cannabis."
The school, which offers classes on cultivation, cooking, legal issues and pot as a business, has outgrown two sites and now occupies a 30,000-square-foot office building in Oakland. Classes are also offered in Los Angeles, Sebastopol and North Bay, Mich. Some 12,000 students have earned certificates. Fees range from $250 for a weekend seminar to $650 for a 13-week course.
The university is the centerpiece of Lee's businesses, located in a timeworn area near Oakland City Hall that began to revive when marijuana dispensaries were drawn to its cheap real estate. Lee opened one of the first in 1999.
In a bid to demonstrate that marijuana can be a tax-paying, job-generating business like any other, he launched other pot-related ventures including a retail outlet that sells plants from his nursery and a weed-themed gift shop. Lee's enterprises employ 52 people. He promotes the area as a destination for pot tourists and pays the owner of a Model T to drive them around.
He presides over the neighborhood, nicknamed Oaksterdam after pot-friendly Amsterdam, with a proprietary air. He straightens signs. He scoops up trash. He is frequently recognized and asked to pose for photographs. "I feel like the guy in the Mickey Mouse costume," he said.
At Coffeeshop Blue Sky, his dispensary, Lee tries to make the point that a pot shop can be as innocuous as a corner market. He rolls past the caffeine to the room where an employee sells Hindu Skunk ("Effect: Cerebral; Bouquet: Spicy with sweet undertones") from behind a Dutch door. He shows off pot cupcakes, chocolates, lollipops and a concoction with seaweed and alfalfa that he calls "total Northern California."
Lee is single, lives in a one-bedroom apartment and drives a 13-year-old Bonneville. Of his pot prosperity, he said: "I never saw it as my money. I see the businesses as part of the politics."