Richard Lee says: “I’ve been doing this for a long time. Over… (Peter DaSilva/For The Times )
Richard Lee, whose bid to legalize marijuana in California brought him international attention, plans to give up ownership of his Oakland-based marijuana businesses after a federal raid this week seized many of their assets, including plants, bank accounts, records and computers.
"I've been doing this for a long time. Over 20 years.... I kind of feel like I've done my time," Lee said Thursday. "It's time for others to take over."
Lee said he would remain an outspoken marijuana advocate. "I believe that cannabis prohibition is unjust and counterproductive," he said. "What I've done is ethical, and I tried to use the resources that I had to do everything I could to change the laws."
In some of his most extensive comments since the raid, Lee acknowledged that he was worried he could face major federal drug charges. It's a risk he has lived with for many years, first as an underground pot grower and then as the leader of a serious legalization effort, which drew vigorous opposition from the federal government.
"I never wanted to be the quote unquote leader of the legalization movement," he said in a telephone interview. "I saw myself as just one small soldier in a big war. But I look at it as a battlefield promotion."
Lee's Oaksterdam University, the first marijuana trade school in the nation, remains open, although its classes have been scaled back. Lee's dispensary is also open. He plans to transfer the businesses to new operators. But he will shut down his marijuana nursery because his stock of mother plants, which he had nurtured for years, was confiscated.
The former rock-band roadie is one of the highest-profile marijuana activists in the nation, if not the world. His school drew wide-eyed media coverage after it opened in 2007, helping him promote his vision that marijuana could be a legitimate business.
A paraplegic who uses a wheelchair, Lee, 49, became the telegenic spokesman for ending pot prohibition after he spent more than $1.5 million trying to pass Proposition 19 to legalize the drug in 2010.
He is a well-known and highly regarded figure in Oakland, where city officials praise his businesses for resuscitating a shabby downtown area embarrassingly close to City Hall.
Lee was detained during Monday's raid by the Internal Revenue Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration, but not arrested. His allies had feared he would be arrested in 2010, when he spoke frequently, candidly and enthusiastically about his pot ventures.
On Thursday, Lee suggested that, if he is charged, it could become another watershed event in the march toward legalization by turning more Americans against the drug war. "In some ways, I see the possible prosecution of myself as another Proposition 19," he said.
Federal penalties for growing marijuana increase with the number of plants. More than 60,000 can bring the death penalty, Lee noted. He said he did not know how many plants were seized. "We didn't have 60,000 plants on site, but they can add up the 13 years," he said.
Lee said his operations had been audited by the IRS, but he did not know what triggered the raid and seizures. "The company is bankrupt," he said, suggesting that employees, who could lose jobs, and Oakland, which could lose revenues from taxes on marijuana, were also victims.
Until he knows whether he has to mount a legal defense, Lee said, he plans to work on a book and a television series about his career. "I think the nationwide coverage of the raid shows that there is a story here that a lot of people would like to see and like to hear about," he said.
Lee also said he would consider helping legalization efforts in other states: "This may free me up to be able to go campaign."
He noted that Oaksterdam University has trained about 15,000 marijuana experts and activists who are now at work around the country, suggesting that he has marshaled an army for the legalization fight. "We are getting very close to a tipping point on this issue," he said.