The Man Bankrolling California's Pot Initiative

Richard Lee i i

Richard Lee has created a multimillion-dollar empire in Oakland, Calif., built largely on medicinal pot. And now, he wants to take it a step further, by turning marijuana into a totally legal, taxable commodity for any Californian age 21 or older. Jeff Chiu/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Chiu/AP
Richard Lee

Richard Lee has created a multimillion-dollar empire in Oakland, Calif., built largely on medicinal pot. And now, he wants to take it a step further, by turning marijuana into a totally legal, taxable commodity for any Californian age 21 or older.

Jeff Chiu/AP

In November, California voters will decide whether to make all pot legal, even for recreational use, 14 years after medical marijuana was legalized.

The measure would violate federal drug laws, but that hasn't stopped Oakland, Calif., businessman Richard Lee from spending millions to get the issue passed.

In a revitalized neighborhood on the north side of downtown Oakland where medical marijuana is king, an old storefront throbs with the pulse of rock music. The unmistakable scent of ganja fills the air. Some call the neighborhood "Oaksterdam."

"Amsterdam is our model city. When I go there, I see tourists and jobs and taxes being created from the cannabis industry, and I think we can do that here," Lee says.

Lee owns a medical marijuana dispensary, two coffee shops, a gift shop and a cannabis nursery. He's created a multimillion-dollar empire, built largely on medicinal pot. And now, he wants to take it a step further, by turning marijuana into a totally legal, taxable commodity for any Californian, 21 or older.

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"We're like other businesses, you know," he says. "We're here to pay taxes, create jobs and improve the community."

Stephen Tate, a computer security analyst, says Lee has lots of supporters.

"Everybody knows this guy, no matter where you go, everybody knows this guy," Tate says. "It's good to have a champion for a social cause that's really good, you know, and it's not just a bunch of potheads taking over. No, it's not. There's legitimate purposes for this. In fact, I wish liberalization of marijuana laws would have been around when my grandmother was suffering from breast cancer."

How He Became The Force Behind The Ballot Measure

Lee has a personal feeling for the power of marijuana. Twenty years ago, he was paralyzed in a work-related fall. Now he zips through the neighborhood in a wheelchair. After he started having muscle spasms, cannabis was his one reliable source of relief.

And that's how Lee, raised in a family of Goldwater Republicans, became the force behind the California ballot measure that would make pot legal for fun and profit.

"I am kind of a conservative, and I do see marijuana prohibition as eroding respect for the laws and law enforcement," he says. "I want good police law enforcement. I want to work with the police. I'm the opposite of the guy who says, 'F the police.' "

And when it comes to cops, Lee believes they should spend their time chasing bona fide crooks, not marijuana smokers. He came to that conclusion years ago with a gun pointed at his head. Two thugs robbed him at the drive-up window of a fast food restaurant.

"What really made me as mad as the carjacking, though, was the police had a really slow response time," he says. "So I started thinking about if there were less police out there looking for people like me and more going after real sociopaths and predators, we'd be better off."

Ulterior Motives?

Supporters say Lee is a visionary who put his money where his mouth is. He bankrolled the expensive petition drive that got marijuana on California's November ballot. But others claim Lee has ulterior motives.

"I think people are going to make a mistake if they vote for this," says Dennis Peron, known by many as the godfather of the medical marijuana movement. "If they think they're voting for legalization, they're not. They voted for restriction of marijuana."

Peron is against the ballot measure Lee is backing because he says the government would still have too much control over pot — and shouldn't be allowed to tax it. Plus, he thinks Lee is mostly interested in legalizing marijuana so he can get even richer selling it.

"He's doing this to make money," Peron says. "All that money and power."

Lee doesn't give a lot of thought to his critics. He's too busy being the Johnny Appleseed of pot.

Lee teaches people how to grow marijuana and how to run their own medical marijuana dispensary at a small storefront school. He calls it Oaksterdam University. And on any given night, he's the main instructor for a half-dozen attentive students.

"You don't want seeds in your cannabis," he says. "Generally, you're going to get rid of the male plants that produce pollen that would fertilize the female plants, and that's how you get sinsemilla — or seedless cannabis."

As many as 10,000 students have matriculated through Oaksterdam University. And Lee is still growing the business with two other schools like this one.

A Way To Fix California's Ailing Budget?

Steve DeAngelo, operator of another medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, calls the university a brilliant idea. He's a big Lee supporter, but wonders if California is truly ready to take the next step and legalize cannabis.

"I would have preferred to see the initiative wait for another two years until we went into a general election cycle when our voters are more likely to turn out," he says.

It could come down to whether voters see marijuana as a cure for California's ailing budget. By some estimates, making pot legal and taxing it could generate a billion dollars in new revenue.

"I guess it's a sign the time is right for laws to change, and that society is maturing and looking at this subject in a new way," Lee says.

But Lee is a pragmatist. He knows changing decades of prohibition won't be easy. So even if he fails this time, he says he'll keep trying.

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