More than a decade ago, California voters were the first in the nation to approve so-called "medical marijuana." Since then, hundreds of prescription pot storefronts have sprung up across the state. And that's now given rise to a new, one-of-a kind school in Oakland: Oaksterdam University trains students how to work in the medical marijuana industry.
Oaksterdam is the brainchild of Richard Lee. He's a medical marijuana activist and pot dispensary owner.
The curriculum includes everything from lectures on the political and legal history of medical marijuana to the basic botany of cannabis, such as why a grower wants to identify and separate male from female plants.
"Generally, you're going to get rid of the male plants that create pollen that would fertilize the female plants and that's how you get sin semilla, or seedless cannabis," Lee says. "It will grow a lot more healthier flowers without the seeds because it's not putting energy into seeds. Plus you don't want seeds in your cannabis. It's like seedless grapes. You don't want seeds in your grapes.
Students pay $75 for this course, which Lee hopes will help professionalize the medical marijuana industry. He says there are about 400 cannabis outlets in California employing several thousand people.
The class is just one part of Lee's vision to not only promote the medical marijuana industry, but also to revitalize this part of beleaguered downtown Oakland, which he's dubbed "Oaksterdam."
"When I went to Amsterdam, one of the big things that struck me was how the cannabis industry there — all of the cannabis coffee shops are intertwined with the rest of downtown," Lee says. "It's not a segregated little tourist district; it's just part of the rest of downtown and it all works together and so that's what we saw that we could do with this part of downtown Oakland."
Amid the boarded up storefronts, Lee points out a coffee shop where anyone can walk in and buy a latte, cappuccino, or just plain joe. In the back of the shop, medical marijuana patients can buy small amounts of cannabis.
Neighboring shop owners say they are grateful for the marijuana-buying customers who've been attracted to Oaksterdam.
"I've been here for the past five years and I just want to say to thanks to Richard for bringing all the new customers to the area," says Gertha Hayes, who runs a women's boutique. She says a lot of women who are waiting for their husbands come in and browse.
Of course, not everyone is so thrilled.
"The problem with this is that it really sends the wrong message to the community," says Michael Chapman, an assistant special agent for the drug enforcement agency in San Francisco. "There's nothing good that comes out of this. To put this on as some type of a university where people are learning something productive is, to me, just a farce."
Chapman declined to say whether Oaksterdam University would merit enough attention for a future raid.
There have been many in California recently. In spite of the state's law, buying, growing and selling marijuana is still a federal crime.
Meanwhile, Oakland city officials, having reached a tentative accommodation with the cannabis dispensaries, appear to shrug their shoulders at the mention of Oaksterdam University. After all, it's not illegal to talk about growing marijuana.