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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Oh, this started such an interesting discussion when I mentioned it on Twitter the other day. This morning, NPR News launches a close-up look at the politics, profits and culture of marijuana. We begin in California, which started a trend when it approved medical marijuana 14 years ago. Now there's an attempt to blaze another new trail.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This fall, California voters will decide whether to make all pot legal, even for recreational use. The measure would violate federal drug laws, but that hasn't stopped an Oakland businessman from spending millions in an attempt to get the issue passed.

Our series The New Marijuana begins with this report by NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES: The old storefront on the north side of downtown Oakland throbs with a pulse of rock music and, as you get closer, the unmistakable scent of ganja...

Unidentified Man: Okay, what do I got here?

GONZALES: ...fills the air. Welcome to Oaksterdam, a revitalized neighborhood where medical marijuana is king. Richard Lee hopes the rest of California is paying attention.

Mr. RICHARD LEE (Businessman): Amsterdam is like our model city. When I go there, I see tourists, jobs and taxes being created from the cannabis industry, and I think we could do that here.

GONZALES: Lee owns a medical marijuana dispensary, two coffee shops, a gift shop and a cannabis nursery. He's created a multimillion-dollar empire here, 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.

Mr. LEE: We're basically just trying to say we're like other businesses, you know. We're here to pay taxes, create jobs and improve the community.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEPHEN TATE (Computer Security Analyst): Everybody knows this guy. No matter where you go, everybody knows this guy.

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

Mr. TATE: It's good to have a champion for a social cause that's really good, you know. And it's not just, you know, a bunch of potheads, you know, 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.

GONZALES: Lee has a personal feeling for the power of marijuana. Twenty years ago, he was paralyzed in a work-related fall, and now 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 Richard 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.

Mr. LEE: I am kind of a conservative, and I do see marijuana prohibition as eroding respect for the laws and law enforcement. I want good police law enforcement. I want to work with the police. You know, I'm the opposite of, you know, the guy saying F the police.

GONZALES: 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.

Mr. LEE: Pretty simple, just fast food drive-through, guns put to your head, you know, tell you to get out of the car. And then what really made me as mad as the carjacking, though, was the police had a really slow response time. So I started thinking about, you know, if there was less police out there looking for people like me and more going after the real sociopaths and predators, you know, we'd be better off.

GONZALES: 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.

Mr. DENNIS PERON: I think people are going to make a mistake if they vote for this. They think they're voting for legalization, they're not. They're voting for restriction of marijuana.

GONZALES: That's Dennis Peron, known by many as a godfather of the medical marijuana movement. He's 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.

Mr. PERON: He's doing this to make money.

GONZALES: So you think he's doing it for the money?

Mr. PERON: I do. I can't believe it. But I do think it's for the money - all about money and power.

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

Mr. LEE: You don't want seeds in your cannabis.

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

Mr. LEE: 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.

GONZALES: Ten thousand students have matriculated through Oaksterdam U, and Lee is still growing the business, with two other schools like this one.

Mr. STEVE DEANGELO (Operator of Medical Marijuana Dispensary): Brilliant, absolutely brilliant idea.

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

Mr. DEANGELO: 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.

GONZALES: 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 revenues.

Mr. LEE: 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.

GONZALES: But Richard 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.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.

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