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Over a decade ago voters in California became the first in the nation to approve so-called medical marijuana. Since then hundreds of prescription pot storefronts have spun up across the state, and that's given rise to a one-of-a-kind new school in Oakland, California.
As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, Oaksterdam University trains students how to work in this budding industry.
RICHARD GONZALES: In a downtown Oakland storefront a half-dozen students gather around a mock system of grow lights, air filters and water hoses to learn the latest techniques for the indoor growing of high grade marijuana.
Mr. RICHARD LEE (President, Oaksterdam University): When hanging your light, I really like the eyehooks, the rope and the (unintelligible) system. It allows you to lower the light, to change light bulbs or work on it otherwise, also to lower or raise the light depending on the size of your plants.
GONZALES: Oaksterdam U is a 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.
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. 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 know, you don't want seeds in your grapes.
GONZALES: Students paid $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.
This class is just one part of Lee's vision to not only promote the medical marijuana industry, but also revitalize this part of beleaguered downtown Oakland, which he's dubbed Oaksterdam.
Mr. LEE: 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. It's not, you know, a segregated little tourist district, but 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.
GONZALES: Amid the boarded up storefronts, Lee takes us to a coffee shop where anyone can walk in and buy a latte, cappuccino, or just plain joe. And 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. Gertha Hayes(ph) runs a women's boutique
Ms. GERTHA HAYES (Owner, Women's Boutique): I've been here for the last five years and just want to say to thanks to Richard for bringing all the new customers to the area.
GONZALES: Tell me about it. It works out for you?
Ms. HAYES: Oh, this works out really well, very well. Well, a lot of the ladies that are waiting for their husband's and whatnot, they come over here and browse. So, you know, thank you.
GONZALES: Of course, not everyone is so thrilled. Michael Chapman is an assistant special agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency in San Francisco.
Mr. MICHAEL CHAPMAN (Assistant Special Agent, Drug Enforcement Agency): The problem with this is that it really sends the wrong message to the community. There's nothing good that comes out of this. And to put this on as some type of a university in which people are learning something productive is, to me, just a farce.
GONZALES: Chapman declined to say whether Oaksterdam U 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.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.
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