Pot School: Oaksterdam Teaches 'Cannabusiness' Oaksterdam University is a trade school for those who grow and distribute medical marijuana. Joshua Green, senior editor at Atlantic Magazine, took a 13-week seminar at the school in Fall 2008. There, he learned the ABCs of opening a pot franchise.
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Pot School: Oaksterdam Teaches 'Cannabusiness'

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Pot School: Oaksterdam Teaches 'Cannabusiness'

Pot School: Oaksterdam Teaches 'Cannabusiness'

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Chocolope, granddaddy purple, strawberry cough - no, not gourmet ice cream flavors. They're strains of marijuana. And if you've taken a course at California's Oaksterdam University, maybe even if you haven't, you can rank them by quality and type.

Founded two years ago in Oakland, Oaksterdam is a trade school for those who grow and distribute medical marijuana. California voters legalized that back in 1996. Distribution centers are quite common in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, less common to nonexistent in other parts of the state.

If you've been to pot school in California, give us a call. What was it like? 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. You can also go to our Web site, npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joshua Green, senior editor at the Atlantic Magazine, he took a 13-week seminar at Oakesterdam last fall and he joins us here in Studio 3A to tell us a little bit about the cannabusiness education. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. JOSHUA GREEN (Senior Editor, Atlantic Magazine): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Pot school?

Mr. GREEN: Yeah. Well, I read about it. It sounded interesting. You know, I'd always wanted to pursue a vocation and this seemed like a good chance to do it.

CONAN: Did the Atlantic pay for this?

Mr. GREEN: They did, yeah. I was a full tuition paying member of the school.

CONAN: Are they hiring there at the Atlantic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: Well, not if they're start sending all their editors to pot school. No, I think the quality might decline a bit and, you know, we'll run into a rough patch. But they sent me.

CONAN: Oaksterdam, this is a brick-and-mortar place you go to every day?

Mr. GREEN: Yeah. It's a trade school, sort of like, you know, ITT Tech where they teach you refrigeration and air conditioning. You know, medical marijuana is a booming business in California now. It's a trade. You need certain professional skills, growing, cultivating, distributing. And this is important. And doing it legally, within the letter of the law, so as not to get arrested.

CONAN: And legally because this is a gigantic gray area. Marijuana, of course, it may not be - medical marijuana may not be against the law in the state of California, it is against the law according to the federal government. But then, it was Attorney General Eric Holder who said that, well, if somebody's obeying the law in California, he's not going to pursue them.

Mr. GREEN: Yeah. And that's a big change of policy. And one - I was there. I was taking the classes on the eve of the election. And the entire semi-legal community, as they call themselves, was sort of swathed in Obama posters and very much looking forward to a change in policy. And they have essentially gotten that.

Holder came in and he changed the Bush administration policy. And instead of conducting a lot of these federal raids - although a few do still occur - he came out and said, as long as you're complying with state law, we're probably not going to pursue you.

CONAN: What was the legal part of the education?

Mr. GREEN: Well, they bring in lawyers. I mean, they talk to you about the letter of the law. It's important to, you know, obviously you don't sell to minors. You incorporate as a business. You pay your taxes. You know, you do everything to the letter of the law so as not to attract the attention of the authorities, you know, many of whom, especially in more conservative areas, are eager to shut these places down, even though they are legal under California state law.

CONAN: There's a bunch of court cases now proceeding in California where some counties, for example, there are no distribution centers whatsoever and people want to open them. And, well, it remains unclear as to what's going to happen there.

But, nevertheless, in Los Angeles, there's flyers being handed out. You know, there's parking validated. There's - they advertise, you know, this is available for any medical malady including stress which is about the same as breathing.

Mr. GREEN: Yeah. Well, the kicker for me, as I was walking down Venice Beach, right across the street from Muscle Beach there, the famous Muscle Beach, there was a bikini-clad blonde, sort of like a carnival barker saying, come and get your medical kush, come on upstairs. See Dr. Ian(ph). Get your prescription. And a lot of people who didn't look to me like cancer patients were kind of rushing upstairs and coming out and evidently seeing Dr. Ian, getting a prescription. And there was a dispensary attached. You could pick any of the 28 brands and sort of -going off to the beach to self-medicate. You don't see cancer treatments being advertised that way.

CONAN: Quite that way, no. And, again, that's the situation. There's a lot of places much more conservative than Muscle Beach in California. And they don't want to see that sort of thing go on.

Mr. GREEN: No, that's right. And, I mean, if you drive a couple of hours south to San Diego, the local D.E.A. takes a very skeptical look at this. They're famous for conducting a lot of raids down there. You can't find any storefront dispensaries.

I actually have a friend I went to grad school with, wound up becoming a medical marijuana dealer in San Diego. And he kind of ran his business out of his car because he couldn't set up legally, and hoped not to get busted, a storefront dispensary the way you can in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland.

CONAN: And there's an agricultural side of this, too. They teach you how to grow this stuff because, well, you can buy it from, I guess, suppliers but nevertheless, you can also grow it yourself if you want to.

Mr. GREEN: That's right. State law allows you to grow up to 20 plants. Some localities like Oakland allow you to have more. I think 72 is the limit in Oakland. So the class is really a two-part class. The first is kind of the legal and practical aspects, how to incorporate, how not to get busted. The second class - second part of the class was horticulture, and it was taught by a guy who introduced himself as Joey the Horticulturalist. And Joey, as a class project, taught us how to plant and grow marijuana, how to set up our own system with the grow lights and fans and all that. And Joey seemed to know more about botany than Martha Stewart. So this is clearly a guy…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: …even though he's only about 25, who had a lot of experience in the field.

CONAN: But not shades and a bandana tied around his neck, not the cliche you might expect.

Mr. GREEN: Not that cliched. No. He was wearing a kimono shirt and looked kind of like a club kid. But I must give him credit: very, very knowledgeable. There was a class of about 30 people there, many of whom had apparently been in the business, maybe not the legal end of the business, but knew what they were talking about more than I did, asked very technical and informed questions. And he could answer all of them. So…

CONAN: And again, were they dressed in caftans and beads?

Mr. GREEN: No. You know, one of the, sort of ironies for me is that it really wasn't the kind of cliche you would expect. It wasn't kind of goofy stoners sitting around, you know, learning how to grow better bud. If you took a sort of a broad sample of the class, these were people of all ages, all genders, all ethnicities - most of them didn't have ponytails and weren't wearing tie-dye. If you had just been a stranger and you kind of stumbled into the class, you would've thought that it was sort of a night school business class at a community college. Very serious people that were looking to do this for a living, they want to stay out of jail, and for the most part, asked pointed, intelligent questions.

CONAN: We're talking with Josh Green, senior editor at the Atlantic and author of "Higher Education: Cannabusiness" that appeared in the April issue of the magazine. He's with us here in studio 3A. 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

And Jacob's(ph) on the line with us from Detroit.

JACOB (Caller): Hi, Neal. I'm a huge fan. And I believe your guest is doing an excellent job fielding your questions. I live in Detroit, and Michigan recently passed medical marijuana laws that I'm hearing rumblings right now of dispensaries opening up and things like that. But I'm just wondering if this school can serve as a model for other states, and also, you know, how the school has to work within the confines of what can be some fairly ambiguous laws regarding medical marijuana. I mean, I'm unclear right now on what's going on in Michigan because it's been sort of hush-hush. But I'm just curious in general where this could go because California, to me, sounds like an excellent model.

CONAN: Not quite so hush-hush. There's a press release in my hand that says, you made it happen, Michigan. Oaksterdam University comes May 23rd and 24th, 2009.

JACOB: Is that right?

CONAN: There's a seminar that weekend with a special rate. And so, you can…

JACOB: Oh. That's wonderful.

CONAN: …register if you'd like.

JACOB: (Unintelligible)

Mr. GREEN: What a public service. I do think - to address the question - I do think it's a model in a lot of ways. I mean, you have what is still, even though it's legal under California state law, just the sort of blizzard of local county federal state ordinances that - it's very difficult, even if your intent is to operate by the letter of the law, to know what's going on. And this is fundamentally a trade school, you know? You're not out there studying the theory of marijuana cultivation. You're studying how to grow it and how to sell it and how to stay out of jail. And for the most part, you know, these guys are as much activists as they are educators.

CONAN: Oaksterdam, you're talking about.

Mr. GREEN: Oaksterdam, yeah. There's sort of a tongue-in-cheek joke I've made in the piece. It says they're a little bit like the University of Chicago which is known for its kind of free market activism. There's an element of idealism at Oaksterdam. They're for the free market, too, as long as you're talking about specifically the government allowing them to sell pot and stay off their backs. But the idea really is to create kind of a generation of pot idealists who can go out and sell this stuff and really convince the rest of the country to get to where California has gotten.

CONAN: Well, and if you get to the point where you've developed a business structure and people who pay taxes and provide taxes to the government, $100 million in California.

Mr. GREEN: Well, a very big deal. I mean, California is undergoing a well publicized budget crunch. And legal marijuana sales - taxes, revenue from legal marijuana sales - has generated a hundred million dollars in tax revenue last year. I mean, Michigan is obviously a state that's been hurting lately and could probably use some of that tax revenue.

CONAN: Jacob, thanks very much for the call.

JACOB: Thank you. It sounds like everything sounds good.

CONAN: Bye-bye. You have to wonder, we hear all these stories about the growing influence in power of Mexican cartels, are they moving-in on the medical marijuana business?

Mr. GREEN: I don't know if they're moving-in on the medical marijuana business. I mean, one of the interesting tensions, especially when I was down on the L.A. campus of Oaksterdam, is that they make you very much aware that in addition to being legal, marijuana is still actively traded in an illegal capacity. And one of the practical skills they teach you is how not to get robbed. And if you've got a storefront dispensary with, you know, dozens of pounds of really high grade marijuana, that's a pretty attractive target for a local criminal element. So they teach you, for instance, to buy a gun safe and keep your stash in a gun safe. I think that there's always going to be this kind of tension. But one of the things - one of the (unintelligible) this…

CONAN: You should point out a whole lot liquor stores in some neighborhoods have bullet proof glass between the cashier and the customers.

Mr. GREEN: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And it's definitely a, you know, security is one of the things they spent a lot of time on. Now, I'm not planning to open up a distribution center, so I didn't get that deeply into it. But it's a real concern: transporting it, selling it, where to keep it at night, how to keep yourself from getting robbed and kind of avoid the criminal element.

CONAN: Is one of the pieces of advice in the legal seminar, the legal 101 part of this, is to have a really good lawyer on retainer? Somebody you can call?

Mr. GREEN: Yeah. I think so. And there's a, kind of a league of, you know, pro-marijuana activist lawyers out there who you can rely on. Some of them taught the courses, some of them have argued before the Supreme Court. These are very serious people who know the laws, who have experienced litigating this sort of thing and are generally there to provide the kind of advice you need to avoid jail.

CONAN: And these are also people making a pretty substantial investment to set up a storefront - even a storefront in Los Angeles or something like that - and stock it with all of this expensive product. This is a fairly substantial business.

Mr. GREEN: Yeah, it is. And it's not just opening a - you know, you've got to get loans from the bank, you've got to set this up. And then you're still in this kind of unorthodox position of, you know, not every business, especially in a nice area, is going to be thrilled that there's a marijuana dispensary opening up next door. The fear is that it will attract an undesirable element, maybe scare away some of the wealthier clientele. And one of the things that's emphasized at school, one of the proprietors in particular had talked about how he opened up a dispensary and met this kind of skepticism, and went around and picked up all the dog droppings in the neighborhood and joined the Chamber of Commerce, and really bent over backwards to be a kind of a good corporate citizen and really wound up winning over his neighbors that way in getting that kind of support.

CONAN: Was that the fellow who told you marijuana's moved from counterculture to over the counter?

Mr. GREEN: It is. Don Duncan, who's a proprietor of dispensaries in Berkeley and Hollywood and was one of the professors at Oaksterdam. Good guy.

CONAN: Joshua Green, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. GREEN: Good to be with you.

CONAN: Josh Green joined us here in studio 3A. You could find a link to his article in this month's Atlantic magazine on our Web site at npr.org.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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