Friday, October 16, 2009

Oakland Marijuana Opinion Editorial

Welcome to Potopia

A nine-block section of downtown Oakland, Calif., has become a modern
marijuana mecca—and a model for what a legalized-drug America could
look like. Why the stars are aligning for the pro-weed movement.

By Jessica Bennett
Newsweek Web Exclusive

Oct 15, 2009

Watch video story (6:49) -
http://link. brightcove. com/services/ player/bcpid3073 3852001?bctid= 449921\

PHOTOS: Pot Propaganda: A look at decades of pro- and anti-marijuana
media: http://www.newsweek .com/id/217859

Marijuana Mecca

How Oakland, Calif., became a model for the pro-pot movement

On the corner of Broadway and 17th Street in downtown Oakland, nudged
between a Chinese restaurant and a hat shop, Oaksterdam University
greets passersby with a life-sized cutout of Barack Obama and the sweet
smell of fresh marijuana drifting from a back room. Inside, dutiful
students flip through thick plastic binders of the day's lessons, which,
on a recent Saturday began with "Pot Politics 101," taught by a
ponytailed legal consultant who has authored a number of books on hemp.
The class breaks for lunch around noon, and resumes an hour later, with
classes on "budtending, " horticulture and cooking, which includes a
recipe for "a beautiful pot pesto." There are 50 students in this class,
the majority of them Californians, but some have come all the way from
Kansas. In between lectures, the university's founder, Richard Lee, 47,
rolls in and out on his wheelchair greeting students, looking the part
of a pot school dean in Converse sneaker, aviator glasses, and a green
"Oaksterdam" T-shirt.

Locals refer to the nine-block area surrounding the university as
Oaksterdam—a hybrid of "Oakland" and the drug-friendly "Amsterdam,"
where marijuana has been effectively legal since 1976. Nestled among
what was once a rash of vacant storefronts, Lee has created a kind of
urban pot utopia, where everything moves just a little bit more slowly
than the outside world. Among the businesses he owns are the Blue Sky
Coffeeshop, a coffee house and pot dispensary where getting an actual
cup of Joe takes 20 minutes but picking up a sack of Purple Kush wrapped
neatly in a brown lunch bag takes about five. There's Lee's Bulldog
Café, a student lounge with a not-so-secret back room where the
haze-induced sounds of "Dark Side of the Moon" seep through thick smoke,
and a glass blowing shop where bongs are the art of choice. Around the
corner is a taco stand (Lee doesn't own this one) that has benefitted
mightily from the university's hungry students.

An education at Oaksterdam means learning how to grow, sell, market, and
consume weed—all of which has been legal in California, for
medicinal use only, since 1996. For the price of an ounce of pot and a
couple of batches of brownies (about $250), pot lovers can enroll in a
variety of weekend cannabis seminars all focused on medicinal use. But
"medicinal" is something of an open joke in the state, where anyone over
age 18 with a doctor's note—easy to get for ailments like anxiety or
cramps, if you're willing to pay—can obtain an ID card allowing
access to any of the state's hundreds of dispensaries, or pot shops.
("You can basically get a doctor's recommendation for anything," said
one dispensary worker.) Not all of those dispensaries are legally
recognized, however: there's a growing discrepancy over how California's
laws mesh (or don't mesh) with local and federal regulations. But
Oakland is unique in that it has four licensed and regulated
dispensaries, each taxed directly by the city government. This past
summer, Oakland voters became the first in the nation to enact a special
cannabis excise tax—$18 for every $1,000 grossed—that the city
believes will generate up to $1 million in the first year. Approved by
80 percent of voters, and unopposed by any organization, including law
enforcement, the tax was pushed by the dispensary owners themselves, who
hope the model will prove to the rest of California that a regulated
marijuana industry can be both profitable and responsible. "The reality
is we're creating jobs, improving the city, filling empty store spaces,
and when people come down here to Oakland they can see that," says Lee,
who smokes both recreationally and for his health, to ease muscle spasms
caused by a spinal chord injury.

The arguments against this kind of operation are easy to tick off: that
it glamourizes marijuana, promotes a gateway drug, leads to abuse.
Compared to more serious drugs like heroine, cocaine or even alcohol,
studies have shown the health effects of marijuana are fairly mild. But
there are still risks to its consumption: heavy pot users are more
likely to be in car accidents; there have been some reports of it
causing problems in respiration and fetal development. And, as the
director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, put
it recently, there are a number of medical professionals, and many
parents, who worry that the drug's increased potency over the years has
heightened the risk of addiction. "It's certainly true that this is not
your grandfather' s pot," says Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at the
Univerisity of California at Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, like much of the country, Oakland is suffering
economically. The city faced an $83 million budget deficit this year,
and California, of course, is billions in the red. So from a public
coffers perspective, if ever there were a time to rethink pot policy,
that time is now. Already in Sacramento, there is a legalization measure
before the state assembly that the author claims could generate $1.3
billion in tax revenue. And while analysts say it has little hope of
passing (it faces strong opposition from law enforcement) , the figures
prompted even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger— who's vetoed every
marijuana-related bill to come across his desk—to proclaimed that
"It's time for a debate." On a federal level, marijuana is still
illegal—it was outlawed, over the objections of the American Medical
Association, in 1937. But in February, Attorney General Eric Holder
stunned critics when he announced that the feds would cease raiding
medical marijuana dispensaries that are authorized under state law.
"People are no longer outraged by the idea of legalization, " wrote
former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown in a recent op-ed. "And truth be
told, there is just too much money to be made both by the people who
grow marijuana and the cities and counties that would be able to tax

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has estimated that the cost of cannabis
prohibition is $13 billion annually, with an additional $7 billion lost
in potential tax revenue. Even the students at Lee's Oaksterdam cite the
job market as a reason for showing up: one man, there with his
21-year-old son, told NEWSWEEK he'd lost his business in the housing
bust; another was looking for a way to supplement his income as a
contractor. "Alcohol prohibition, the result of a century-long
anti-alcohol crusade, was fairly quickly repealed in part because of the
onset of the Great Depression," says Craig Reinarman, a sociologist at
UC Santa Cruz and the coauthor of Crack in America. "I think we're in a
similar situation now, where states are so strapped for money that any
source of new revenue is going to be welcomed."

Oakland has become a kind of test lab for what legalized marijuana might
look like. City Council member Rebecca Kaplan tells NEWSWEEK that the
new tax revenue will help save libraries, parks, and other public
services, and that the once-destitute area where Oaksterdam now thrives
has seen a clear boost. Over the past six years, 160 new businesses have
moved into downtown Oakland, and the area's vacancy rate has dropped
from 25 percent to less than 5, according to Oakland's Community and
Economic Development Agency. And while that can't be attributed to
Oaksterdam directly, some local business owners believe it's played a
key role—particularly as it relates to local tourism. Lee hosts 500
students at Oaksterdam University each month—about 20 percent of
them from out of state—and has graduated nearly 4,000 since he
opened the school in late 2007, inspired by a "cannabis college" he
discovered on a trip to Amsterdam. The Blue Sky Coffeeshop serves about
1,000 visitors a day, half of them from out of town, and neighboring
stores say the traffic has helped drive business their way. Regulation,
say advocates, has also made consumption safer. They say it gets rid of
hazardous strains of the drug, and eliminates the crime that can
accompany underground dealing.

Presently, 13 states allow medical marijuana, with similar legalization
campaigns underway in more than a dozen others. And a number of cities,
such as Oakland and Seattle, have passed measures making prosecution of
adult pot use the lowest law enforcement priority. Now Lee, along with
an army of volunteers, has begun collecting signatures for a statewide
legalization measure (for Californians 21 and over) that he plans to
place on the November 2010 ballot. Backed by former state Senate
president Don Perata, he's already collected a fourth of the needed
434,000 signatures, and pledged to spend $1 million of his own funds to
support the effort.

In California, where voters rule, getting an amendment on the ballot
doesn't take much more than a fat wallet, but the amount of attention
Lee's campaign has received has drawn attention to just how far American
attitudes have changed over the past decade. In April, an ABC/Washington
Post survey showed that 46 percent of Americans support legalization
measures, up from 22 percent in 1997. And in California, a recent Field
Poll showed that 56 percent are already on board to legalize and tax the
drug. "This is a new world," says Robert MacCoun, a professor of law and
public policy at UC Berkeley and the coauthor of Drug War Heresies. "If
you'd have asked me four years ago whether we'd be having this debate
today, I can't say I would have predicted it."

The fact that we now are debating it—at least in some parts of the
country—is the result of a number of forces that, as MacCoun puts
it, have created the perfect pot storm: the failure of the War on Drugs;
the growing death toll of murderous drug cartels; pop culture; the
economy; and a generation of voters that have simply grown up around the
stuff. Today there are pot television shows and frequent references to
the drug in film, music, and books. And everyone from the president to
the most successful athlete in modern history has talked about smoking
it at one point or another. "Whether it's the economy or Obama or
Michael Phelps, I think all of these things have really worked to
galvanize the public," says Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the coauthor
of a new book, Marijuana Is Safer; So Why Are We Driving People to
Drink?"At the very least, it's started a national conversation. "

That conversation, in some sense, has always existed. In 1972—a year
after President Nixon declared his "War on Drugs"—the National
Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse urged Congress to decriminalize
possession of marijuana for personal use. That never happened, in part
because marijuana regulation has always been more about politics than
actual science, say advocates. But these days, the masses, at least in
California, seem to be heading toward greener, shall we say, pastures.
"This is sort of the trendy thing to do right now, but I also think
there's an expectation that the time has come to simply acknowledge the
reality," says Armentano. "Hundreds of thousands of Californians use
marijuana, and we should regulate this commodity like we do others."
It's a fight that's heating up. And the pro-pot crowd in Oakland is
ready to light the way.

With Jennifer Molina

http://www.newsweek .com/id/217942

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