History of Oaksterdam: 20 Years of Reform, Activism, and Change

The twenty-year journey to become the first and most respected cannabis college in the United States was charged with crisis and fraught with adversity in the battle for surviving and thriving against all odds. The key has been the convergence of tenacious people with persistent focus and a moral imperative advancing towards a common goal; an endeavor strengthened for diverse and compelling reasons. This remains true as the legend of Oaksterdam continues; tenacity is imprinted in our Alumni DNA. OU has grown beyond a campus teaching what you need to know; Oaksterdam has become a state of mind concerning how we each participate in the shape of our collective future and wield our power as citizens, regulators, and business leaders. The Oaksterdam experience makes entry into the cannabis industry transformational, not just transactional.

Our mission and the story of how we got here began in the 1990s. Oakland, California, was a very different place from what it is today; the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the Bay Area had left countless vacant buildings in its wake, unfit for occupancy. Few people came downtown, and never after dark, but the rent was cheap, and if you can imagine, parking was readily available. Activists, patients and providers such as Valerie and Mike Corral, Dennis Peron, Dr. Tod Mikuriya, Jim McClelland, Ed Rosenthal, Debby Goldsberry, Jeff Jones, Lynette Shaw, Mikki Norris, Etienne Fontan, Keith Stephenson, Chris Conrad and Don Duncan were on the frontlines. These brave souls helped set the stage for the City of Oakland to become the epicenter; a cannabis-friendly area now known as the “Oaksterdam District”.

PART ONE – The OCBC and the Old Oaksterdam District

Jeff Jones started his path towards cannabis in South Dakota at 14, watching his dad die painfully of kidney cancer that had metastasized. Jeff studied, searching over the next few years for what might have helped, convinced there was something “they” weren’t telling him. After researching cannabis as medicine and attempting to grow his first plant surreptitiously in the family basement, he moved to California inspired by the Cannabis Action Network (CAN), which was supported by benefactor and hemp clothing manufacturer Steve D’Angelo. Activism was led by Debby Goldsberry and Étienne Fontán. They all lived together in the CAN house, often traveling the country in a van following the Grateful Dead with information booths, working tirelessly on cannabis policy reform through education at concerts, events, and street tables.

They worked on Prop 215 with many other pioneers and sat at the feet of Dennis Peron, the father of medical marijuana and first to start a cannabis club, with (then) SF Supervisor Tom Ammiano at the ribbon-cutting. Jeff knew he could do it too, and decided to start providing medical cannabis to the necessity patients himself in 1995 – before the law allowing it had passed – which promptly got him kicked out of the CAN house by Debby for breaking the rules (law) by growing and distributing medical cannabis, rather than just educating folks about it. Jeff established the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative (OCBC) as a bicycle service that summer with Matt Quirk, Andrew Glaser, and Lynette Shaw. Shortly after that, the OCBC, the first approved dispensary contracted with the local Oakland City government, opened its doors in the office building at 1755 Broadway.

The US Department of Justice was shocked by the boldness of their behavior, selling a schedule 1 substance boldly on Broadway, and FBI undercover investigations led to a federal raid and injunction that seized Jeff’s office and locked them out for weeks. Jeff and his attorney, Robert Raich convinced the law firm Morrison Foerster (MoFo) – pro bono – as counsel, to assist in the federal case which was civil rather than criminal in nature. The lawsuit originally named others, including Dennis Peron of San Francisco and Lynette Shaw, who had opened the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, first-ever dispensary to receive a true permit. Jeff Jones convinced the others that his clean-cut South Dakota boyish image could carry the case, and threw himself on the proverbial grenade. The case went before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Pioneers won. For a few short weeks, it was “legal” for OCBC to sell cannabis to medical necessity patients. Jeff got back to work, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. The federal government was rather unhappy with Judge Breyer’s decision in the Ninth Circuit and escalated the case before the Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS). UNITED STATES v. OAKLAND CANNABIS BUYERS’ COOPERATIVE ET AL. commenced, and the U.S. Supreme Court Justices ruled 8 to 0 against Jeff and the OCBC, reaffirming the lower district court’s (potential) lifetime prohibition for Jeff Jones from ever cultivating or dispensing cannabis. Justice Stevens said, “We hold that medical necessity is not a defense to manufacturing and distributing marijuana.”  He also provided Jeff Jones a glimmer of hope… standing to bring his case back before the Supreme Court should the facts change or the circumstances evolve.

The name Oaksterdam is a blend of Oakland and Amsterdam, the first two cities to permit the distribution of cannabis openly, and eventually came to describe the area of the city where uptown-meets-downtown, where more than a dozen medical cannabis dispensaries sprung up over a decade ago. California’s eighth largest city, with a population of 400,000, eventually began regulating the dispensaries and pared the number from 14 to four. But the name for the neighborhood stuck. The district is known as “Oaksterdam” was first coined by Jeff’s original CFO, Jim McClelland, who went on to found Berkeley Patients Group with the help of Debby Goldsberry, Don Duncan, and Etienne Fontan, all three of whom went on to great things as thought-leaders including teaching at Oaksterdam, imparting their experience and wisdom. Keith Stephenson, the founder of Purple Heart, started his cannabis career with Jeff at the OCBC in the weigh room, and soon became the first minority owner of a permitted cannabis facility in Oakland, Purple Heart – now the longest-running permitted facility in Oakland. Keith’s business has funded many community projects and gun buyback programs over the years, as well as Keith personally being a role-model and advocate for equity programs.

PART TWO – Blue Sky Cafe’ and the Oaksterdam District

Longtime cannabis activist Richard Lee came to Oakland after co-founding Legal Marijuana in Houston, Texas, one of the first hemp products retail outlets in the states. After an on-the-job fall from structural scaffolding while setting up lighting for a rock concert, the motorcycle-riding daredevil found himself permanently bound to a wheelchair with debilitating muscle spasms. After using cannabis and discovering it helped better than the pain prescriptions, Richard set out to convince his right-wing Christian conservative parents, Bob and Ann Lee, that marijuana was not the weed of the devil and that it was, in fact, helping him. Like any good parent who loves their son, the Lees listened and came to support Richard’s mission, realizing it was in line with their belief in the right to life and federalism, through R.A.M.P., Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition.

Richard began growing in Houston and started to supply the OCBC after visiting the summer of 1995, which was the 50th anniversary and world conference of the United Nations with new Human Rights Resolution. Richard came to the Bay Area with Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris, and connected with Jeff Jones – discovering years later they had a previous chance encounter a year or more prior at a conference in Denver. Richard started to supply Jeff with reasonably priced, quality cannabis for the patients OCBC was trying to serve. Jeff was understandably alarmed by how he was receiving the medicine in the mail and convinced Richard to move closer.

Once in Oakland, Richard began the Hemp Research Company in 1997 and opened the Bulldog Coffeeshop in 1999. Richard Lee opened Coffeeshop SR-71, with Seymour Skunk as the mascot (emulating Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works “stealth” projects) in 2003 and founded the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance, a PAC that passed Oakland’s Measure Z (lowest law enforcement priority). Richard published the Oaksterdam News, a quarterly newspaper from 2005 to 2007. Coffeeshop SR-71 received a cease and desist letter from Lockheed Martin and “disappeared” into the Coffeeshop Blue Sky. Seymour Skunk stuck around as the mascot for Oaksterdam Gift Shop.

Richard wanted to change the negative stereotypes attached to cannabis, a focus that he believed was crucial for legalization. His concept for Oaksterdam University began when he visited Amsterdam, a city well-known for its personal use cannabis laws, to receive the Freedom Fighter Award as part of the High Times Cannabis Cup in 2006. While there, Richard was inspired by Amsterdam’s welcoming and semi-regulated cannabis cafe culture and, after touring a cultivation “college” and museum, was motivated to bring an educational model to Oakland.

In August 2007, with the concept of creating a cannabis university with a mission to ‘legitimize the business and work to change the law to make cannabis legal,’ Richard placed an ad in the East Bay Express that read: “Cannabis Industry, Now Hiring.” In the first week, he received over 200 calls inquiring about his bold ad, and Oaksterdam University was born.

Of those first 200 callers, 20 of them crammed into a tiny storefront on 15th Street the first weekend of November 2007 and became the first class of students of Oaksterdam University. Students were taught horticulture, cooking, extracts, legal issues, and successful law enforcement encounters – plus politics and history – from the top minds in the movement including Chris Conrad, attorney Lawrence Lichter, Dennis Peron, and Richard himself. Little did Richard know how much Oaksterdam University would transform downtown Oakland and make it ground zero of the international cannabis reform movement.

PART THREE – Dale Sky & Oaksterdam University

June 25, 2007, Dale Sky Clare turned 32 while driving a U-Haul from Seattle Washington to Orange County California. She just left a secure, six-year upper-management position working for the second-largest shoe manufacturer in the world. Dale hadn’t yet figured out how to articulate that she was moving to Southern California to work as business manager for cannabis recommendations. The group of physicians were hoping to offer medical cannabis recommendations in the conservative capital of California and needed a business manager to help them understand their rights and responsibilities under Prop 215. Dale had to figure out the complicated rules governing doctors in California, so she began researching the people in the news and searched out those who seem to know what they were talking about. That July 7th, just after arriving she got the call from her mom that the grandmother who raised her, Ruth D. Quinn, had unexpectedly passed. Dale became troubled that she had not ever talked to her grandmother about what brought her to move to California, rather than moving back home to Florida and being closer to the family. Dale was haunted that medical cannabis might have helped if only she dared to talk about it, rather than hiding it as so many folks do.

Dale threw herself into the work of helping people become patients and contacted Dr. Frank Lucido, who provided knowledge about what all doctors needed to know about medical board rules, expectations of an exam and concerns for delay of diagnosis of serious medical issues relieved by cannabis and potentially missed without a proper exam. He also warned against collusion or aiding and abetting a felony by way of telling patients where to find a dispensary, and warning against providing cannabis.

When Dale met with Dale Gieringer, the director of the California NORML who spoke about the climate for doctors and patients throughout California and the proximity of other doctors in practice, she recommended Dale talk to someone who was practiced at educating people on what the patient needs and what the doctor is allowed to provide. That ‘someone’ was Jeff Jones of the Patient ID Center, who had recently opened an office in Los Angeles.

Jeff and Dale first spoke by phone, then met at Bruce Margolin’s Los Angeles office for a NORML conference “pre-party” before the 36th Annual National NORML Conference held in Los Angeles in October 2007. From the epic dreadlocks of Sean Luse from BPG to Miss Angel Raich who had been the second iteration of the “Supreme Court Club,” Dale met the most amazing and unique characters imaginable. The conference featured amazing presenters and profound cannabis research knowledge; Dale was especially moved by Paul Armentano and Elvy Mussika. Attending this conference was pivotal for her. The moral imperative had gripped her, at the time it was just a matter of trying to catch up.

Jeff and Dale circled each other for months, and in those moments she was introduced to Richard Lee in name only. Listening to Richard and Jeff talk on the phone about classes on cannabis, Dale’s heart soared for professional adult education had been her passion and specialty in her career, from headhunter and troubleshooter to corporate trainer and entrepreneur. This education was exactly what the patients who came to see her doctors needed. Richard had considered advertising to promote cannabis classes just to see if anyone would respond. He figured that since people were always asking him how to grow good pot, and he was always asking them to show up to speak and support cannabis policy reform at City Council, he could do a beneficial transaction to get people more involved in city council and other political actions. Jeff encouraged Richard and told him not only would he be there for the first classes, but he would also be interested in holding similar classes in his new LA location of the Patient ID Center. In the first week, over 200 people called inquiring about Richard’s bold advertisement, and Oaksterdam University was born.

Demand for classes grew quickly, and student registration waiting lists were months-long during those first years. Classes were inexpensive in hopes of attracting all walks of life. National media coverage put Oaksterdam in the spotlight, and the university grew faster than anyone imagined. Dale joined Oaksterdam’s staff as a science instructor in February 2008 and was determined to add satellite schools around the country. The LA location was the first site for an OU satellite campus followed by Ann Arbor, Michigan, which had passed a new law similar to California’s that allowed cultivation by patients and their caregivers. By early 2009 Dale had become a Co-Chancellor of the OU Los Angeles campus together with Jeff Jones. Michigan was so successful that Dale traveled to open a North Bay campus in Sebastopol, California that same year. Dale began planning for a Rhode Island campus and brought Jesse Stout from Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition to OULA to train him to facilitate a campus on the east coast.

PART FOUR – Oaksterdam University Gets Political

Richard Lee had bigger plans that Summer of 2009 and implemented an extensive open-source process to elicit input from the base on a statewide legalization campaign. After 14 public versions, with community feedback collected, several individuals came together to pen amendments that specifically ensured the rights of qualified patients.

Richard’s company SK Seymour owned Blue Sky Coffeeshop and Oaksterdam University and in September 2009, offered a ballot proposal to the voters of California asking to regulate cannabis similar to alcohol. Jeff Jones signed on as co-proponent based on helping medical patients, insisting that passing this initiative would help protect medical cannabis patients by making them less of a law enforcement target. The Control, Tax and Regulate Cannabis Act would allow adults 21 years old and older to possess and cultivate a small amount of cannabis and gave local jurisdictions the option to tax and regulate sales and commercial cultivation rather than continuing a dysfunctional war on drugs. Smart on resources, rather than tough on crime, the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010” finally got a number after the signature turn-in to the CA Secretary of State.

By November 2009, only two years after the college’s inception, the Oakland campus was leased and under renovation at 1600 Broadway to meet student demand. The new 30,000-square-foot school included multiple classrooms, a vast auditorium, the first hands-on grow lab, a theter, and the location also had 10,000-square-foot basement nursery full of baby plants. Class sizes and frequency grew and accommodated up to 120 students per class. Measure F passed in 2009 as well, making Oakland the first city in the country to assess a tax on medical cannabis clubs and dispensaries. Oaksterdam welcomed thousands of students from around the world and all the businesses in the neighborhood were becoming quite successful.

Not only was OU an educator, but the leaders were also Prop 19 activists. Richard spent over $1.3 million of his own money—including his profits from OU—to get the initiative on the ballot. While Prop 19 failed to pass, it made Oaksterdam the epicenter of the cannabis reform movement. The election sent a strong signal to Sacramento that California voters wanted the legislators to do their jobs and fix the broken laws. The campaign became a blueprint for the states that came after, putting moms and cops in the spokesperson chair and grassroots organizing.

During the Prop 19 campaign, co-proponent Jeff Jones married Dale Sky Jones at the Rotunda Building, asking friends and family to donate to the campaign in lieu of wedding gifts. They had their first son, Jackson Wolf, that December.

On April 2, 2012—a date that will forever remain imprinted in the minds of OU supporters—Oaksterdam University was raided by agents of the Internal Revenue Service, assisted by US Marshals, the ATF, and DEA. They raided Oaksterdam University, Gift Shop, Museum, Blue Sky Dispensary, the home of a friend, and the apartment of Richard Lee, forcibly retiring him from his businesses. The federal raid left the college in shambles; damage amounted to tens of thousands of dollars. Doors were broken, computers snatched, records removed, and lab cannabis plants cut down or removed. Unfortunately, because federal agents had not coordinated the raid with the Oakland Police Department, the worst school shooting in Oakland’s history took place that same day at Oikos University, with limited response from OPD. City Council protested the raid and OPD was furious for the lack of coordination or warning from the federal government on the beloved institution raided that Monday morning. The dispensary, school, museum and gift shop are each rescued by former staffers.

Though no legal charges were filed against Oaksterdam or its operators, fears of legal action kept students from completing their courses and enrollment plummeted. Richard stepped down as the Oaksterdam University President and assigned Dale Sky Jones, who at the time was OU’s Executive Chancellor overseeing all curriculum and satellite campuses, with the responsibility of rescuing the school and the museum as well as all corporate and operational responsibilities.

Some say Richard’s Prop 19 involvement and incredible success in the cannabis industry is what lead to the IRS raid of his home and businesses, including Oaksterdam University. Nonetheless, Dale–along with Dr. Aseem Sappal, OU’s Provost and Dean of Faculty, Lead Horticulture Technician Big Mike Parker and a small group of volunteers showed up the Wednesday following the raid to teach the last semester class scheduled. Ironically, the topic was legal raid preparation and training. Later that year, Oaksterdam moved from its large campus on Broadway to a more affordable location at 1734 Telegraph Avenue to help recover losses. OU also launched the Freedom Fighter Scholarship Fund for educating and including Veterans that continues to this day, offering free education for over a hundred of our nation’s bravest.

Since 2012, Oaksterdam and the cannabis industry continued to grow. The Prop 19 effort sprouted the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, a more official effort that attracted thought-leaders from many other genres including Ms. Alice Huffman of the NAACP and Antonio Gonzales of the William C Velasquez Institute. CCPR included every major and regional reform and patient-based organization in California and nationally. After hundreds of hours of meetings across the state with grassroots supporters and key influencers, thousands of comments on the initiative throughout the entire drafting and filing process, and with ongoing support on social media and email, CCPR’s ReformCA campaign successfully put California on a path toward legalization in 2016. Under the leadership of Aseem and Dale as well as committed faculty, volunteers and students, Oaksterdam climbed back from the ruins of the federal raid. OU began hosting on-the-road seminars including CME and CLE over the years in Rhode Island, Atlantic City, Denver, Las Vegas, Palm Beach, Louisville, Washington D.C. and New York City.

Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) (Proposition 64) qualified for the ballot with many of the policy consideration developed by ReformCA delegates and volunteers. While no one got everything they wanted, we addressed the most crucial elements for success with the AUMA team. Chief among them were protecting patients, economic fairness for small and medium businesses, protection for our environment, support for our education system, aid to disadvantaged communities, important legal protection for medical marijuana patients and their families, keeping children with their families, and social justice reforms for disadvantaged communities. Oaksterdam University developed intensive training programs for the Florida Department of Health and the California Board of Equalization, establishing an Office of Government Relations and Public Affairs.

PART FIVE – Oaksterdam State Of Mind

Today OU is proud of the over 35,000 graduates from more than 40 countries who have gone on to become entrepreneurs, business leaders, and cannabis advocates. Focused on everything from seed to sale, Oaksterdam coursework begins with federal and state laws and covers essential topics related to successful law enforcement encounters, constitutional rights, horticulture and business best practices and more. Online courses launched in 2018 and are available in addition to on-campus classes, which allow students from around the world to receive the exceptional education that Oaksterdam has to offer. As cannabis continues to be accepted and legalized around the world, Oaksterdam University continues to educate doctors, governments, and citizens internationally. Under the leadership of Aseem, OU has gone on the road abroad, educating in Israel, Jamaica, Mexico, Germany, and Uruguay. Aseem’s vision also includes the establishment of OU’s first international research & development center and the birth of Oaksterdam.TV.

People such as Joey Ereneta, Natalie Darves, Jeff Jones, Kyle Kushman, Richard Lee, Debby Goldsberry, Dave McCullick, Chris Conrad, Lauren Vasquez and Ed Rosenthal, as well as many other notable professionals—all cannabis industry’s top subject matter experts and practitioners—make up Oaksterdam University’s 150+ faculty. OU faculty helped write California’s Proposition 215, Senate Bill 420, Prop 64 and multiple state legislation and ballot initiatives, and continues to advise on the legislation and regulation of cannabis by local, state and international governments and agencies.

Throughout Oaksterdam University’s history, it has maintained the broadest reach, the most talented and experienced faculty, and the most dedicated alumni from around the world. In 2017, Oaksterdam University celebrated its 10th Anniversary as only OU could. Setting the bar for what could be called the most elaborate cannabis event ever to be held, Oaksterdam hosted an Emmy-like awards ceremony and dinner for nearly 500 people. Oaksterdam recognized the recent graduates and honored activists, entrepreneurs, students, faculty and citizens who have fought for cannabis rights and freedoms for over 20 years.

While there is much still to do, we want to recognize, honor and thank people who have made a difference in transforming the movement into an industry. This history is about celebrating the gladiators for what has been accomplished as well as remembering what has been lost in the cannabis policy reform battle. What the next 20 years will bring is uncertain. Based on the arc of history, Oaksterdam University will remain steadfast in educating others about the cannabis industry and leading the way in the reform movement.

We would like to personally thank each of you, as well as our students, faculty, staff, proponents, our supporters, those who have served on our board, and too many others to mention. Again, without you, none of this would have been possible. As we move onward together, we are excited about the future of Oaksterdam and cannabis policy reform and its role leading up to the 2020 elections and beyond. With your help, we will continue to advocate and organize to ensure America deschedules cannabis and implements current and future laws and regulations fairly. Onward, Oaksterdam Gladiators!