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From the Ashes

Two years after the feds threatened to snuff out Oakland’s pot culture for good, Oaksterdam is (almost) as stoned as ever.

The Oaksterdam mural, now painted over, at 17th Street and Broadway.

The Oaksterdam mural, now painted over, at 17th Street and Broadway.

Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco magazine is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

 

It’s a sunny Wednesday morning at Oaksterdam University, and the cops have come knocking. “Knock, knock, knock. This is the police,” drawls an older man. “We have a warrant for your arrest,” a younger one chimes in. This is Kali Grech’s cue. “An officer must have a warrant to search your home,” the lawyer and Oaksterdam lecturer says to an audience of 25 or so students—male and female, black and white, young and old, but mostly 38-ish dudes in shorts and T-shirts. The space is small and fluorescent-lit: Were it not for the plants vegetating under lights in the corner, the nation’s most notorious—and, to be fair, possibly only—marijuana university could be a traffic school.

This unaccredited college was founded by grower-activist Richard Lee in 2007 as part of a broad-ranging vision to combine downtown revitalization and a concentration of canna-business into a dedicated pot district. And for a while, that vision appeared to be blossoming. Dispensaries popped up around the nexus of 17th Street and Broadway, and the school enrolled hundreds of eager students. In 2010, the Lee-sponsored campaign to legalize recreational marijuana via Proposition 19 brought the eighth-largest economy in the world to within 350,000 votes of making dope legal.

Federal retribution, however, was thorough. As the movement’s front line and biggest figurehead, Oaksterdam was the target of a federal crackdown that brought about 100 agents from the U.S. Marshals, the DEA, and the IRS to Oakland on April 2, 2012. In the wake of the raid, about a half dozen pot-related businesses in Uptown closed. “The whole neighborhood was depressed,” says Dale Sky Jones, now Oaksterdam’s executive chancellor. “You could hear the crickets.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Oaksterdam’s untimely demise. Namely, it didn’t happen, at least not entirely. Two years after real cops came knocking, the university, the local culture that it spawned, and the “weed district” of Lee’s imagination are alive and well—if in a less flashy, more diffuse form. Downtown is dotted with storefronts with names like MediCann, Patient ID Center, and the admirably candid Oakland 420 Evaluations, where, for $65, customers can get a diagnosis of anxiety or depression—and, of course, the pot scrip that comes with it. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, head shops share walls with third-wave coffee shops. And if you know where to look, you can spot the weed speakeasies (private shops operating under the auspices of Oakland’s voter-approved Measure Z, which makes pot crime the Oakland Police Department’s lowest enforcement priority) slinging eighths behind dusty windows with nothing but an armed security guard and a conspicuous lack of signage to identify them. Inside, a brisk commerce goes down as tattooed hipsters and suit-clad professionals wait in an orderly line before being called, one by one, to survey the selection of Chemdawg, Shiva Skunk, and Girl Scout Cookies—all packed into tiny baggies under the counter and delineated by strain, THC content, and price on a whiteboard.

Oakland’s eight permitted dispensaries—including Harborside Health Center, the nation’s largest such business—are scattered throughout town now. Regulated marijuana access points have become law up and down the state. Oaksterdam University itself boasts a two-month waiting list. And Sky Jones is optimistic: “Whatever we’ve lost here has proliferated 100-fold everywhere else,” she says. “It’s a good thing, in that we’re not the only place to go anymore. That means we’re winning.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco.

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