Oaksterdam University: Oakland’s “cannabis college”

Richard Lee is the president of Oaksterdam University

If you’re a proponent of legalizing marijuana, recent events may have left a bad taste in your mouth.

Back in October then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger “semi-decriminalized” the possession of small amounts of cannabis. But then in November, voters rejected Proposition 19, which would have softened certain pot-related charges. And this past June, the State Assembly vetoed a bill that would have let county district attorneys decide whether growers should face misdemeanor or felony charges.

Still, the medical marijuana industry is thriving, with a couple dozen medical marijuana facilities in San Francisco and the East Bay, and many more statewide. They all require staff. And the best-known place to learn the trade is Oaksterdam University, in Oakland. We sent KALW’s Steven Short for a weekend session to see what he’d find in the halls of higher education.

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CHAD GILMORE: I recommend a half a pound in a five-gallon area. Because the agitation will allow for – the surface space is, open. One pound only gives you so much surface space, but a half a pound, opened up, allows the water to go through, and get to all the crystals.

STEVEN SHORT: Come in late to Chad Gilmore’s Extraction Class, and you might mistake it for any trade school science lecture. But once focused on the instructor, you realize this is very specialized information.

GILMORE: It’s like taking, when you’re smoking, one big bud and sticking it into your pipe and trying to smoke it over and over again. It gets black; it gets charred.

Welcome to Oaksterdam University, perhaps the best-known training school for anyone interested in working in California’s medical marijuana trade.

The growing field of medical marijuana is working at correcting a lot of negative popular perception, including a long line of comedy, ranging from stoner duos like Cheech & Chong to Harold & Kumar. But more recent comics, such as Katt Williams, go the other direction, making it sound as wholesome as the Seven Dwarves.

Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between. But Williams’ comment about proper dosage – whether aspirin, marijuana, or anything else, for that matter – is part of the training here. That’s covered in Patient Relations 101 – formerly Budtending – as well as in the Methods of Ingestion classes.

DIEDRA BAGDASARIAN: Raise your hands if you currently participate in the medical marijuana marketplace, as something other than a patient, meaning that you’re, like, exchanging goods and services. Very few of you.

Oakland resident Diedra Bagdasarian has led one of those “Methods of Ingestion” classes at Oaksterdam for about a year now.

And while this class is titled Cooking with Cannabis, you won’t find any ovens or mixing bowls here. And you certainly won’t find any raw ingredients. It’s strictly a lecture class, because possession and consumption of medical cannabis, like all prescriptions, is limited to those with doctor recommendations. Oh, and it’s worth noting that it’s totally prohibited by federal law. Right now Bagdasarian is offering some history.

BAGDASARIAN: Our first – like our first knowledge of mankind using cannabis was ten thousand years ago, okay. Okay? That is longer than most of this country thinks the Earth is old. (laughter) And that’s not just me. That’s the BBC. I’m not making this stuff up. I got that from the BBC.

Bagdasarian rattles off a few more historic highlights from that ten thousand year period: Egyptian pharaohs were buried with it. Queen Victoria used it, and she was monarch of the British Empire for most of the 1800s.

BAGDASARIAN: She used cannabis, she used it for medical reasons, to treat her “lady problems.” The Queen of England! That should be like the most conservative woman on the planet, right? (laughter) Like, c’mon!

In Bagdasarian’s Cooking with Cannabis class, at least one of the students, Tim Yarbrough of Chico, already has some pretty good culinary skills.

TIM YARBROUGH: I was a Chef Instructor the last nine years, and thought maybe I should find out about using cannabis in cooking – because I see it evolving and getting bigger, you know, each year.

RICHARD LEE: There’s a lot of people being gainfully employed in the industry. I’d say, in general, the pay range is about $50,000 to $100,000.

Richard Lee is president of Oaksterdam University. He moved to Oakland in 1998 to work with the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, following the passage of Proposition 215, the first California medical marijuana initiative. But it was a trip to the Cannabis College in Amsterdam, Holland, which inspired his next move.

LEE: I thought about taking that one step farther, and making a trade school. And so we ran an ad in the back of East Bay Express to see if anyone was interested, and we had over 200 phone calls in the first couple days. And were sold out months in advance, for the first year.

SHORT: That was 2007?

LEE: Right, November, 2007 was the first class.

Many industries have taken root in California before growing throughout the country. And every new industry has start-up hassles: look at solar power. But few of those hassles include felony charges for growing or possessing your raw material.

LEE: Well, it’s true, that there’s give and take, attacks and counter-attacks. But in general, things are going our way.

That’s an audacious statement, especially in Oakland, where earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office cracked down on the Oakland City Council’s plans to operate industrial-sized cannabis greenhouses. But Lee doesn’t see it as a setback.

LEE: In general, I wouldn’t say the federal government is cracking down. As far as the Oakland commercial permits – that got a lot of media, but things are moving ahead. And if you look at California, with our medical marijuana system, some people would say that it’s already legal here. It’s fairly easy to go to a doctor, get a recommendation, and then there’s thousands of places open, selling cannabis. You can get it delivered to you, like pizza.

A growing number of states – 14 at present – now authorize some form of legal cannabis. And students from every state, with the exception of North Dakota, have come to Oakland to take classes at Oaksterdam University.

And medical cannabis, Lee points out, is only one of many uses for the plant.

LEE: Hemp is any of the industrial uses, the non-psychoactive uses. So it’s not just the fibers off the stalk, but the seed is the other big use – for the oils, food products, as well as beauty or skin products.

Students in Deidra Bagdasarian’s cooking class aren’t focused on hemp, of course. Their thoughts are elsewhere.

BAGDASARIAN: Do not make a recipe that you’ve never made before, with cannabis. Test your recipes without cannabis first. Okay? You do not want to, you know, make a $200 mistake. That’s not a good time.

Actually, student Josh Salans of San Jose, says he doesn’t know anyone interested in growing industrial hemp. And, he notes, hemp plants and cannabis plants should not be grown together.

JOSH SALANS: Where I have land in Mendocino County, I was told that if I tried to grow hemp, I’d be killed. Because hemp will pollinate the pot, right? Because they’re male. So you don’t want that. So you don’t want hemp anywhere near your pot-growing.

SHORT: Well, you learn something every day.

SALANS: Yeah! (chuckles) Under threat of duress!

It will be years before growers and government officials straighten out who can grow what, where. In the meantime, Oaksterdam University will continue to provide training in legal issues, history, ingestion, and economics.

And with hundreds of thousands of cardholders using medical cannabis for everything from AIDS to anorexia, glaucoma to chronic pain the prospects of these Oaksterdam grads finding jobs should be … high.

In Oakland, I’m Steven Short, for Crosscurrents.

It was 15 years ago that the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op began, in 1996, paved the way for businesses such as Oaksterdam University.

This story originally aired on June 14, 2011.