Downtown Oakland, Calif., has become a modern marijuana mecca.
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-size 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 sneakers, 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 coffeehouse 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.