After Being Knocked Down, Business Is Thriving Once Again At 'The Harvard Of Pot'

By May Wilkerson 11/18/15

Oaksterdam University is attracting students from all over the country.

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Oaksterdam University in downtown Oakland is known as “the Harvard of Pot.” While it might sound like one, the university is no joke.

The school was founded in 2007 by Richard Lee, a paraplegic who used marijuana to prevent leg spasms and became a strong advocate for legalizing, regulating, and taxing the plant for medical use. He came up with the idea while visiting Amsterdam, the world headquarters of marijuana, where he noticed “a teaching thing called Cannabis College, a little cultivation place next to one of the seed companies.”

Though the school quickly attracted hundreds of students, it was shut down by federal raids in 2012, which Lee said were the feds’ “last-ditch effort” to enforce federal marijuana laws despite California legalizing medical marijuana in 1996. Since the raids, four states and Washington, D.C., have legalized pot and the US marijuana business has boomed, now raking in an estimated $3.5 billion a year.

As a result of the pot boom, Oaksterdam has rebounded. On the school’s 30,000-square-foot campus, students learn about the ins-and-outs of marijuana entrepreneurship. They also get a lesson in the harsh realities of the business.

In Cannabusiness 102, lawyer Robert Raich, who has argued two legalization cases before the Supreme Court, explicitly warns students of the risks of growing and selling pot, which the feds still classify as a Schedule I drug. “Until the federal government changes the Controlled Substances Act,” Raich said, “I teach how to create defenses against possible hostile action by the government.”

But despite this risk, the school’s business is booming. Today, Oaksterdam employs 20 staff members and 150 instructors, including some of the “biggest stars in the cannabis universe.” The school’s more than 23,000 graduates span ages 18 to 65 and come from every state in the country. Last month, about 30 California lawmakers attended lectures on taxation and regulation at the campus to prepare for an upcoming initiative that would legalize marijuana for recreational use in the state.

In fact, Oaksterdam is so popular it is now branching out to satellite locations, including a new campus in Las Vegas, where 250 students are paying up to $995 for a spot.

Some outsiders might scoff at an institution with a marijuana-based curriculum, but the university has big hopes. Oaksterdam’s provost and dean of students, Aseem Sappal, says he hopes it will eventually become credible as a serious institution of higher learning.

“We have high school grads sitting next to oncologists and city council members. We have senators, governors, former congressmen—this is who we’re working with,” Sappal said. “We have skepticism because it’s a big joke, people just smoking pot. But the country is moving in this direction for a reason.”

Marijuana has become such an attractive business opportunity that Oaksterdam has even attracted students who have never smoked pot. Like Jean Kennedy, a 56-year-old retired biology teacher who is enrolled at the school to learn about pot’s medicinal benefits. “My own sister thinks I’ve lost my mind,” she said. “But these are not crazy people. These are not potheads. When you come here, you see it: These are business people.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.