Only in California… can you take college courses aimed at training you for the medical marijuana business. Oaksterdam University, with campuses in Oakland, Calif., and Los Angeles, offers a full range of basic and advanced-level classes in such subjects as horticulture, distribution, and operating a dispensary to serve the 18,000-odd Californians licensed to smoke homegrown pot as part of a physician’s treatment regimen – usually for pain – under a 1996 California law. Eleven other states have similar laws that either carve out exceptions where there is a doctor’s prescription or drastically reduce penalties if the drug is being used medically, not recreationally.
One class is a required prerequisite for all Oaksterdam students: “Politics/Legal Issues 101,” taught by a team of experienced cannabis lawyers. That’s undoubtedly because, although medical marijuana might be legal in California, the federal government continues to regard the cultivation, possession, and distribution of the substance for any purpose as a crime. In 2005 in a case from California, the Supreme Court ruled that federal drug bans supersede state medical-marijuana laws governing drug use, citing the danger that “unscrupulous physicians” or their patients might divert medically authorized marijuana into the illicit recreational market, especially in neighboring states such as Nevada, where all marijuana use remains illegal. The justices’ concern might have been well-placed, for one of the challenges to the federal law was brought by a woman who said she had to smoke a joint every two hours or risk death from a “wasting syndrome” of unknown medical origin that kept her from eating without a pot booster.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, California continues to operate as a kind of medical-marijuana “sanctuary” state, continuing to allow counties to issue licenses for physician-prescribed cannabis despite the violations of federal law entailed. That means that operating a medical-marijuana dispensary can be a lucrative business indeed. Last October, federal Drug Enforcement Agency officers arrested two Oakland-area brothers for allegedly selling some $49 million in state-authorized pot over three years from their dispensary, which had a permit to operate under California law. Around the same time, DEA agents arrested 26-year-old dispensary-entrepreneur Luke Scarmazzo of Modesto, Calif., for doing some $13,000 worth of alleged marijuana business a month. According to a 60 Minutes report, Sarmazzo was running something called the Healthcare Collective, which was supposed to be distributing homegrown marijuana to cancer patients and others in distress, but which, according to federal agents, was fronting a black-market operation with ties to organized crime.
Oaksterdam University derived its name from a section of Oakland nicknamed “Oaksterdam” because its numerous smoke-filled medical-marijuana dispensaries, many doubling as coffeehouses, bear a striking resemblance to similar facilities in the Dutch city Amsterdam, where pot-smoking is notoriously legal. That’s a lot of pain-wracked Oakland residents. The university lacks any sort of accreditation, and its classes typically run no longer than a day or weekend, but who needs academic formalities when the demand for learning the medical-marijuana trade is so high? Some classes at Oaksterdam not set to be taught until July are already filled up.