The nine-block section of Oakland that’s home to Oaksterdam University has become a microcosm of what widespread marijuana legalization in America might look like. Tourism has revitalized the business district, taxation has flowed into the city’s coffers, and the sky hasn’t fallen.
At Oaksterdam University, students learn how to grow and sell cannabis—legal in California for medicinal purposes since 1996. In Oakland, ten dispensaries are taxed and operate with the city government’s blessing. It just goes to show that the conversation about ending marijuana prohibition has taken a decidedly welcome realistic turn. More and more people are deciding that treating individuals who consume small amounts of cannabis for personal use shouldn’t be demonized and treated like criminals.
Unlike alcohol, marijuana doesn’t lead to violence, and the chances of an overdose death are nil. For the first time in US history, a majority of people seem to be shrugging and saying, hey, it’s really just not that big a deal. As author Paul Armentano said, “Hundreds of thousands of Californians use marijuana, and we should regulate this commodity like we do others.”
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron has estimated that the cost of cannabis prohibition is $13 billion annually, with an additional $7 billion lost in potential tax revenue. Even the students at Lee’s Oaksterdam University cite the job market as a reason for showing up: one man, there with his 21-year-old son, told NEWSWEEK he’d lost his business in the housing bust; another was looking for a way to supplement his income as a contractor. “Alcohol prohibition, the result of a century-long anti-alcohol crusade, was fairly quickly repealed in part because of the onset of the Great Depression,” says Craig Reinarman, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz and the coauthor of Crack in America. “I think we’re in a similar situation now, where states are so strapped for money that any source of new revenue is going to be welcomed.”
Oakland has become a kind of test lab for what legalized marijuana might look like. City Council member Rebecca Kaplan tells NEWSWEEK that the new tax revenue will help save libraries, parks, and other public services, and that the once destitute area where Oaksterdam now thrives has seen a clear boost. Over the past six years, 160 new businesses have moved into downtown Oakland, and the area’s vacancy rate has dropped from 25 percent to less than 5, according to Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency. And while that can’t be attributed to Oaksterdam directly, some local business owners believe it’s played a key role—particularly as it relates to local tourism. Lee hosts 500 students at Oaksterdam University each month—about 20 percent of them from out of state—and has graduated nearly 4,000 since he opened the school in late 2007, inspired by a “cannabis college” he discovered on a trip to Amsterdam. The Blue Sky Coffeeshop serves about 1,000 visitors a day, half of them from out of town, and neighboring stores say the traffic has helped drive business their way. Regulation, say advocates, has also made consumption safer. They say it gets rid of hazardous strains of the drug, and eliminates the crime that can accompany underground dealing.