Oakland activist to turn over marijuana businesses after raid
Richard Lee plans to transfer Oaksterdam University and a pot dispensary to
others but vows to remain an advocate for legalization.
By John Hoeffel, Los Angeles Times
April 6, 2012
Richard Lee, whose bid to legalize marijuana in California brought him
international attention, plans to give up ownership of his Oakland-based
marijuana businesses after a federal raid this week seized many of their
assets, including plants, bank accounts, records and computers.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. Over 20 years…. I kind of feel
like I’ve done my time,” Lee said Thursday. “It’s time for others to take
Lee said he would remain an outspoken marijuana advocate. “I believe that
cannabis prohibition is unjust and counterproductive,” he said. “What I’ve
done is ethical, and I tried to use the resources that I had to do
everything I could to change the laws.”
In some of his most extensive comments since the raid, Lee acknowledged
that he was worried he could face major federal drug charges. It’s a risk
he has lived with for many years, first as an underground pot grower and
then as the leader of a serious legalization effort, which drew vigorous
opposition from the federal government.
“I never wanted to be the quote unquote leader of the legalization
movement,” he said in a telephone interview. “I saw myself as just one
small soldier in a big war. But I look at it as a battlefield promotion.”
Lee’s Oaksterdam University, the first marijuana trade school in the
nation, remains open, although its classes have been scaled back. Lee’s
dispensary is also open. He plans to transfer the businesses to new
operators. But he will shut down his marijuana nursery because his stock of
mother plants, which he had nurtured for years, was confiscated.
The former rock-band roadie is one of the highest-profile marijuana
activists in the nation, if not the world. His school drew wide-eyed media
coverage after it opened in 2007, helping him promote his vision that
marijuana could be a legitimate business.
A paraplegic who uses a wheelchair, Lee, 49, became the telegenic spokesman
for ending pot prohibition after he spent more than $1.5 million trying to
pass Proposition 19 to legalize the drug in 2010.
He is a well-known and highly regarded figure in Oakland, where city
officials praise his businesses for resuscitating a shabby downtown area
embarrassingly close to City Hall.
Lee was detained during Monday’s raid by the Internal Revenue Service and
the Drug Enforcement Administration, but not arrested. His allies had
feared he would be arrested in 2010, when he spoke frequently, candidly and
enthusiastically about his pot ventures.
On Thursday, Lee suggested that, if he is charged, it could become another
watershed event in the march toward legalization by turning more Americans
against the drug war. “In some ways, I see the possible prosecution of
myself as another Proposition 19,” he said.
Federal penalties for growing marijuana increase with the number of plants.
More than 60,000 can bring the death penalty, Lee noted. He said he did not
know how many plants were seized. “We didn’t have 60,000 plants on site,
but they can add up the 13 years,” he said.
Lee said his operations had been audited by the IRS, but he did not know
what triggered the raid and seizures. “The company is bankrupt,” he said,
suggesting that employees, who could lose jobs, and Oakland, which could
lose revenues from taxes on marijuana, were also victims.
Until he knows whether he has to mount a legal defense, Lee said, he plans
to work on a book and a television series about his career. “I think the
nationwide coverage of the raid shows that there is a story here that a lot
of people would like to see and like to hear about,” he said.
Lee also said he would consider helping legalization efforts in other
states: “This may free me up to be able to go campaign.”
He noted that Oaksterdam University has trained about 15,000 marijuana
experts and activists who are now at work around the country, suggesting
that he has marshaled an army for the legalization fight. “We are getting
very close to a tipping point on this issue,” he said.