Richard Lee rolled his wheelchair up the ramp and glided onstage, steering himself to a table draped in a green cloth with "Oaksterdam University" spelled out in gold, varsity-sweater letters.
The founder of the nation's first marijuana trade school was there to deliver a few inspirational words to about 70 students hoping to become the next Richard Lee, an entrepreneur who says his medical marijuana dispensary, nursery and other pot-related businesses bring in as much as $7 million a year.
Lee fiddled with a camera pointed at a leafy plant until an image came into focus on an overhead screen: a ready-to-harvest marijuana bud.
But when he spoke, it was about the business, not the bud. To Lee, the pot business is a political tool to achieve "the most important thing," an end to decades of prohibition. He believes Americans can be persuaded to legalize pot if they see it toked and taxed without dire consequences.
"When I started, they were like, 'No, that'll never work. It will lead to chaos, end of the world, apocalypse, dogs sleeping with cats. It'll just, you know, never work.' And so we had to just basically do it," Lee said. "So that's why I remind you to not be about growing bud and selling bud and making money.
"Be involved in the politics," he said, "and good luck to you. Be careful."
Buds and politics are his life. Lee, 47, has built his pot businesses into a kind of legalization pilot project in Oakland. Now he hopes California voters will take the next step. He is the driving force behind Proposition 19 on the Nov. 2 ballot, which would let people 21 and older grow and possess marijuana and allow local governments to permit retail sales and collect taxes. So far, he has spent $1.5 million to draft the measure, get it on the ballot and sell it to voters.
With his cowlicky hair, aviator glasses and reticent smile, Lee looks disarmingly boyish, as if time stopped in 1982 when Nancy Reagan told Oakland schoolchildren to just say no. But he has become one of the most visible and effective spokesmen for legalization. He comes across on television as earnest, knowledgeable and surprisingly candid for a man who became a millionaire selling a drug that is still illegal under federal law.
Oaksterdam University, founded three years ago, gave Lee a platform. The school started as a lark when he ran a newspaper ad touting "Quality Training for the Cannabis Industry." He didn't intend to provide it, he says. It was agitprop meant to stir media attention.
"I was trying to figure out the best way to promote the idea of a cannabis industry," Lee said, "instead of all this nonprofit cooperatives, a bunch of hippies, peace and love, sharing their bud together, like a Coca-Cola commercial — you know, teach the world to sing. No, this is like Budweiser and Jack Daniel's. It's a business."
Within days, Lee had a list of applicants, and a joke became a school. It still reflects Lee's subversive sense of humor. The seal is modeled on Harvard's, but with the motto "Veritas" replaced by "Cannabis."
The school, which offers classes on cultivation, cooking, legal issues and pot as a business, has outgrown two sites and now occupies a 30,000-square-foot office building in Oakland. Classes are also offered in Los Angeles, Sebastopol and North Bay, Mich. Some 12,000 students have earned certificates. Fees range from $250 for a weekend seminar to $650 for a 13-week course.
The university is the centerpiece of Lee's businesses, located in a timeworn area near Oakland City Hall that began to revive when marijuana dispensaries were drawn to its cheap real estate. Lee opened one of the first in 1999.
In a bid to demonstrate that marijuana can be a tax-paying, job-generating business like any other, he launched other pot-related ventures including a retail outlet that sells plants from his nursery and a weed-themed gift shop. Lee's enterprises employ 52 people. He promotes the area as a destination for pot tourists and pays the owner of a Model T to drive them around.
He presides over the neighborhood, nicknamed Oaksterdam after pot-friendly Amsterdam, with a proprietary air. He straightens signs. He scoops up trash. He is frequently recognized and asked to pose for photographs. "I feel like the guy in the Mickey Mouse costume," he said.
At Coffeeshop Blue Sky, his dispensary, Lee tries to make the point that a pot shop can be as innocuous as a corner market. He rolls past the caffeine to the room where an employee sells Hindu Skunk ("Effect: Cerebral; Bouquet: Spicy with sweet undertones") from behind a Dutch door. He shows off pot cupcakes, chocolates, lollipops and a concoction with seaweed and alfalfa that he calls "total Northern California."
Lee is single, lives in a one-bedroom apartment and drives a 13-year-old Bonneville. Of his pot prosperity, he said: "I never saw it as my money. I see the businesses as part of the politics."
He operates in a gray zone created by conflicting and murky federal, state and local laws, themselves a reflection of the country's divided attitudes toward pot.
The California attorney general's office says medical marijuana dispensaries and nurseries must be not-for-profit collectives run by patients or caregivers. Most cities with dispensaries adhere to that view, but Oakland lets individuals own dispensaries and make a profit, provided it's not "excessive."
Lee maintains that state law is vague enough to allow for his "liberal, progressive" interpretation that medical cannabis can be a profit-making business.
Under federal laws, marijuana is illegal for any purpose. But the Obama administration has decided not to arrest dispensary operators who are in "unambiguous compliance" with state laws.
To avoid antagonizing federal narcotics agents, Lee talks about his business with a practiced vagueness. "If you don't rub it in their faces," he said, "it's not an issue."
At the same time, Lee insists he has been on a "suicide mission" for almost two decades. "Every year, I try to get busted, and I can't do it," he joked. If it happens, he is prepared. The plants in his nursery sprout from pots labeled: "Juries cannot be punished for their verdicts."
If they become evidence in a trial, Lee hopes the jury will get the message.
Lee grew up in Houston and went to a Catholic high school. His parents were Goldwater Republicans who taught their five sons that marijuana was "the weed of the devil," although they now support his initiative.
He studied communications at the University of Houston but was drawn to extracurricular work as a stagehand for campus shows. He dropped out of school and became a lighting technician for bands. "Everyone I've worked for, you've heard of," he said, naming LL Cool J, Dwight Yoakam and Aerosmith.
In 1990, on tour with Aerosmith, Lee fell and landed on his tool belt. A severe spinal injury left him paralyzed from the waist down. "It was kind of a freak thing because I didn't fall very far," said Lee, who turns silent when pressed for details.
The accident changed everything for the fiercely independent 27-year-old, who used to drive a motorcycle and pilot an ultra-light aircraft. "You could go on a deserted island with a girl. That's fun. So, you know, when you can't get out of the plane, it kind of slows down the fun," he said.
A year later, Lee and a friend were in a drive-through at a Jack in the Box in Houston when carjackers stole their vehicle. "They pulled out large-caliber revolvers and put them to our heads," he said.
The police took 45 minutes to arrive. When Lee, who had left his wheelchair at home, asked for a ride, he says one of the officers cracked, "What do we look like, a taxi company?"
He says he stewed over the delayed police response until he had an epiphany.
"I thought about that the police are wasting their time looking for people like me and my friends, you know, cannabis consumers, instead of the real criminals, the real sociopaths and predators out there," he said, explaining how he was inspired to crusade for marijuana legalization. "The cause saved my life."
He started with a stunt, setting up an informational table on marijuana outside the Houston Police Department. "They were not amused. It lasted about 15 minutes," he said. An officer spotted a water pipe and arrested him. Lee said he spent a night in jail and pleaded no contest.
In 1992, Lee opened a store devoted to non-psychoactive pot. He cheekily named it "Legal Marijuana — The Hemp Store." It was more soapbox than store. Lee would talk to customers about the absurdity of outlawing a plant as versatile as hemp. "You could start a conversation, and then they started going, 'Wow, the stoner's not stupid,'" he said.
He also started to talk about pot's medical benefits, saying it quieted the spasms in his legs. Now he mostly avoids the subject. "I've always been for total legalization and seen medical only as a political reality," he said.
Lee moved to California in 1997, a year after it became the first state to allow marijuana to be consumed as a medicine. In a warehouse near the Oakland Coliseum, he started a growing operation that he said yielded about a dozen pounds a month. One night, he heard booming and felt the building shake. "I'm like, 'Oh, that's got to be the front door being kicked in, right?'" he said. It was a stadium fireworks display.
He lived in the warehouse for seven years. "You learn not to socialize much," he said. Jeff Jones, who ran the medical marijuana cooperative that Lee supplied and is one of his closest allies, said he was reclusive. He marveled recently at how Lee has managed "to come out of his closet for the last decade."
When he did, he proved a shrewd political strategist.
In 2004, as Oakland clamped down on dispensaries, Lee spearheaded a local initiative requiring police to make marijuana their lowest enforcement priority. To appeal to non-users, he pitched it not as legalization, but as a way to "tax and regulate" marijuana. The measure passed with 65% of the vote.
Marijuana is now all but legal in Oakland. Underground clubs sell it to adults with no pretense that it is for medical use. Four dispensaries pay a tax approved last year that raises about $800,000 a year. The now-pot-enamored City Council has endorsed Lee's legalization initiative, approved a plan for four enormous indoor marijuana farms and placed a pot tax increase on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Council members who were once adversaries treat Lee as a respected advisor. "Let me just thank you for who you are and what you've done for the industry," Councilman Larry Reid said at a hearing after Lee had spoken.
Lee decided to push a statewide initiative even though veteran activists urged him to wait until 2012, when the presidential election would probably bring out more liberal voters. He believed the recession made his tax-and-regulate message all the more resonant.
"He's it. It was his idea. He bankrolled it. His team wrote it," said Dale Gieringer, head of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Lee has contributed about three-fourths of the $1.9 million the campaign had raised by midyear. His go-it-alone approach left some natural allies on the sidelines, including wealthy donors who bankrolled earlier measures to loosen California's drug laws. And Lee has been vilified by some within the medical marijuana community who prefer the status quo and who argue that the initiative could disrupt their businesses and jeopardize patients' access to pot.
Polls show that about half the state's voters support Proposition 19. Lee, who professes a visceral distaste for politics, had hoped to fade into the background when the initiative made the ballot. But with no high-profile supporters and no money for TV ads, he remains its most visible advocate.
One recent day, Lee drove into San Francisco to search for potential donors and endorsers at a fundraising lunch for a union-backed nonprofit. Wearing his usual Oaksterdam polo shirt, he stood out among the sharp suits and sleek dresses.
As the speeches began, Lee flipped absently through the program, studied ceiling beams and chuckled when Mayor Gavin Newsom announced he had one final thought after stem-winding past several other final thoughts. When the pinstriped Democrat strode out, Lee sped after him and asked for an endorsement.
Newsom, a candidate for lieutenant governor, reeled back in theatrical horror. "Oh, Jesus," he cried. "Oh, God. Oh, God."
He swiveled. He vanished.
Undeterred, Lee went back inside to try again.