The Man Behind Prop. 19: Richard Lee on Marijuana's Chances

Few non-criminals can accurately be described as "marijuana entrepreneurs," but that's what Richard Lee is.

Since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, he's become something of a cannabis commerce don in Oakland, opening up legitimate (depending on whom you ask) businesses around the activity of weed smoking: in 1999 he opened the Bulldog Coffeeshop, which has doubled as a medical-marijuana vendor to card carriers, and in 2007 he founded Oaksterdam University, a college that will teach you how to grow and sell marijuana at campuses in Oakland, Sebastopol (an hour to the North), Los Angeles, and Flint, Michigan.

He's pushed for legalization along the way, helping to pass a law in Oakland that effectively decriminalized marijuana and called for city a city taxation scheme. This year, California voters will pass judgment on his paragon effort to date: Proposition 19, the ballot initiative to legalize pot statewide.Richard Lee - Getty Images.jpg

Lee drafted Prop. 19 and put it on the ballot despite opposition from the established players in the marijuana legalization community. National groups like Drug Policy Alliance told him 2010 was a bad year and that 2012 would be better, given the broader turnout of a presidential race.

Staid voices in the political pot scene also told Lee he was writing it wrong. Prop. 19, as it was drafted, would only legalize possession and personal cultivation statewide; it would be up to individual cities and counties to allow, regulate, and tax commercial growth and sale, as well as public places (nightclubs, for instance) where pot could be smoked in public. This was wrong, Lee was told: a more statewide model--a mandated regulatory regime to treat pot like alcohol across the state, with the state collecting taxes--was the only way to sell legalization to the public.

Lee ignored that advice, spending over $1.45 million of his companies' money to put Prop. 19 on the ballot (it qualified in June, surpassing the needed 433,971 signatures), and here we are. Prop. 19 stands a reasonable chance of passing on November 2, with polls conflicted on its probable fate.

Find below an interview with Lee on legalization, its chances, and what will happen if Prop. 19 succeeds.

How is business at Oaksterdam?

It's good. We're bringing in lots of students form all over the country, so that's good for the city, selling lots of hotel rooms and other business for the city.

How many students do you teach per year?

We have about a hundred in our weekend seminars that we have a couple [of] per month, and then we have a few hundred students enrolled in our semester programs at any one time, we have three semesters a year, so we're over 12,000 now ... for the first three years.

Is marijuana going to be legal in Californa next year?

If Prop. 19 passes. It looks like at the moment it's going to.

You've put this measure on the ballot in 2010 against the advice of some other voices in the marijuana legalization establishment who thought that 2012 would be a better year. Why did you want to go ahead in 2010?

Well, I think the issue can't wait. We've been proven right that the campaign has made this a legitimate political issue, and it's been real nice to have a lot of the people who were against it last year call me up and thank me up and thank me this year for doing it.

Prop. 19 leaves it up to counties to establish regulation and taxation regimes, which was another thing people disagreed with. What's better about your bill?

First of all we had to do it that way because of federal law. We could not set up a positive conflict [with federal drug law], otherwise it would get thrown out in the courts--you understand the difference between mandating that you do something against federal law and just eliminating the state laws against it and changing the state law to allow cities and counties to break federal law. So really, we didn't have a choice.

As far as the different laws, we have that for everything else. Cities make up their own zoning and all kinds of other laws, so the argument that this is crazy and that it's only thing we do it for isn't true at all. We have different alcohol laws where cities decide what bars and restaurants and whatever can sell it.

Do you think the commercial licensing provision in Prop. 19, even though it doesn't set up a positive conflict, would survive a court challenge from the federal government?

Yes. The federal government can't change state law. They can't force the state to change its laws--there's pretty good case history on that.

What do you think the federal government's response will be if California legalizes under Prop. 19?

Well, did you see that Wall Street Journal piece about the Democrats looking to run more cannabis initiatives in 2012 to help them?

I did, and we've actually written about that idea too. [See Josh Green on the topic here.]

That can be a good sign that the Democrats see that this is an issue that's gonna help them, and so they're not gonna come out against it. Plus, Obama would have to come out against democracy and the will of the people voting, so I think there's a lot of reasons why they won't. But we don't know what they'll do.

At the same time, both Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer have endorsed the No on 19 campaign. Were you surprised by that?

No, and honestly that may be helping us in the polls because there's such an anti-incumbent mood. We may have to send them a thank-you note, just like they will owe us a thank-you note for helping to get them elected by bringing out the young Democratic voters.

Presented by

Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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