Obama's War on Marijuana Rolls on in 'Oaksterdam' Raid

Illustration by Bloomberg Businessweek

On  Monday, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Internal Revenue Service raided the campus of Oaksterdam University, a trade school of sorts—some call it the “Princeton of Pot”—in Oakland, Calif., that instructs students on the finer points of growing, harvesting, and selling pot. Oaksterdam was established in 2007 after the state legalized medical marijuana; it later expanded to Los Angeles and Michigan. The federal raid was the latest in a series of actions by the Justice Department to crack down on the “legal” marijuana business that’s permitted by such states as California, yet violates federal law.

I briefly attended Oaksterdam University a few years ago for this article in the The Atlantic about the growing business of medical marijuana—or “cannabusiness,” as its proprietors like to say. Although media coverage of the campus tends to indulge all the usual stoner stereotypes, Oaksterdam is at heart a business school. Somewhat to my surprise, most of my classmates were not dreadlocked trustafarians or Jeff Spicoli types, but earnest, clean-cut, night-school sorts who wouldn’t have looked a bit out of place managing an Applebee’s franchise—a gauge of how promising the business of marijuana once looked.

At the time of my visit in the fall of 2008, California’s marijuana “community” was rapturously behind Barack Obama. Wandering through Venice’s various pot dispensaries with a local dealer (I was doing reporting!), I saw the famous Shepard Fairey “Hope” posters plastered just about everywhere, and I talked with some of the more committed activists who believed that Obama would legalize marijuana if he became president. That idea struck me as fantasy. But there was no denying that the medical marijuana movement appeared to have become a legitimate force in politics. With social mores loosening and budget deficits skyrocketing—marijuana dispensaries presented a welcome source of new tax revenue—California’s 2010 ballot initiative legalizing marijuana outright appeared to have a chance of passing.

Ultimately, it failed. And things have been pretty much downhill for its supporters ever since. Although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder initially indicated that prosecuting dispensaries would not be a priority, so long as they followed state and local laws, the Justice Department has aggressively gone after them. Last fall, four U.S. attorneys based in California gathered in Sacramento to announce that they would begin cracking down in earnest on these businesses, which would include going after their landlords. Raiding Oaksterdam is a part of this effort. It’s a further reminder that no group of supporters is more disappointed in—and alienated by—Obama’s presidency.

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