Have we become a nation of chronic employment? Out in California -- spiritual home to the Grateful Dead, Snoop Dogg, Cheech & Chong and Weeds -- it appears to be the case. According to a 2009 Field Poll, 56 percent of Californians want marijuana legalized, although enthusiasm for Proposition 19, the bill for voters to decide if recreational pot usage is legit for those 21 and older, appears to be burning out as election day approaches. Pass or fail, however, attitudes seem to be shifting all across the country. A recent Gallup poll found more Americans than ever (although still a minority) support legalization, with a whopping 78 percent of self-identified "liberals" saying marijuana should be decriminalized and taxed.
The Golden State already has a booming $2 billion medical marijuana industry, and estimates of the total market are at $14 billion, which would make it the state's largest cash crop. For medical patients, 14 other states have followed suit, and a January ABC/Washington Post poll found that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of allowing doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to alleviate pain and suffering.
For entrepreneurs, there's gold in them thar crops. Richard Lee, who founded one of the nation's first hemp retailers in Houston, is a leader in the blossoming field. In 2007, he founded Oaksterdam University, a trade school with a curriculum focused on the cannabis industry. Today, executive chancellor Dale Sky Jones, a medical marijuana patient who spent years in corporate America, handles the day-to-day operations and expansion projects at Oaksterdam U.
In a wide-ranging interview, Jones, 35, explained how the operations work, why it's such a potential growth industry and who stands to benefit. And for the record, there's no need to ask her about "higher learning," or if students remember to go to class. She's heard it all before, thanks.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in a rock-and-roll household. My mom was a popular radio host in Miami, who used my teenage years as fodder, but raised me to be a go-getter. My stepfather, who raised me from 10, was a drummer for Grand Funk Railroad and Bob Seger. In true rebellious fashion, I went conservative and got the hell out at 18 to work in corporations. I spent years working in retail and hospitality management for companies like Brown Shoe, Radisson and T.G.I. Friday's. I lived all over, in cities like Seattle and small towns like Casper, Wyo. I learned a lot of best practices that need to be brought to the cannabis industry.
What brought you to California?
I took a job managing a group of doctors in Orange County, which is where I learned about medical marijuana. In 2008, I was sitting in an Oaksterdam class in Los Angeles and the doctor got lost and couldn't make the class. Since I was already teaching patients about it, I stepped in as a facilitator. I'm still teaching today. There's been a lot of red-eye flights, but come hell or highwater, I haven't missed one yet.
Explain how Oaksterdam University got started.
California went through a nasty learning curve after medical marijuana was legalized in 1996. Richard Lee saw an opportunity to teach people not only how to grow and cultivate the crops, but also the history, politics, First Amendment issues and science. Most of us slept through our 8th-grade civics classes. People don't know their rights. One of our faculty members, Robert Raich, was an attorney in the two medical marijuana cases that went before the Supreme Court. Initially, it started out somewhat as a marketing scheme to get people involved in government meetings. We want to educate folks so they become advocates.
How big is Oaksterdam University?
Our mothership is in downtown Oakland, which is where the city's dispensaries are. We have a 30,000-square-foot campus with classrooms, auditoriums, a grow lab and a theater. We have satellite campuses where we hold weekend seminars in Los Angeles, Sebastopol in the North Bay, and in Flint, Mich.
How many students have taken courses, and what are the offerings?
Around 12,000 people have taken classes, everyone from kids out of high school to out-of-work real estate agents to retired law enforcement agents. The weekend seminar is $250 for 12 hours of instruction and a binder full of core source material. The $650 advanced semester program is 32 hours over 13 weeks and features classes like Methods of Ingestion and Cannabusiness. We also offer electives with guest speakers, and a comprehensive hands-on Horticulture Semester.
Is it legal to work with marijuana?
No. Our students work with rosemary, unless they are qualified medical-marijuana patients. We don't dispense. All we do is educate. The marijuana that is grown legally by our gardeners is donated to a local wheelchair-bound woman who suffers from MS and to a nearby AIDS patient.
It must be a challenge running a business with all these legal questions.
It is. We have to walk the line of both federal and state laws. Until marijuana is legalized, this isn't an industry, it's a movement. Right now, I'm almost entirely focused on California's current legalization campaign. I sort of fell into the role as one of the political leaders. This is a for-profit business, we're big fans of capitalism, but right now we're reinvesting everything back into the company and the greater cause.
If marijuana is legalized, what kind of economic benefits do you think California will actually see?
We know it's the largest cash crop, but the size of the black market is tricky. Conservative estimates are that, if controlled and taxed, California would receive $1.4 billion in tax revenue a year. Once it's legitimate, there will be tens of thousands of green jobs for gardeners, farmers and growers. But it's not just marijuana, there's also hemp, which can be used for paper and fiber. There are also all the ancillary businesses like insurance, tech support, cleaning crews and so on. It will be a huge growth market, ideal for single-earner families or people looking for a new career. We haven't had a major new industry in California in decades other than the brief housing bubble and the growth of the prison-industrial complex.
What about those who say it will lead to more crime?
I think taking the power out of the hands of the Mexican drug cartels will lead to less crime, and our prisons won't be so overcrowded. We're way over capacity, and the majority of inmates are non-violent drug offenders. I'd rather have tax dollars going to support law enforcement agencies than illegal revenue going to criminal enterprises.
As more and more states legalize medical marijuana, will Oaksterdam set up shop there?
We plan on partnering with other states, but what we provide is a blueprint. We want to help start programs, but let local communities implement them as they see fit. We still have plenty of places in California to start weekend seminars like San Diego, Orange County and the Inland Empire.
It seems that discussing the decriminalization of marijuana in a public forum no longer tars politicians with a scarlet pot leaf.
In many parts of the country, we're finally having an honest debate. Cannabis isn't seen like heroin anymore. We've always had science on our side, and now politicians are realizing it isn't necessarily a ballot killer. A lot of small local governments, like in Oakland, love what we're doing because we encourage people to do things the right way. We encourage growers to take off the tie-dye, put on a suit, and come meet with city officials so you're licensed and paying taxes.
And you are a medical marijuana user yourself?
I am a patient, for cyclic vomiting syndrome. It's involuntary and usually an issue reserved for chemotherapy patients. A couple of times a year, I used to go into wicked cycles of dry heaving that required going to a hospital to get hooked up to IVs all night. The only option was a pill, to be taken immediately upon feeling nauseous. Problem is, you can't keep water down, never mind a pill, so I've thrown up some expensive medication. I lost six pounds of water weight in 36 hours last time. Not fun, or pretty. Cannabis doctors recognized my issue was not mysterious allergies but what cancer patients go through, and more importantly, that I can control these triggers to reduce incidents. Once the cycle starts, I can have some hash, immediately feel better, and go about my business rather than curling up in a fetal position, dry heaving all day and night. The plant I can grow in my closet is way cheaper than those pills that didn't work anyway, and I save an average of a thousand bucks out of pocket per hospital trip. This was a revelation I could have used 15 years ago!
It sounds like you've found a calling.
I'm right where I belong. I fell down a rabbit hole and came out on the other side. Twenty years later, I am marching along the same folks from NORML as my mom did 40 years ago.
Name: Dale Sky Jones
Company: Oaksterdam University
Location: Oakland, Calif.
Employees: 30 with another 25-30 part-timers, volunteers and interns
2010 Projected Revenue: $2 million
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 10/31/10.