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Marijuana Legalization Has Become California Man's Crusade


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For much of his life, Richard Lee needed neither liberation nor a cause.

The Oakland medical pot entrepreneur, who spent $1.3 million to qualify this November's initiative to make recreational pot use legal in California, once lived for thundering his Harley-Davidson motorcycle down Texas highways.

His father, Bob Lee, said his son used to ride to a Houston airport, climb into an ultralight airplane and soar above the rice fields, "playing tag with the seagulls."

Lee's close friend Kurt Calivoda, with whom he worked in a Houston stage lighting business, remembers a wiry, athletic man "who could climb on anything."

No more.

Lee, 47, was paralyzed in a fall 20 years ago. Today, he's emerged as the unlikely protagonist in a marijuana legalization push that is changing California's cultural and political landscape.

He now surges forward in a wheelchair, pumping hard in fingerless gloves through an Oakland business district dubbed "Oaksterdam." He is credited with reviving the area with a medical pot network born from California's 1996 initiative legalizing medical marijuana use.

Combined, he said, his Oaksterdam University marijuana trade school, a medical marijuana dispensary, coffee shops and other businesses generate $5 million a year.

This unassuming man is mobbed by fans and well-wishers at medical cannabis conferences and trade shows. Some hail him as a landmark figure fighting to decriminalize marijuana and end the drug war.

"He said what Oakland needs and California needs is legal pot," said Ed Rosenthal, a marijuana advocate, author and horticulturist who was targeted by federal pot raids. "And he did something about it.

"This guy took his hard-earned money, and an eighth of an ounce by an eighth of an ounce, changed history."

Yet the transplanted Texan also divides and perplexes some leaders in California's marijuana movement.

Some criticize him as a political calculator whose pot initiative doesn't go nearly far enough. Others say he is an opportunist taking a movement – still fighting for legitimacy – further than it is prepared to go.

"I don't think this has a chance of passing," said William Panzer, a lawyer for marijuana dispensary owners who worked on the Proposition 215 medical pot law.

Panzer said the new initiative would add unneeded criminal penalties by setting a pot age limit at 21. He also complains it vaguely leaves it to local governments to figure out how to derive tax revenues from marijuana.

"The first city to line up would be Oakland, and Richard Lee would be the proprietor," he said.

Lee, who envisions a day when Oakland blossoms with 100 small pot shops instead of the four medical dispensaries now allowed, said he isn't motivated by personal gain. Legalization, he said, would vastly shrink his piece of the market.

"There are a group of old-time reformers who say, 'Don't do it this year, because we might lose,' " he said. "Either that or they don't want to pay taxes" on pot businesses.

Lee suggests he is just a man moving forward in a cause that reaffirmed his life.

He is loath to talk about the accident or the tortuous path that led him to this point.

But he said, "The fight for legalization … saved me. It took me off the suicide highway."

Pot eased despair after fall

In 1990, Lee's renowned agility failed him.

The lighting technician was on a catwalk in a New Jersey warehouse, working on stage lights for an Aerosmith concert. He lost his balance, tumbled and broke his back on the concrete.

"He told me he thought he could have gotten up and walked off, and that he was conscious. Then, all of a sudden, he couldn't move anything from the waist down," said father Bob Lee, 85, a retired Houston tax accountant.

Efforts at recovery led to despair.

"It was real hard for him," said Calivoda, his lighting company colleague. "He went from a guy who was real agile, very active, to someone who was in a very hard place for a long time."

Unable to walk, burdened with muscle spasms and sleeplessness, Lee found relief in smoking marijuana.

His conservative "Goldwater Republican" parents came to accept the pot plants he grew in a small wood-frame house, equipped with wheelchair ramps, in a poor neighborhood in Houston.

"We grew up in an era when drugs were bad, and we knew nothing about marijuana," Bob Lee said. "He was in the hospital when he discovered that doctors found it helped with spasticity. We found that it was not as dangerous as the news media told us."

The elder Lee felt relieved when his son no longer talked about killing himself.

In 1992, Lee opened a hemp clothing store in Houston he called Legal Marijuana – The Hemp Store.

He appeared at trade shows, speaking about the history of hemp and marijuana prohibition. "People said, 'Yeah, this guy isn't just a stoner after all,' " he said.

He answered his business phone "Legal Marijuana!" and teased the police by parking his similarly labeled van outside a police station.

Houston cops checked out his store, and were satisfied it was drug-free and legal.

His activism was cemented, Lee said, after a violent encounter. He was in a friend's car at a fast-food restaurant when carjackers put pistols to their heads and forced them out. Lee waited for nearly 50 minutes for officers to arrive, and fumed that maybe they were too busy investigating people for pot.

"It made me think we had no protection," he said, "if police were wasting time looking for people like me who weren't sociopaths or predators."

His school trained thousands

California's medical marijuana movement persuaded Lee to leave Texas.

It was 1995. Activists, focusing on pot's benefits for AIDS and cancer patients, pushed an initiative to legalize medicinal use. Lee looked to get in on the coming legal trade.

After the passage of Proposition 215, he went to work for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative. He grew plants for operator Jeff Jones, an advocate who is now co-proponent in the initiative to legalize recreational pot use.

Lee opened two Oakland dispensaries, naming one SR-71 after a Lockheed reconnaissance plane. He called it the Highest Flying Coffee Shop.

Lockheed wasn't amused. Lee changed the name to Coffee Shop Blue Sky.

But his one-man corporate partnership is now S.K. Seymour L.L.C. – a dig at Lockheed's "Seymour Skunk" research and development mascot. He employs 58 people in a network that includes a pot-growing nursery and a marketing firm, OD Media.

His most famous venture is Oaksterdam University, where Lee is president and "horticulture professor." It has trained nearly 10,000 students in cultivation, pot law and advocacy. He opened new campuses in Los Angeles, Sebastopol and Flint, Mich.

"Oaksterdam University was just a brilliant idea, the right idea at the right time," said Steve DeAngelo, director of Harborside Health Center, an Oakland dispensary that bills itself as the largest pot club in the world. "Rich is really a social entrepreneur."

DeAngelo and Lee worked together last year in winning local voter approval for a special levy on pot shops. It made Oakland the first city in America to tax marijuana.

Lee used the vote as a springboard for the statewide initiative. DeAngelo parted ways, arguing California isn't ready to move beyond medical pot use.

Police organizations are fighting the initiative, charging it will lead to rampant use of a mind-altering drug. Lee contends it will make the state – and the world – safer by weakening drug cartels.

"Every day, over 20 people die in the drug war in Mexico," he told a crowd at a pot trade show in Daly City. "That's every day. That's insanity. And we can say, 'Oh, here in the Bay Area, it's pretty much already legal. It's not a big deal.'

"It is a big deal."

As he wheels about downtown Oakland, leaning over to pick litter off the sidewalk, it is clear Lee is a big deal in his land of Oaksterdam.

He exchanges greetings with Vince Wallace, an aging jazz musician and medical pot patient he hired to play at his pot and coffee houses.

"He is an unusual guy, a mysterious guy," Wallace said. "He has kept me playing jazz for the last 10 years. And he is very particular about keeping the streets clean."

Lee shakes hands with Mike Norris, a former Oakland A's pitcher who turned to Lee when he needed donations for his urban baseball academy.

He gives a shout out to "Mr. K!" – Art Pollard, owner of Mr. K Fine Men's Clothing.

"You know he's definitely a businessman," Pollard said. "He's put so much energy into this project. You see more and more people down here. They come from Oregon, from Canada, from diverse locations to attend his classes. He's bringing money in.

"No doubt, he's a pioneer."

News Hawk: Warbux 420 MAGAZINE
Source: The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht
Contact: http://www.sacbee.com/contact/
Copyright: 2010 The Sacramento Bee
Website: http://www.sacbee.com/2010/05/04/2724797/man-behind-california-pot-initiatives.html
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