An unlikely evangelist for legal matijuana
At first glance, Richard Lee looks nothing like a man who regularly smokes dope and spent his youth working with rock 'n' rap gods from Aerosmith to LL Cool J. Or who gunned his Harley up and down Texas highways as a young man, and has a will as stubborn as iron.
He looks like, well, a quiet business yuppie. In a wheelchair. With tidy slacks and button-down shirt, short-cropped hair and a shy smile.
Even cops trained to assess people are surprised - especially once they learn that this quiet guy is the champion for one of the most revolutionary social-change movements of our time, the legitimizing of marijuana.
Lee's latest effort is the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act on the Nov. 2 ballot, which would make California the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use. Its passage would notch the 47-year-old Oakland man a spot in the annals of pot.
Such notice wouldn't be all that new for him. From hemp activism in Texas to building a cannabis university empire in Oakland, Lee has been a pioneer in the marijuana movement for 20 years - something that neither he nor his conservative Republican parents could have foreseen.
It all began with a catastrophic accident in 1990 that broke his back.
From rock to activism
Lee was 27 and working as a lighting technician for Aerosmith when he slipped on a catwalk in New Jersey while setting up for a concert. The resulting spinal injury left him paralyzed from the waist down - and suddenly the young man who flew ultralight planes and loved motorcycles and playing basketball was grounded. At least as far as his legs were concerned.
Medicinal pot - which was illegal then - was the only thing, he said, that dampened back spasms as he sat in his wheelchair. When he was carjacked in Houston a year into his disabled life and waited nearly an hour for uninterested cops to show up, he found his cause.
He figured police were probably off wasting their time making marijuana busts instead of chasing the people who had stolen his car.
"I felt like, here was this wonderful medicine of cannabis that had helped me so much, and why were the cops going after people using and selling it instead of the psychos and sociopaths who are out there robbing people?" Lee said. "I thought I should do something about it."
He soon opened a hemp clothing store in Houston and became a nationally known spokesman for the weed - for both clothing and smoking use - at trade shows and community gatherings.
Other than rock 'n' roll lighting, the only hint of a career he'd had before then had been studying advertising and public relations at the University of Houston, where he dropped out in 1984.
He'd spent his youth in Texas in a house with four brothers mostly having a good time, "not really thinking about the future." Traveling the nation setting up the light racks for top acts of all kinds - he also worked with Dwight Yoakum - had seemed like enough of an avocation.
No more. Pot is now his life's work. He is so serious about its positive qualities that he rarely even calls it pot, weed or dope anymore. It's cannabis or marijuana, terms that connote the legitimacy with which he regards the plant.
"My parents are Republicans, and actually, I'm kind of a conservative," said Lee, who is unmarried and childless. "You might call me a bit of a Libertarian. I think government is very wasteful, and for a lot of things, the free market can do better. So I guess you could say in some ways this was an unusual path for me.
"But it fits."
"When Richard told me that marijuana helped him, I did not want to hear that," Lee's 80-year-old mother, Ann Lee, said by telephone from her home in Houston. "We had always thought marijuana was the weed of the devil, and I did not want to hear anything about Richard having anything to do with it." But after seeing that smoking helped their son's pain and eased the depression that followed his accident, Ann and her husband, Bob, 85, became reluctantly accepting. Ann was a schoolteacher and Bob ran a library for accountants and attorneys. This drug thing, they said, was not in their personal frame of reference.
"When you have a young son sitting in his wheelchair telling you that marijuana, of all things, has helped him so much with his pain, you can't dismiss it," Ann Lee said. "We realized it wasn't just because he wanted to get high. We had to gulp hard, pray hard, believe in our son and then do a heck of a lot of reading and research."
Mom to campaign
Twenty years later, the couple still get ribbed by their Republican friends for supporting their son's enterprise, but they say they hear more words of support, even in church. This summer and fall, Ann Lee intends to fly to California to help campaign for Richard's measure.
"The older I get, and the more I look back and think how I grew up in Louisiana with Jim Crow, and didn't really understand it as a white person," she said, "the more I realize that we should be talking against an unjust drug war against marijuana just the way we did against Jim Crow."
As for the career path her son has chosen - "I would never have thought he'd choose this, but then Richard has always marched to his own drumbeat and had real integrity," Lee said. "I knew he wouldn't do anything ordinary as a career.
"I just didn't know it would be this. He's worked hard and I'm proud of him."
Richard Lee already had a reputation as a leader in the national movement to legalize hemp when he showed up in Oakland in 1998 to work in the medicinal cannabis business created by California's passage, two years before, of Proposition 215.
Starting out an employee for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, he soon opened a couple of his own dispensaries, including the SR-71 - named, from his love of aviation, after the Blackbird reconnaissance airplane. The plane's manufacturer, Lockheed, was not amused, so he eventually gave it the name it has today, Coffeeshop Blue Sky.
Oaksterdam University, which teaches how to run a business or personal grow operation in the decriminalized medicinal marijuana trade, followed in 2007 in Oakland as the nation's first marijuana college.
The district where the school sits, just north of the downtown core, got its name after Prop. 215 inspired a flurry of pot dispensaries there and local fans melded the names of Oakland with weed-tolerant Amsterdam. Lee appropriated the moniker for his campus and is now so associated with the district that High Times magazine last year dubbed him "the mayor of Oaksterdam."
Today, with a T-shirt and paraphernalia shop, grow operation and other businesses, Lee's empire pulls in $5 million a year. (Lee says his take from that is about $50,000 annually.) The $1.5 million in annual fees and local and state taxes that Oaksterdam University and Lee's other outfits collectively pay has made him a power player in area politics.
It surprised nobody when he became the first person in many years to generate a ballot initiative to legalize pot. Polls place the measure's chances at about even for November.
If the measure passes, marijuana will still be illegal under federal law. Don't expect Lee to shy away from a fight with Washington.
"The most notable characteristic of Richard is his persistence," said Steve D'Angelo, whose Harborside Health Center cannabis dispensary in Oakland is the biggest in the United States. "I've known him since 1994, when we were both foremost advocates for hemp, and he is focused like a laser on whatever his goal is.
"If he wasn't working for medicinal cannabis, he'd be an advocate for some other form of social justice."
Lee may be the unthreatening face for his cause, said El Cerrito police Capt. Mike Regan, but he's not convincing the majority of those in law enforcement.
Some officers and judges have come out in favor of the November initiative, but more - including the California Police Chiefs Association - are opposing it.
Making it worse?
"Richard looks like John Q. Citizen, and he's actually a really nice guy," said Regan, who speaks all over the state against marijuana use. "But I believe medical marijuana in California has grown wildly out of control, and I think the initiative would make it much worse.
"This is not a harmless drug."
He said Lee took him on a tour of Oaksterdam once, and he found the business impressive. But strictly medicinal use is one thing, Regan said - and rampant use, which he believes is what the measure would encourage, is another.
"I don't agree with him, but he listens to your viewpoint and gives you his viewpoint," the captain said. "Years ago, the only people I saw promoting this kind of business were dope dealers, and they looked like Cheech and Chong. Then you meet someone like Richard Lee, and you realize that today they are businessmen.
"But let's not kid ourselves," he said. "You're talking about some serious dollars being earned there. And when a cop who's been in this business a long time takes a look at the marijuana business that's grown up all over this state, it looks like a criminal enterprise from long ago. You've got lots of cash, tons of unaccounted marijuana hanging around, and a product that is illegal."
Lee has heard the criticism before, and he's sure he will hear it more when the campaign starts heating up over the summer. He has even taken heat from some growers in Mendocino and Humboldt counties who say his advocacy of indoor growing undercuts the purity of their outdoor, supposedly more organic, operations.
Lee shrugs at the flak. An "education challenge," he calls it.
"Support goes up for what we are doing the more people learn about it, and realize marijuana is not terrible, and that it is safer than alcohol and healthier than prison," Lee said.
"I'm sure I'll have a few more gray hairs by November," he said, cracking hisKevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer shy smile. "But I do think we'll get our point across enough to win."
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle