These days, higher education has a different meaning
Students learn skills to work in medical marijuana dispensaries
By Brandon Lowrey, LA Daily News
Like other universities, Oaksterdam offers wide-eyed pupils an enlightening classroom experience to spark their curiosity.
But at Oaksterdam, the homework assignments involve baking the perfect pot brownie, the lessons teach students how to greet DEA agents who've just kicked down the front door, and the diploma confers the status: certified budtender.
In a squatty building in the shadow of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, marijuana devotees pack classes at the unique trade school that teaches students how to grow and process marijuana, use the drug in baked goods and manage medical-marijuana dispensaries.
Ilia Gvozdenovic, chancellor of Oakland-based Oaksterdam University, describes the nonaccredited school as a much-needed source of knowledge about marijuana in an age of misunderstanding.
"It's kind of like the Wild West," Gvozdenovic said, alluding to the confusion and conflict surrounding California state law allowing the sale of medical marijuana and the federal government's refusal to acknowledge it.
"To me, the issue is we need better training for folks."
The trade school, which will be holding classes this weekend in Los Angeles, boasts about 500 graduates since it was founded in Oakland in November.
Classes began in Los Angeles earlier this year. Students pay $250 for the weekend course and classes are scheduled through August.
The school sits in a part of downtown Oakland nicknamed "Oaksterdam," where pot clubs and cafes line the streets as they do in Amsterdam, Holland, where smoking marijuana and hashish is tolerated.
Just teaching people how to grow and use marijuana isn't enough to draw the wrath of the federal government, said Sarah Pullen, a Los Angeles spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"If they're not distributing, selling or cultivating marijuana, I would imagine they're not violating any federal laws," she said.
Because of the conflict between California and federal law - and the vague wording in the state's medical-marijuana law - some counties and cities have banned medical-marijuana dispensaries from opening, or have required a strict permit process.
Los Angeles has enacted a moratorium on the shops as it searches for a way to regulate them.
But with the White House changing hands next year, many medical-marijuana advocates are hopeful. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has indicated his government would take a hands-off approach to medical marijuana in states such as California. Arizona Sen. John McCain's would continue to back federal law and forbid it.
Federal drug authorities have raided more than 50 California dispensaries in the past two years but have barely nicked the surface. As one is shut down, others spring up, law enforcement officials concede.
While Oaksterdam University may be doing nothing technically illegal, federal anti-drug officials are not happy about its instructors training new crops of savvy dispensary owners.
"It's too bad they're taking people's money and all they're teaching them is how to violate federal law," said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"Actually, I wonder whether the students will remember to even show up for class at all."
There's a lot to memorize in the world of weed. For one, marijuana comes in hundreds of varieties.
So would a cancer patient benefit most from some Panama Red or Purple Haze?
Would some Bubba Kush smooth away that anxiety problem?
And then there's the problem of deciding whether to smoke it, eat it or drink it.
A good budtender would know, Gvozdenovic said.
"It's very similar to a bartender, but for bud," he said. It's like "a bartender, psychologist and doctor."
Some of the specifics are beyond the weekend survey courses held in Los Angeles. They won't be hands-on, either - no cannabis plants or drugs will be allowed in the classroom.
But some of the material might include the science of nurturing a cannabis plant from a seedling and the art of preparing it for use as dried buds for smoking, mixing it with butter for cooking, or as a tincture or topical ointment.
At the end of the class, graduates receive a degree that proves them competitive candidates for careers at dispensaries, though it isn't required.
Alumni, Oaksterdam claims, can make from $50,000 to $100,000 a year as a budtender at a medical-marijuana dispensary.
Marijuana activists across the nation see Oaksterdam University as a historic step toward legitimacy for their movement.
"We're in the midst of an incredible, evolving epoch," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "The best practices today may put you in jail tomorrow. ... Five years ago, this would not be possible and there would not be a need for it."
St. Pierre and others said there's still a long way to go.
"We'd like to see this type of commerce contributing to society just like any other commerce," said Mason Tvert, executive director for Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation.
The Colorado-based group, which led to voters in Denver making marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority, says pot is safer than booze. And Tvert bemoaned what he sees as a double standard between the intoxicants.
"If this was a home-brewing class," he said, "no one would really care."
See also this thread: Oaksterdam University offers formal courses to learn to grow marijuana