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Federal authorities raided several medical marijuana-related businesses in Oakland, California, yesterday. They were targeting one of the biggest backers of the cannabis industry in Oakland. Nishat Kurwa of Turnstyle News has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, hey. Come down.
NISHAT KURWA, BYLINE: A few hundred supporters of Oaksterdam University filled a block on downtown Oakland's main street while federal agents carried out green trash bags full of items taken in their raid. The self-proclaimed university is one of multiple businesses founded by medical pot impresario Richard Lee. Lee has spearheaded the growth of this industry in Oakland, running pot dispensaries and classes for people who want to jump into the lucrative businesses and driving legislation to legitimize it in the city and the state. Here's Lee talking to CBS' "Morning Show" about his businesses' impact on the city.
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RICHARD LEE: People around here love it because they see how much we've improved the neighborhood.
KURWA: Looming over an empty parking lot across the street from Turnstyle's offices, there's a large-scale mural with Oaksterdam University emblazoned across images of Oakland landmarks. Business owners in this area have a love-hate relationship with the pot business. It's been part of the downtown revival but has also brought new problems. King Solomon is the manager of the Triangle Gift Shop across the street from Oaksterdam's offices.
KING SOLOMON: I think they have a lot of influence for the simple fact that a lot of kids have interests in marijuana and right, you know, with Oaksterdam being right there on Broadway, now, you know, they could ask a buddy to purchase it for them or something like that. I don't agree with that kind of stuff, but, yeah, I think they're too close to, like, schools.
KURWA: In 2009, Oakland residents passed a measure to tax and regulate the medical marijuana industry. City officials have supported the development of the industry, especially since revenue has helped the city's coffers, amounting to about $1.5 million last fiscal year. But that's caused tension with the federal authorities who are concerned that California's liberal medical marijuana laws are being abused. The U.S. attorney in San Francisco, Melinda Haag, has been cracking down on pot dispensaries near schools and parks.
Oaksterdam's businesses fall into this category. As the downtown area has been revitalized, a proliferation of charter schools, entertainment venues and pot clubs have all intermingled in the same neighborhood. Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan is an avid supporter of medical marijuana. She says, since the raids, she's been flooded with calls from constituents.
COUNCILMEMBER REBECCA KAPLAN: And so some of the people who are calling me very upset, they aren't just people who care about medical cannabis. There are plenty of people who actually don't really care one way or the other about medical cannabis policy, but they are outraged about why, if there's extra law enforcement resources available, why aren't they being spent fighting guns and fighting violence?
KURWA: Turnstyle talked to several teachers in the neighborhood who didn't want to go on tape. One charter schoolteacher told me her students are independent thinkers, probably more influenced by their peers than the pot clubs that share their neighborhood. Others say they're concerned because their students have walked into school carrying leaflets from Oaksterdam, advertising marijuana smoke-outs. For NPR News, I'm Nishat Kurwa.
SIEGEL: Nishat Kurwa is a reporter for Turnstyle News, a project of Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.