Man Behind California Pot Initiative’s a Force in ‘Oaksterdam’

Pubdate: Tue, 4 May 2010
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Page: 1A, Front Page
Copyright: 2010 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht


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.”