You know you’re in a different kind of college when a teaching assistant sets five marijuana plants down in the middle of a lab and no one blinks a bloodshot eye.

Welcome to Oaksterdam University, a new trade school where higher education takes on a whole new meaning. The school prepares people for jobs in California’s thriving medical marijuana industry. For $200 US and the cost of two required textbooks, students learn how to cultivate and cook with cannabis, study which strains of pot are best for certain ailments, and are instructed in the legalities of a business that is against the law in the eyes of the federal government.

“My basic idea is to try to professionalize the industry and have it taken seriously as a real industry, just like beer and distilling hard alcohol,” said Richard Lee, 45, who founded the school last fall.


So far, 60 students have completed the two-day weekend course, which is sold out through May. At the end of the class, students are given a take-home test.

Before getting to Horticulture 101, the hands-on highlight of Oaksterdam U, the 20 budding botanists, entrepreneurs and political activists at a recent weekend session sat politely through two law lectures and a visiting professor’s history talk.

Lee explained to his students how to prune and harvest plants. He offered his thoughts on which commercial nutrient preparations are best, as well as the advantages of hydroponics.

Students gave various reasons for enrolling. Some said they were curious. Others said they wanted tips for growing weed, although judging from the questions, a few were ready for the graduate seminar Lee recently added.

Michael Chapman, an assistant agent in charge with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s San Francisco office, said authorities are aware of Oaksterdam U and don’t see any reason to shut it down. Talking about marijuana is not illegal, and while a small amount of pot is kept on the premises, the DEA tries “to concentrate our case work on the most significant violators,” he said.

Chapman said he doesn’t like Lee’s effort to wrap cannabis education in a cap and gown. “I think they are sending the wrong message out to the community and it’s something that could only facilitate criminal behaviour,” he said.

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