Marijuana Tourism In Northern California Falls Victim To Contradictory Policies, Prejudices

Thanks to its high crime rate and worse reputation, Oakland has never really attracted tourists despite its proximity to San Francisco's wharfs, flowering hills and psychedelic Victorian homes. But beginning around 2010, a very specific type of tourist was arriving in the city's cement downtown to visit the second most famous college in the greater East Bay, Oaksterdam University.

As its name suggests, Oaksterdam was an aspirational school and the popular image of laissez-faire, drug-friendly Amsterdam was its lodestar. Created by Richard Lee, the school offered programs in the economics, legislation and cultivation of marijuana while also catering to the needs of some California's medical marijuana users.

"Oaksterdam was convenient to Bay Area Rapid Transit, had beautiful murals nearby and was becoming a major tourist attraction," says Dale Gieringer, the California Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "It made Oakland stand out for its cannabis presence. It helped the local economy and raised real estate prices and was a generally successful enterprise for the town."

Then, in yet another reversal for the community of activists and entrepreneurs hoping to spark growth in Northern California's under-performing communities using marijuana's popularity, Oaksterdam was raided on April 2 by approximately 100 federal agents. The flow of tourists slowed as the popular Cannabis Museum began a search for new facility and nearby businesses laid off workers. The raid became the prime example of the strange mixture of federal aggression and local ambivalence that has prevented places like Oakland -- with its marijuana-friendly pols -- and numerous poorer communities up the coast from becoming so-called cannatourism attractions.

"Politically, marijuana tourism can be a hard sell even though it makes money and jobs," says Gieringer. "On a local level, people worry it will just bring in a bunch of scrungy hippies."

This appears to be some of the political and social thinking behind the Netherland government's attempt to end drug tourism in Amsterdam, where approximately a million foreigners frequent "coffee shops" annually, but -- prejudices notwithstanding -- a UC Santa Cruz study on California medical marijuana user demographics has shown that buyers “reported slightly more years of formal education, and [were] more often employed" than the general population. Still, customers only represent a fraction of the economy surrounding marijuana and there are genuine concerns that legally hazy areas attract a morally hazy element.

According to Dale Sky Jones, Executive Chancellor of Oaksterdam University, the legal grey areas that exist because of the contradiction between California's Prop 215, which makes weed available to those with diagnosed medical conditions, and federal law are more attractive to criminals than the sale of marijuana itself, which can be and is regulated.

"When you say 'No,' you lose any and all control over the market," says Jones, adding that the American marijuana market, likely worth $40 billion annually, doesn't appear to be overly-affected by law. "Alcohol prohibitions was ended because a group of people that didn't agree on much could all agree on one thing: The policy wasn't working."

Jones, who used to work in the hospitality industry, describes Oaksterdam as an ongoing attempt to bring professionalism and transparency to the marijuana trade, but admits this approach failed to protect OU and its founder Richard Lee from the federal government, which has yet to open its affidavit against the school or produce a warrant.

She is still looking for a way to bring visitors back to Oakland.

Efforts at transparency have better served smaller towns in the so-called "Emerald Triangle," a grow-heavy area including Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties, where locals have been forced to balance law enforcement priorities with not-in-my-backyard sentiment thanks to marijuana's economic import. Prior to this summer, marijuana cultivators and dispensaries in Arcata followed an 11-page city ordinance that detailed what they could and could not do, but an aggressive campaign by the federal government is now targeting these communities.

”It's one of the most beautiful parts of this country, but it's just being destroyed by marijuana cultivation,” the DEA's special agent in charge of North California, Randy Wagner, recently told a local newspaper. “I can tell you, we're going to be hot and heavy in Humboldt County from here on out.”

The area's natural gifts are hard to dispute or ignore. The Triangle is lush and misty, full of independent farms, charming villages and looping roads running between deep forests and long vistas. No one contests that drug violence has been a problem despite the massive tracts of unspoiled land, but legal marijuana cultivation has also brought money into many of the small towns that dot the woods, creating an industry in a place that previously had none.

The fundamental problem appears to be this: While it can be legal to grow marijuana and it can be legal to use marijuana, there is reason to be suspicious that these communities care as much about the law as they do about profit.

Peter Arth, who earned himself the nickname "Mayor Juana" while leading the town of Dunsmuir in Siskiyou County, in the northernmost area of the state, hopes that local communities can step beyond the nonsense and pitch themselves as legitimate destinations for the Prop 215 community. Arth, who uses marijuana to combat depression and insomnia, moved to construct green houses in the middle of his town while he was in office, where he would harvest the herb he relies on. Though he admits this was a provocative proposal, he claims it was fundamentally about starting an "educational process within the community."

"The economy up here screams for sustainability and jobs," says Arth, who is also an attorney. "What we have is water and sunshine. This is incredibly fertile ground. Whether its marijuana or not, we need to be growers."

Arth was recalled and forced from office by a group he says shares a lot in common with the Tea Party, a group he generally disagrees with on social issues yet sympathizes with about the need to decrease regulation. Like many members of California's marijuana-friendly community, Arth is more concerned with local policies than with national politics and sees little difference between the Democratic and Republican approaches to what is more of a drug conundrum than a drug problem -- Michele Leonhart, Obama's DEA Administrator, is a Bush administration hold out.

"Within this community and others there is a hardcore element clinging tenaciously to the past even though it's gone," says Arth. "Strongly held fears came out when people grew concerned that this could be a drug town."

Dunsmuir and Oakland will need to decide whether being a drug town is as bad as the alternative before addressing the next riddle: finding a way to attract tourists without attracting the attention of the federal government.

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