FROM THE MAGAZINE
Richard Lee Wants Your Vote!
Businessman Richard Lee led the drive to get legalization on the ballot, but success hasn’t gone to his head
BY THEO DOUGLAS
“We had a great week, last week – we raised $42,000 last week,” said Oaksterdam University founder Rich Lee – and the man behind the initiative to legalize cannabis–in a telephone conversation on April 21st.
“We’re over $100,000 for April, total, and … that’s about right, because it qualified March 24th,” he continued, pausing in mid-sentence to check his own math. “We spent a little over $1 million to get on the ballot and we hope to raise $10 to $20 million to spend on winning in November. If we can get $10 from a millioxn
people, that’s $10 million dollars. That’s how Obama raised half a billion dollars, is from little donations on the Internet.”
That is how Barack Obama did it, and he ascended to the Presidency less than two years ago; so you’d be forgiven for wondering if, armed with a similar financial plan, maybe cannabis won’t pull off a similar coup at the polls this fall.
But not Lee. To his credit, he seems to be the sort of tireless multi-tasker who never, ever lets a good thing go to his head. I’m interrupting whenever I call him in Oakland, for he’s either in side conversation, or on his way to class at Oaksterdam. And, despite driving a significant political movement to its first major destination–a trek that, for some of us, would be the journey of a lifetime–Lee isn’t ready to call it a victory yet.
“Yeah, well, that was the first big step where I could relax a little bit. That was my big main part of the project was to get it written and get it on the ballot,” Lee said. “When it wins, I can be proud.”
He points to polling that shows 40 percent of California voters already lined up in opposition to the initiative–well before major campaigning has begun–as evidence that any win will be hard-fought indeed. But Lee expected this; he’s been in the cannabis business in one form or another for 20 years, and he’s never taken the easy path.
“I think people are waking up to the fact that there’s real crime out there that needs to be dealt with,” Lee said, meaning that some law enforcement agencies are beginning to make cannabis enforcement a lower priority. “That’s one of the things that got me into this, was, I was carjacked and it took police a really long time to get there. That’s how I got started; that’s when I first started doing research into legalization, and decided that it was for me.”
That was in 1991, he says; and within three years, he’d opened a hemp store in Houston.
“Legalized Marijuana–The Hemp Store,” said Lee, a former roadie for everyone from Aerosmith to L.L. Cool J, who was 47 last year. “It was lots of fun answering the phone with that name. Back then nobody knew about hemp. It wasn’t like now.” But Lee knew something bigger was out there.
“I heard about the San Francisco Cannabis Club in 1995 and started working on moving here in ’95, made the move here in early ’97,” he said. “I started a production facility for supplying the [Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative]. We supported political candidates and everything, from before we moved out here until now.”
And so it began–overlooking, naturally, the question of how Lee came to cannabis in the first place.
“I really don’t like to talk about my personal life. I’m not into the big ego thing. I had hoped to get more people involved in the initiative early on, so that it wasn’t just about me,” Lee said.
“Dale Gieringer, California NORML–all of them declined, all of them said we could never win this year. Either that or they’re just used to doing things a certain way and they didn’t like to share any power. For whatever reason these people declined to support me and so it’s become a little more Richard Lee’s movement.”
There’s truth to that, but the reality is more complex. Lee has lined up impressive support including, he says, the NAACP’s California chapter President, Alice Huffman. There’s more: Dan Rush, an investigator for the grocery workers’ United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local No. 5, says the Local may well advocate legalizing cannabis.
“I can tell you that we’re looking at the initiative from the perspective of endorsing it,” Rush said, calling Lee a personal hero and “the George Washington of the movement.”
“We believe that the policy that will come out of the initiative is something that is positive for California’s economy.”
Huffman did not respond to a request for comment. But California NORML’s Dr. Dale Gieringer did – pronouncing Lee an old friend from the days of Oakland’s Measure Z initiative, and saying his major difference with Lee today is the question of timing.
“I would have done the initiative differently: I wouldn’t have done it this year. I’m willing to wait a few more years for the time to be perfect. I remember the Proposition 215 campaign was a very well-timed campaign, in my humble opinion,” said Gieringer, noting that Prop. 215 was preceded by a line of failed state bills that helped proponents of medical cannabis hone their message and build their support base. Lee’s as-yet untitled initiative hasn’t had time to do that, Gieringer said.
“We support it,” Gieringer said. “I feel it needs a little more sloshing around to be honest with you. Everything’s winnable, I suppose. This is a hard issue. It’s an off-year election. You always get conservative, right-wing turnout in off-year elections. And I think the anti-drug forces are going to be out in ways we haven’t seen before.”
Lee, naturally, see things differently.
“I don’t agree that we shouldn’t do anything now,” Lee said. “If you want to not do it this year and wait ’til 2020 or whatever … what about all the people in prison right now, and all the people out there fi ghting the good fi ght?”
It’s a rhetorical question; for Lee, the time is now.