American Pot Story: Oaksterdam tells the recent history of how a small group of Oakland activists helped legalize cannabis in California. Credit: Courtesy of filmmakers

Marijuana is legal in California, and Oakland is the reason why. 

That’s the bold claim of an important new documentary that chronicles the previously untold and fascinating story of how a handful of underdogs risked everything to spark a worldwide revolution in cannabis policy. American Pot Story: Oaksterdam connects all of the historical dots over a decade’s time, including failures and triumphs on the road to legalization. In the end, the Los Angeles-based filmmakers behind the project describe their work as “a love letter to the city of Oakland’s activists.”

At the film’s world premiere at Park City Utah’s Slamdance Festival in January, it won the “Unstoppable Award,” voted on by festival attendees. A sneak preview was also shown at last year’s Oakland International Film Festival in September at the Fox Theater to an audience of over 500. 

“It felt like a screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the audience participating and interacting with the film,” said co-director Ravit Markus about the Oakland event. The film was also presented with the Mayor’s Award that evening.

How the producer/directors Markus and Dan Katzir came to spend a decade following the lives and work of Oakland activist Dale Sky Jones and Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee is a story in itself. 

Katzir, a self-described news junkie, woke up one day in 2010 and read a story in the newspaper about Oaksterdam University, self-recognized as the world’s first cannabis college. He said he knew it was history in the making. 

“We have to film the revolution!” Markus recalls Katzir saying. 

According to Markus, they fell in love with the story and the people and ended up making numerous road trips to Oakland from Los Angeles. “We know every crummy hotel on the 5,” Markus joked.

Their film documents how pioneering cannabis advocates opened Oaksterdam in the heart of downtown Oakland and then led the charge to get a statewide measure to legalize cannabis on the ballot during the 2010 election. Their efforts brought a previously taboo topic into the mainstream and started a candid conversation about the social justice impact of legalizing marijuana. Along the way, and documented in the film, are moments of defeat, a love story, threats of incarceration, and the birth of three children.

“We thought we would film a revolution in one year but found out change takes much longer,” said Markus. “However, it was worth it because we captured a major historical shift and the moving personal stories of those changemakers.” 

Dale Sky Jones, formerly homeless and the victim of domestic abuse, was drawn to the cause of legalizing marijuana and moved to Oakland to be part of the movement. Starting as a passionate, but inexperienced volunteer she eventually became the campaign’s highly effective manager and spokesperson, and ultimately, a leader at Oaksterdam University.

Medical marijuana activist Richard Lee was a line tech for the band Aerosmith, but when he fell off scaffolding and sustained a spinal cord injury he was in chronic pain. Marijuana helped and he became part of the movement to legalize its medicinal and recreational use. He wanted to “bring Amsterdam to Oakland,” when he opened the first marijuana university downtown in 2007. In a 2010 interview with NPR, Lee said “Amsterdam is our model city. When I go there, I see tourists and jobs and taxes being created from the cannabis industry, and I think we can do that here.” Lee himself came to own a medical marijuana dispensary, two coffee shops, a gift shop and a cannabis nursery. He grew a multimillion-dollar empire, largely on medicinal pot. 

During the Great Recession in 2009, states and cities desperately needed revenue and many policymakers realized that income from legal cannabis could help. Many of Oakland’s elected and civic leaders were in support of  Prop 19, even though federal law continued to treat cannabis the same as other drugs like methamphetamine and heroin. Expressing their solidarity with the cause in the film are actor and advocate Tommy Chong, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Governor Gavin Newsom, and former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Directors Ravit Markus (left) and Dan Katzir (center) on set with sound mixer Winter Sichelschsmidt. Credit: courtesy of filmmakers

Lee committed $1.4 million of his own money—his life savings, according to the film—to fund the yes on Prop 19 campaign. The campaign’s headquarters was in the Oaksterdam University space at 1600 Broadway. In the film, Lee notes that some of the toughest opposition to Prop 19 came from the alcoholic beverage industry, which feared losing profits to cannabis. “It was Allied hemp versus the alcohol Axis powers,” said Lee. “We have to win the war.”

There were also “internal enemies,” people secretly growing cannabis who didn’t want to be taxed and forced to enter the mainstream, which would require them to comply with all kinds of new regulations.

The film also shows how the campaign used the proposition as an opportunity to educate Californians about the racially disparate impacts of drug prohibition. For decades, African Americans were disproportionately arrested for marijuana crimes, leading to higher rates of incarceration and other harms. Markus and Katzir show how the campaign debunked myths such as “cannabis is addictive” or is a “gateway” drug. They follow the Oakland activists as they make the case that prosecuting people for possession was a huge waste of government resources. 

Prop 19’s narrow defeat in 2010, (46% to 50%) was in many ways a victory. It placed the issue in the political mainstream, and soon after Colorado and Washington residents voted to legalize cannabis.

Markus and Katzir had wanted a happy ending for their film, but when they showed American Pot Story around “it was a downer,” said Markus. So they kept filming rather than wrapping up the project.

Sadly, things only got worse in 2012, when federal prosecutors began raiding and shuttering hundreds of dispensaries in one of the biggest crackdowns on medical marijuana. On April 2, 2012, Oaksterdam University was raided by the IRS, accompanied by the DEA and U.S. Marshals. The raid also targeted Coffeeshop Blue Sky and the Oaksterdam Museum, both affiliated with Oaksterdam University. A number of the university’s assets were seized, including plants, records, computers, and bank accounts. 

In 2012, Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, facing possible arrest and incarceration, announced that he would give up ownership of all of his Oakland-based marijuana operations after a federal raid on his home and businesses. “It was a suicide mission,” Lee says in the film, adding, “I’m a small soldier in a big war.”

Faced again with “an even sadder and heartbreaking ending,” Markus said they noticed Jones had decided to carry on the cause. She had plans to grow Oaksterdam University and lead the charge for another initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. 

“She’s like a phoenix rising,” said Markus about Jones’ tenaciousness. 

Jones’ Oakland City Hall wedding to a fellow activist and the subsequent birth of three of their children took place during a grueling campaign for Proposition 64, which included a road trip with a baby in tow. In 2016, California voters legalized the recreational use of cannabis, and Markus and Katzir finally had the happy ending they wanted for their documentary.

Markus and Katzir are currently taking the film on the festival circuit, but their ultimate goal is to screen it at neighborhood events, churches, synagogues, and community centers. They say that they’d love to return to Oakland for a screening at the Grand Lake Theater. 

They admit that many challenges remain and legalization hasn’t solved the many problems that cannabis prohibition caused, including people still in prison for nonviolent crimes. The need to ensure equity in the new industry is pressing and cannabis is still federally illegal. 

In one scene, Jones perfectly sums up an unlikely message of the film. “You needed a crazy guy in a wheelchair and a pregnant redhead to change the world.”

Both filmmakers agree that American Pot Story’s ultimate message is one of hope. 

“The people of Oaksterdam changed the reality of so many people,” said Katzir. Find a cause you can be passionate about, and when you connect yourself to it, it can inspire you to greatness.”

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.