Oaksterdam University’s Dale Sky Jones: Cannabis Advocate, Educator and Mother

Oaksterdam University’s Dale Sky Jones was interviewed by Steve Bloom for the December 2016 issue of Freedom Leaf Magazine. This is a reprint of that article.

daleskyjonesIn 2017, Oaksterdam University will mark its 10th year as America’s premier cannabis college. Dale Sky Jones has been at the helm as Executive Chancellor since 2008. After numerous corporate jobs in training and hospitality, she found an unlikely home in the burgeoning marijuana industry. Now Jones leads a school that boasts more than 30,000 students since 2007, and which survived a much-publicized DEA raid in 2012. An activist and educator, she’s the mother of two children (with her husband, Oaksterdam cultivation expert Jeff Jones), with another on the way. We caught up with Jones shortly after Election Day, when California and three other states legalized adult-use marijuana and Donald Trump was elected president.

Where did you grow up? I was born in Connecticut and raised by New Yorkers. We moved around a lot, but I essentially grew up in Florida. I’ve also lived in San Diego, Las Vegas, Colorado, Wyoming and Seattle.

Where did you go to college? I went to the University of Central Florida for two years. I took general studies with a major in communications, and then dropped out in order to pursue my career. In that sense, I guess it’s kind of weird that I’m running a university.

Were you a pot smoker during those early years? I first tried it when I was 14. My mom found a little piece of cannabis when I was a teenager and I got in so much trouble that I didn’t smoke it again until I was in college. I was a DARE kid. I was one of the kids in high school who taught the middle school kids not to do drugs. I picked it back up because I couldn’t drink; alcohol made me throw up violently. Some friends of mine reintroduced me to cannabis. It was something for me to do while my friends drank. Even under the influence of cannabis, I was the sober person in the room.

In my early 20s, I rediscovered it. I was a closet consumer during my corporate career. Only two people in my town knew that I consumed cannabis—my boyfriend and my dealer. I would never do it before I left the house. I had to be in for the night. I was a total closet stiletto stoner, wearing my high heels and going to my corporate job, never hinting or even joking that I was that person who smokes the ganj. I was that way until I moved to California.

 

“Women are used to working three times harder for half the credit. This is nothing new in life. It’s nothing new in the cannabis industry either.”

~ Dale Sky Jones

 

Where were you working before that? I owned a restaurant for a while in Wyoming. I started an end-user restaurant, and came out a corporate trainer for new store openings for Red House Grill and TGI Fridays. I opened stores in four states for TGI Fridays doing that corporate training. That’s when I was bouncing around from Florida to California, to Las Vegas to Colorado. I left TGI Fridays and went into R&D for a while. I was on the team that told Uncle Ben’s that rice bowls were a good idea; we were right. We also did a huge coffee study for Starbucks and Folgers. These experiences helped me understand the entire continuum of what would eventually become the cannabis industry, from plant to patient or plant to consumer; it was all the same. I’ve been able to use the best practices that I learned from these other industries and apply them to training the cannabis industry.

When did you decide you wanted to be in the cannabis industry? I came into this upside down and backwards. I was working for Famous Footwear in Seattle and I was miserable. Before I moved to Seattle, I had a friend who knew a doctor in Orange County who wanted someone to help her manage a practice to do medical cannabis recommendations. At the time, I thought it was an amusing offer. Every three months or so she’d call me to check in the doctor still needed a business manager. So I just decided to make a complete left turn and reinvent myself. I knew there was something more important that I needed to be working on instead of enriching some company’s bottom line. I was good at that, but it was not impactful. It was not changing the world. I was just part of a cog in a wheel. After years of that haunting me, I took the leap. In 2007, as I turned 32, I quit my job and moved to Orange County.

How did you end up at Oaksterdam? I was working with patients in Orange County. [California NORML Executive Director] Dale Gieringer recommended that I contact Jeff Jones, who had just opened an office in Los Angeles. We met at Bruce Margolin’s pre-NORML conference party. It was a little trippy for us; this was the counterculture, Bruce Margolin’s party house. We had totally come from the straightlaced medical part of Orange County. It was really interesting to step into the movement. That’s the first time I met Jeff. I eventually met Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee through Jeff. They had the first classes in Oakland in 2007. As soon as Richard started the school in Oakland, he decided to expand to Los Angeles. We taught the first classes in L.A. in the beginning of 2008. I divested myself from the medical practice in 2008 and went to work for Oaksterdam full-time. I was promoted to Chancellor of Los Angeles and then to Executive Chancellor of all the programs. After the raid happened on April 2, 2012, I got promoted to President and CEO. Richard was forcibly retired by the DEA and the company became mine.

What’s Richard Lee doing these days? He’s retired. He still lives in Oakland, but he spends a lot of time with his mom in Houston.

In addition to the physical school in Oakland, you tour around the country doing seminars. The last two were in Las Vegas and New York. How have they been going? Very well. Our classic seminar is the smorgasbord. It’s a little taste of everything. We start with our prerequisites—legal, politics and history classes. The Basic Classic seminar covers everything from Horticulture 101 to advocacy. It teaches you how to be a patient, a consumer and a citizen, and how to have successful law enforcement encounters along the way. Next is our Advanced Classic. That gets into budtending, patient consulting, procurements and allocations, dispensary management and business operations. It also includes advanced horticulture and legal classes. You can take that in 14 weeks [the semester] or four days [the seminar].

How many instructors are there for the seminars? Usually three. We have some phenomenal horticulture experts who’ve been doing it for well over two decades. And we always try to hire locals when it comes to legal.

aseemdale

Dale Sky Jones (right) and Dr. Aseem Sappal, Provost and Dean of Faculty.

You were a major supporter of Prop 19 in 2010, the legalization initiative that Lee funded and lost. Yet in 2016, you were reluctant to support Prop 64. How come? I don’t believe Prop 64 is full legalization. I believe that it’s strong decriminalization. There are very, very important civil rights and social justice issues that are addressed by 64 that have not been addressed in any other “legalization” measure. But I had a real problem with it not going as far as it could have. We should’ve protected all adults from losing their children for cannabis, not just medical patients. At the end of the day I had to support it, because now we were finally protecting medical patients from Child Protective Services, and we can continue to lobby for additional protections, both for individuals and businesses. I also had a big problem with it being 64 pages long when it should’ve been 26 pages.

Did you campaign for 64 as time went on, or did you stay neutral? I stayed neutral through the first two thirds of the campaign. I wasn’t against it. I was very carefully neutral, because I realized that neutral can be almost as derogatory as being against, depending on how it’s received. I know that hurt us with Prop 19 [in 2010] with Americans for Safe Access, so I was very aware of that. I was also aware that if I was ever going to support it, I needed to support it at least a month out for it to do any good. That was the decision I finally came to—that I was terrified of what message would be sent to the rest of the nation if one-fifth of the U.S. economy was going to say, “No, we’re not going to legalize cannabis.”

Did you feel similarly about the other adult-use state initiatives on the November ballot? I think we can’t have real legalization until we have a federal shift. This is a state law change, but it doesn’t mean the federal government can’t still turn around and sue the state of California to not promulgate its own regulations. There are still a lot of problems here. The reason that I say it’s not true legalization is not to slam 64. It’s to remind people that we’re not done yet. We have not finished our job. We’ve moved the ball, but we have not won the game. We still have work to do.

How do you think the Trump administration is going to deal with the legal cannabis industry? There’s a really good chance that Jeff Sessions is going to be the next Attorney General. This is so reminiscent of what we’ve been dealing with for the last 20 years. We’ve gone right back to the Dark Ages. There’s no question in my mind that if he does get confirmed, we’ll likely see a rollback of the Ogden and Cole memos. All he has to do is just delete them and everything goes back to the way it was, and then we go back to selective prosecution, and the Justice Department suing states to not allow them to promulgate the rules. We had a transition process in place for Hillary, where we would’ve been just fine. Now all of that’s out the window.

How’s it going for women in the cannabis industry? Are women being treated better and respected more, or not? Having been the only chick in the room in my entire corporate career, I’m used to that. When I first got into the cannabis industry, I was often the only chick in the room, too. This industry has not been formed yet. We’re still a movement. We are not yet a fully formed industry, because of the federal law. There’s no glass ceiling to break through. We haven’t even finished the infrastructure yet.

Because women got in early, I don’t think we’re going to have a glass ceiling to break. There are enough women entrepreneurs in this industry already that have kind of broken through. Where it gets tricky is finding financing. We all know it’s easier for a white male to get funding than a woman, a person of color or a veteran. We still have the same old barriers that we always did in getting to the next level, but women are used to working three times harder for half the credit. This is nothing new in life. It’s nothing new in the cannabis industry, either.

How do you balance your career in cannabis with motherhood? I’m not just a woman in the industry, I’m a mother in the industry. I’m an outloud mother, walking around pregnant talking about cannabis policies, or with a baby strapped on me. I inadvertently became a mascot for motherhood at the same time that I became a missionary for cannabis. It was the first time you could have a family out loud while having a conversation about this subject.

There were no babies at corporate. If you had a baby, you disappeared for six weeks and came back and pretended it didn’t happen. You tried to downplay as much as possible that you were ever even pregnant, because it was bad for your career. The new working mom is not just finding childcare for her kids and going to work; she’s bringing her kids to work with her. That’s what I wound up having to do. Doing that out loud and teaching people that they too can do this has changed the game.

Read More. Freedom Leaf Magazine, December 2016.

Moving a Mountain: Pioneer and Advocate Jeff Jones Reflects on 20 Years in the Cannabis Industry

Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris with Jeff

From right to left: Jeff Jones, Mikki Norris and Chris Conrad in mid to late 1990s

It’s been 20 years since the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club (OCBC) set up shop in the heart of downtown Oakland. Jeff Jones, who now operates the Patient ID Center and who is an Oaksterdam University professor, was one of the pioneers who helped change the course of cannabis in the United States. Cannabis Industry Today sat down with Jones to remember what it was like two decades ago and to learn just how far the City of Oakland and the cannabis industry has changed since.

Cannabis Industry Today: What was Oakland like in 1995 and `96?

Jeff Jones: Very few people came downtown. It was largely vacant of businesses and still broken down from the earthquake that hit San Francisco, Oakland and Loma in 1989. Rent was cheap and parking on the street was readily available. When I opened OCBC, a patient could easily park right on the street and run in for a pickup.

Cannabis Industry Today: What motivated you to come to Oakland back then?

Jeff Jones: I watched my father suffer from cancer treatment, which is pretty impactful on a teenager. He died in 1988 in home hospice when I was 14 years old. That same year Federal Administrative Judge Francis L. Young had ruled that cannabis should be immediately rescheduled to allow research on its therapeutic benefits. Though I learned this later in my life, I was very frustrated that an alternative therapy could have helped my father but there had been no information about cannabis available or legal access to it for anyone. It wasn’t until I was in college that I heard about the Cannabis Action Network (CAN), which had a hemp booth at a Primus concert. Based in Oakland, CAN was a source of information about marijuana at a time when the government didn’t recognize any of the medicinal properties of cannabis. There I met Debby Goldsberry, who founded CAN, and others and got a crash course in cannabis activism and how to create change at a grassroots level.

Cannabis Industry Today: So you’re in Oakland and decide to start the OCBC. How did that come about and what happened?

Jeff Jones:  I followed in the footsteps of cannabis advocates Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary, who were heavily involved in providing medical cannabis to AIDS patients in San Francisco in the early 1990s. The first time I ever saw any government official supporting cannabis at the time was when then Board of Supervisor Tom Ammiano participated in Dennis’s ribbon cutting ceremony for the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.

In Oakland, I saw an opportunity to do something that could help the City and help patients who wanted and needed access to medical cannabis. But, I decided to go with a slightly altered model compared to Dennis—one that could become a model for others anywhere in the country.

OCBC was a bicycle delivery business and I worked with the City to create an official Resolution of Support, which passed in 1996. This allowed me to rent space and set up shop right on Broadway downtown and it made the City of Oakland the first U.S. city to contract with a medical cannabis provider. A task force of people from law enforcement, the city manager’s office, the city attorney’s office and the cannabis community came up with guidelines for how the police would handle people using marijuana and how to determine if there were using it recreationally or medically. That’s how the idea of a medical card came about.

There were no regulations in place for a cannabis business, so I self-regulated OCBC with the goal of being a respectable business and good neighbor. Cannabis wasn’t being taxed, but I paid taxes on cannabis sold through a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ method. Cannabis items were identified as pens, paper—items that were legally taxed—to ensure I paid taxes on goods sold by OCBC. Word-of-mouth news about OCBC grew and patients only received cannabis if they had a recommendation from a medical doctor.  Many of the practices I implemented then became the tenants of Senate Bill 420 and the Attorney General Guidelines of 2008.

Cannabis Industry Today: How long did OCBC stay in operation?

Jeff Jones: Many city council members helped me legitimize my goal to bring medical cannabis to patients in Oakland. OCBC had operated for about two years before the U.S. Department of Justice sued us; the civil lawsuit caused us to close up the dispensary and to fight the battle in court and public opinion.

The case, which began in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, was argued up to the U.S. Supreme Court and was the first case to ask the question for medical necessity patients. From the beginning I was not going to let the federal government call me a ‘drug dealer,’ and that focus and tenacity to continue was important. Without it I would not have been treated fairly.

JeffJones“We experienced setbacks in the case, but I think we triggered a new feeling that not all marijuana cases filed lead to prison time–a battle that is still being waged throughout the country today–and the case created a discussion about states’ rights that has influenced cannabis legalization around the country.”

— Jeff Jones reflecting on U.S. Supreme Court case United States vs Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club and Jeffrey Jones

Cannabis Industry Today: Were you treated fairly?

Jeff Jones: I think so, yes. We experienced setbacks in the case, but I think we triggered a new feeling that not all marijuana cases filed lead to prison time—a battle that is still being waged throughout the country today—and the case created a discussion about states’ rights that has influenced cannabis legalization around the country. My experience has allowed me to share a cannabis business model…a regulation model…that is duplicable and acceptable around the country.

Cannabis Industry Today: How has Oakland changed since 1996?

Jeff Jones:  Oakland offers the perfect example of how legal cannabis sales can be regulated and taxed and how it creates a positive economic impact. The cannabis industry helped seed change in Oakland and today the city is thriving. Oaksterdam University started here in 2007. The Fox Theater was renovated in 2009 and restaurants have opened all around it. The old Sears store is now being renovated into office space, hotels are going up and there are plans to revitalize Jack London Square, Old Town and Uptown.

The City continues to be open to change. In May, the Council voted to pass the Equity Permit Program, which allows recently incarcerated to be eligible for medical cannabis industry permits. It’s a unique move. Across the nation such convicted felons would be barred from entering the legal cannabis trade. What would make the Equity Program even better would be to also offer loans so these businesses could get set up…give them hope as well as ability.

Cannabis Industry Today:  And, the cannabis industry?

Jeff Jones: We moved a mountain. There are lots of individuals who have made a difference. When I first started advocating for cannabis I thought change would happen faster, but it’s not that simple. I think a lie got started about cannabis and then more lies were added onto that original lie and that’s what people believed. A key turning point in the perception of cannabis came when Dr. Sanjay Gupta apologized on CNN for his original opinions about marijuana and released a documentary called “Weed.” Today support of cannabis legalization among Americans is outpacing opposition to it, 25 states have legal medical marijuana, and we are on the cusp of rescheduling cannabis. I’d say that’s pretty huge.