San Francisco has long beckoned cannabis-lovers with its reputation as a wide-open, tolerant city that is the birthplace of the modern medical marijuana movement, but just across the Bay Bridge in Oakland, local activists are helping that city stake its own claim to cannabis-friendliness. Along with dispensaries, patient support services providers and a gift shop, Oakland's 10-year old "Oaksterdam" enterprise now has a newspaper too.
Oaksterdam, a block or so in downtown Oakland where cannabis clubs once feverishly competed, has been reduced somewhat by government exertions of regulatory control, but overall continues to flourish. Standing at a certain corner there and facing a certain angle, one can look through a gap in the nearby buildings to glimpse Oakland's City Hall and Plaza. Oaksterdam cognoscenti are hopeful that that 27-year former Congressman Ron Dellums, a past NORML advisory board member and leading contender in the city's upcoming mayoral election, will win the race and take a friendlier stance toward them.
Actually, the News is coming up on its first birthday, and it has already come a long way. Published by Oakland cannabis café empresario Richard Lee, owner of the Bulldog coffee shop and the SR-71 medical marijuana dispensary, with cannabis activist and expert Chris Conrad playing a key role, the newspaper has seen its circulation jump from 5,000 copies for its first issue in March 2005 to 40,000 for the current issue and somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 for the next. Formerly published out of managing editor Jaime Galindo's home, the News is days away from moving into its own dedicated office space.
"The newspaper was pretty much my baby," said publisher Richard Lee. "It goes with a long-term vision for Oaksterdam, and in a way we are trying to mimic Amsterdam. One of the things they have there were information outlets that advertising paid for. It's a sort of trade publication for the cannabis tourists that was full of information. We want to do that here, but as a serious news organ, too."
"We're looking at this as a way of giving a voice to people who are engaged in activism but are shut out of the corporate media," said Conrad. "The corporate media doesn't reflect the reality we see around us. We are trying to create a vital corridor of communication to present the cannabis consuming community in more honest terms. We're trying to break the stereotypes and the trivialization of cannabis consumers and give America a reality check."
Although he is probably best known for his work as a cannabis expert, editing the Oaksterdam News is nothing new for Conrad, who majored in journalism as a California undergrad, edited campus newspapers, and worked on community newspapers earlier in life. "This is just an extension of my career," he said. Conrad's credits also include co-authorship of the drug war horror stories book "Shattered Lives."
Part of the paper's growing appeal is its inclination for covering cannabis news straight -- without brash editorializing and without allowing its editorial positions to seep too heavily into its news coverage. Instead, the reporting is straightforward, similar to that of established press outlets, but without the stereotypical portraits of pot people and the tendency, apparently irresistible for mainstream reporters, to make silly, pot-related puns. Stories in the most recent issue range from the local ("Mayoral Candidate Nancy Nadel Supports Measure Z Adult Use Clubs") to the regional ("San Francisco Permits Cannabis Outlets") to the state-wide ("Measure Z-Style Reforms Set to Blossom Around State"), the national ("Denver Votes to Legalize Cannabis Use Within City Limits"), and even the international ("Cocalero Wins in Bolivia").
The Oaksterdam News is also in many ways a community newspaper. As such, it features booster-style information about Oaksterdam, event listings, and the like, as well as advertising from the area's many medical marijuana dispensaries. But its boosterism isn't limited by the Oakland city limits or even the US border; the most recent issue also features a map guide to Vansterdam, the cannabis-friendly neighborhoods and businesses of Vancouver.
It is probably safe to say that it takes a certain kind of community to make such a venture possible. The San Francisco Bay area, with its twin legacies of countercultural ferment and left-leaning dissent, is a natural cauldron for innovative activism. The East Bay, with intellectual Berkeley and tough-eyed Oakland, brings its own special essence to Bay area cannabis culture.
"There's still a lot of the spirit of the '60s here in the East Bay," said Conrad. "We've had civic and activist leaders who are really visionary and are not just looking at the problem, but at what we are working toward. In the East Bay, you have a lot of people who are not happy with the world as it is and who understand it is up to us to change it."
While the Oakland approach has been radical, it has been radical with a difference. "In San Francisco, you had sort of a Wild West free-for-all approach with Dennis Peron, but in Oakland we ended up with Jeff Jones," Conrad said, referring to the suit-and-tie, by-the-book, work-with-authorities efforts of Jones and his pioneering Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Co-op. "This whole idea that we have the support of local political leadership and they recognize us as an important part of their political base is in some ways an outgrowth of that approach, and it has created a situation where we can actually propose ideas and see them implemented at a level far beyond what we could hope for in most other parts of the country."
"There's a long history of political activism here, from the Black Panthers marching with their rifles through the antiwar protests and beyond," agreed Lee. "Oakland is also a center of cannabis reform; this is where Jeff Jones opened the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op. Jeff and I try to complement each other. He's a healthy guy who works with sick people, and I'm a sick guy who works with healthy people," said the wheelchair-bound Lee.
"It is individuals within the Oakland culture," said News managing editor Jaime Galindo. "It takes both guys like Richard and people like those running the dispensaries and the community they serve. While Oakland is producing a new breed of more unified marijuana and medical marijuana activists, what matters is less where it's being done than who is doing it. Oakland just happened to be the place where it all comes together, and of course part of that is because of the progressive nature of the city."
Part of the News' mission is to push Oakland's city council to interpret Measure Z broadly, but that is a continuing battle. The city dragged its feet for more than a year before appointing a Measure Z oversight committee, and the city council recently interpreted the measure as making marijuana offenses the lowest priority only in residential areas.
"When we were gathering signatures for Measure Z, people would tell us what they wanted was to get the dealing off the street and to save money, but the city council has managed to slow that down," said Lee. "We are getting the private adult use clubs quietly open, and we will keep pushing."
Lee and company are eyeing broader horizons, too. "We have Measure Z-style initiatives going in West Hollywood, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica for the November ballot this year, and there may be a few more cities. There are some small cities where the Greens hold a majority, and legalization is part of their platform," Lee said. "That will leave us in a good position for a 2008 statewide initiative."
In the meantime, that leaves Conrad, Lee, and Galindo busy with running a newspaper -- and changing their world. "We distribute the News at events, too, and people from all over the country and the world are blown away when they see it," said Conrad. "We're not some artsy rag; we're a newspaper with straightforward presentation and good, solid reporting. When people read the News, they understand they're getting the solid reporting on our issues that the corporate media tends to avoid. We're providing a window into the community, and many who are looking through that window are community members themselves. To the degree that we are a new form of media, this is not just about a movement or a culture, but about a major social change going on right now."
"We're in just about every dispensary in the state," said Galindo, who handles the newspaper's business affairs. "We're also now distributing in Canada, and we're sending it out to all the national NORML chapters. We're about to come out with newsracks for businesses, and we hope to broaden our distribution in independently owned businesses -- stores, coffee shops, music stores, entertainment venues and the like," he explained.
"We're getting pretty close to break even," said Lee. "We have been coming out as a quarterly, but sales have been so brisk we may try to squeeze in five issues this year and go bi-monthly next year. Our ads are doubling every issue, the print run keeps increasing, and we're adding more pages, too."
Now the Oaksterdam News is having to deal with the issues that come with success. "We've been very successful so far," said Conrad. "The question we have to ponder now is whether we can make the leap from an all-volunteer effort to actually paying people for their time."
Many of those who have tried their hand at independent publishing can only envy the Oaksterdam News the problems it faces. Whether the paper can take it to the next level will be a key indicator not only of the paper's journalistic and business acumen but also of the maturity of the cannabis culture.