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Freedom Leaf Interview: Oaksterdam University’s Dale Sky Jones

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In 2017, Oaksterdam University is celebrating 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.

oaksterdam interviewWhere 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 ganja. I was that way until I moved to California.

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 manger. 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.

oaksterdam interviewHow 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 straight-laced 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.

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 out-loud 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 child-care 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.

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