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| posted on 5/27/2010 at 08:54 AM|
| Richard Lee - Marijuana Evangelist|
His testosterone-charged youth filled with Harley-Davidsons, ultralight aircraft and ski-slope derring-do, Richard Lee hardly fit the mold of social warrior. But when an accident left the Houston native partially paralyzed, fate intervened to transform him first into a millionaire, then into one of the nation's top advocates for legalized marijuana.
Lee, 47, now a purveyor of medicinal marijuana in Oakland, Calif., is credited with engineering a successful effort to get an initiative legalizing the drug for adult consumption on his adopted state's November ballot.
Coming on the heels of a failed legislative bid to legalize pot, the measure has ignited a pitched battle between drug activists and opponents who object that marijuana use is a “gateway” to abuse of ******* and ******.
If voters approve the measure, California will become the first state in the nation to permit legal recreational consumption. In 1996, the state became the nation's first to approve medicinal use of the drug — a policy later adopted by 14 other states and Washington, D.C.
All uses of the drug remain illegal in Texas.
“I put this in the class of a civil rights issue,” Lee said. “It's unfair and unjust to lock people up for using cannabis when it's safer than alcohol. ... I got into this because of my support of law enforcement. People are losing respect for the law.”
Law enforcement should be directed at “protecting us from real sociopaths and predators,” he said, not at pursuing drug offenders.
Steve Gutwillig, director of the national Drug Policy Alliance's California chapter, said Lee single-handedly pushed to get the marijuana proposition on the ballot even as “mainstream” drug advocacy groups hesitated.
“Victory for this initiative is a game changer in the struggle to end decades of failed marijuana prohibition,” Gutwillig said. “It will be a bellwether for the nation and will resonate not just across the country, but potentially around the world.”
Lee said he was heartened in his campaign by polls that showed 55-60 percent of respondents in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. Lee's group gathered 690,000 signatures — only 434,000 were needed — on a petition to bring the issue to a vote.
Despite those polls, Lee's marijuana initiative has drawn stiff opposition from anti-drug organizations, law enforcement groups and some religious leaders.
John Redman, a Texas A&M University graduate who heads California's Community Alliances for Drug Free Youth, complained that legalizing marijuana for adults would make it seem less harmful and, indirectly, increase its availability to minors.
Redman's group led a fight against a San Francisco legislator's bill to legalize pot, which died earlier this year in the California Assembly.
Lee grew up in Houston, one of five sons of Robert and Ann Lee, self-described “Goldwater Republicans,” who have come to agree with their son on marijuana issues.
“Richard always marched to a different drum,” said his mother. “Two things came across with him. First was his integrity. If he told you something, you could take it to the bank. Second, he was very much a ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead' guy. If he believes in something, he'll push ahead whether you support it or not.”
Fall changed his life
Lee's parents recalled their son's youth as one filled with action sports. “It was his life — hopping onto a his Harley-Davidson to run to Pearland,” Ann Lee said.
Lee was 27 when, working as a lighting technician, he fell off a scaffold and broke his back. The injury left him paralyzed below the waist. Suffering from sleeplessness and other complications, Lee told his parents he was considering suicide.
While at a Houston rehabilitation center, Lee chanced upon an article describing the efficacy of marijuana in easing painful symptoms in paralytic patients.
“Before the current research, the standard treatment prescribed lots of Valium. People would be Valium zombies. They'd stay at home all day,” he said. “When they switched to cannabis, they'd go back to college, get married.”
Upon experiencing his cannabis epiphany, Lee opened The Hemp Store, a Montrose-area boutique selling hemp-fiber clothing and other legal pot-related products. He also moved into advocating the drug's legalization.
“He was a sharp guy who really was tied into entrepreneurship and the force of the market in bringing about change,” said Jerry Epstein,co-founder of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas. “He knew what he was going to do: somehow harness the free market.”
Lee moved to the Bay Area to work in the medical marijuana industry after voters made it legal. Ultimately, he became proprietor of one of Oakland's four marijuana dispensaries and founder of Oaksterdam University, a trade school offering courses in cultivation and other pot-related topics.
More than 10,000 students have attended classes at the school's California and Michigan branches.
Lee's dispensary, trade school and related businesses generate more than $5 million annually in income and have served as a nucleus for redevelopment in Oakland's Oaksterdam neighborhood.
“When I first got here,” he said, “the area was really empty. Homeless people were sleeping in the doorways. I tried to make this a working model. Cannabis businesses can help clean up the neighborhood.”
Now, he said, the area is filled with coffee shops, galleries, retail stores and sidewalk cafes.
Author: ALLAN TURNER
Copyright: 2010 The Houston Chronicle
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