A private San Francisco area university dedicated to the study of the cannabis industry is giving a whole new meaning to higher education.
At Oaksterdam University -- so called after the nickname locals have given to Oakland -- students learn how to grow, harvest and cook marijuana, as well as dispense it to others.
The goal, say administrators, is to educate consumers about the benefits of the mind-altering plant and encourage graduates to start their own dispensaries in California, even though possession remains prohibited under federal law.
The university, which is modeled on a similar school in Amsterdam, opened in November and has recently begun offering classes in Los Angeles.
On a recent day, a group of students gathered in a former pharmacy in downtown Oakland for a class that included topics such as the politics of marijuana, horticulture and bud tending.
Bikers with ponytails and tattoos sat next to speckled middle-aged women and took notes as a series of lecturers spoke about the history of the drug.
Later, students took part in role plays about what to do if stopped by a police officer and then learned about pH balancing, drying, curing and smell abatement.
At the end of the weekend-long intensive course, students took a test, which if passed, would give them a certificate they could use to get a job at a marijuana dispensary.
So far 200 students have graduated and over 500 people have enrolled at the private university.
Among the current students is 56-year-old Christie, a freelance website producer who declined to give her last name.
She said she came to Oaksterdam to educate herself about the ever-changing laws surrounding marijuana, especially since the federal Drug Enforcement Administration sent out letters to dispensaries late last year, urging them to close shop or, else, face fines.
"The federal intervention is a little scary, so I really want to understand all the legal aspects," said Christie.
Diagnosed with depression, she took Prozac for several years, but said that it left her feeling manic and nauseous.
Then her son turned her on to marijuana and she soon felt better. Today, Christie is off the anti-depressants and says her life has improved significantly.
"I just feel more joy and can finally sleep better," she said.
Oaksterdam staff insist marijuana helps alleviate pain in people suffering debilitating illnesses including cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS.
They also say legalizing the drug creates legitimacy for the widely used substance and boosts tax revenue for the state.
"The government spends an astronomical amount of money on drug enforcement and putting people in jail," said Danielle Schumacher, chancellor of Oaksterdam University.
"When the DEA raids dispensaries and seizes their assets, they are actually taking away California's revenue base."
California legalized the use of medical marijuana in 1996, a law that has been broadened in recent years to protect those who produce, provide or sell the substance for medical purposes and creating a voluntary identification program.
But seizures of dispensaries by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration have continued and in 2006, San Diego County filed a lawsuit against the state to overturn the medical marijuana law.
Not surprisingly, the creation of Oaksterdam University has not been greeted warmly by the DEA, which says the school sends the wrong message in the country's fight against drugs and promotes criminal activity.
"It reinforces a very complacent attitude by the public that marijuana is safe and effective, when it's not," said Michael Chapman, an assistant special agent in DEA's San Francisco office.
Although cities like Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco have passed ordinances making non-violent marijuana offenses a low priority for local law enforcement agencies, officers are often present during seizures.
For example, during a 2005 raid on a San Francisco dispensary, local police controlled crowds who came out to protest the seizure, while the federal agents made arrests.
Asked about how the DEA intended to enforce the letters it sent out last year, Chapman said they were meant as an educational tool to make people aware of potential fines.
"We focus on producers and suppliers and as far as we are concerned, every pot club is in violation of federal law, so it's subject to enforcement action," Chapman said.
Currently, 12 states have laws allowing use of medical marijuana, a number Oaksterdam's Schumacher expects to rise in coming years.
And with each new graduate, she sees a potential advocate who will become an activist in ending the federal ban on marijuana.
"Our grads are using their degrees to lobby different levels of government," whether it's in California, Washington, D.C. or other states, Schumacher said.
"There aren't enough clubs out there to meet the demand."