At D.C.’s Capsterdam University, growing weed is on the syllabus

Capsterdam University's Adams Morgan classroom. (Photo/Josh Axelrod)

In the heart of Adams Morgan’s 18th Street NW, above crowds of boozy brunchers and atop a poke shop, the forty-something Frankie Adonis stands at the center of a room lined with faux grass wallpaper. Beneath a shaft of purple light, he details for a throng of rapt students how they can venture into a “shamanic experience” and embrace their “warrior spirit.” 

But he’s not talking about religion or fitness – he’s talking about weed.

Adonis, an expert cannabis grower, teaches at Capsterdam, a self-described cannabis university that promises to educate customers on how to grow their own bud at home. The school, which just relaunched in a new 18th Street space back in January, aims to fill a different niche in Adams Morgan, long known for its youthful, sometimes raucous party scene and already full of its fair share of cannabis shops and businesses. 

Instead, the school’s team of weed entrepreneurs want to arm customers with information, in furtherance of their simple philosophy that growing pot will enhance your life.

“The more you love the plant, the more you give to this plant, the more it’s going to give back to you,” Adonis bellows to the class of seven students who’ve signed up for Capsterdam’s free introductory session. The lesson features morsels of growing wisdom like what PH level of water they should use on their seedlings, or how to choose between germinating a plant with rockwool or vermiculite.

Capsterdam’s flagship offering is its one-week course with the cheeky price tag of $420. Groups of up to 40 students attend two-hour classes from the school’s faculty of local growers that will bring them through the growing process from seed to smoke. Throughout program’s five days, targeted toward beginners, students focus on soil and hydroponic grow styles before participating in a live in-house grow.

It’s all above board since D.C. residents voted to approve Initiative 71, making it legal to cultivate up to six cannabis plants at home, no more than three of them mature.

Staff talk about their mission with frenetic reverence, reminiscent of a Baptist preacher. Enter Kevin Lance Murray, Capsterdam’s managing partner, and the man behind the scenes of this revitalized space, a second iteration of the cannabis-growing school which was first founded in 2015.

Murray believes that the plant is a gift from mother nature, one that contains medicinal properties like substituting for addictive opioids and promotes the general wellbeing of society. 

“We believe that by spreading awareness to the community about cannabis and its availability, especially for those who don’t want to go to a shop or a dispensary or some dealer in an alley, the fact that you can make it safely at home opens up the floodgates to more use,” Murray says. “And I believe that if there are more people consuming cannabis in whatever format is comfortable for them and is healthy for them, there’s a direct relation to the safety of the community.”

About 20 people have already enlisted for the spring semester, which will start up in the coming months, as soon as they hit the 40-person class capacity. 

“The type of people that we see in our classes you probably wouldn’t see together in other scenarios,” Murray said. “We have people from all different wards, all different walks of life.”

“From soccer moms to street dudes,” he added. “And it seems judgment is left at the door.”

Staff hail from all over the D.C. community. Murray employs five sales people, two security guards, three managers and two instructors, almost all of whom are people of color. 

The school first opened its doors back in 2015, soon after I-71 passed, legalizing weed possession and growing but outlawing selling. A gray market quickly arose in DC, where vendors identified a loophole to “gift” cannabis on top of another legal purchase.

Capsterdam founder and D.C. native Donald Pereira got involved in the city’s burgeoning cannabis scene and started hosting pop-ups in Adams Morgan, where different vendors could come gift their wares. It was a chance to help the full-time entrepreneur and real estate investor promote the weed cultivation school he’d recently opened, which was modeled after a similar program in Oakland, California called Oaksterdam University. 

But when the school outgrew its space on Columbia Ave. in Adams Morgan, the search for a new home began. After securing its new lease last March, Murray spent the last year getting Capsterdam 2.0 ready for a revitalized push to attract would-be weed growers. The 18th St. space features a “content creation” studio the team hopes to use to launch a podcast, plus a gift shop in the back, with locally sourced weed not grown in-house. 

It was both an opportune and challenging time to launch, Murray said. The pandemic made it easier to find a lease due to the abundance of commercial inventory, but more difficult to find customers, with people still wary of in-person gathering.

The new spot, prime real estate on an always bustling stretch of D.C., costs nearly $5,000 a month to rent and took about $30,000 to set up, Murray estimates. But even between rent, materials, and paying staff, Murray says overhead is relatively low. It doesn’t hurt that Capsterdam has a wealthy benefactor, whom he can’t name, who provided the seed funding and shells out funds as needed because they believe in the mission.

Eventually, after the new iteration initiates its first set of weeklong classes, Murray hopes to present a slate of digital offerings as well as stake out a space in the cannabis influencer realm through the content creation studio.

But for now, staff are focused on drawing would-be students in and exposing customers to their mission.

Adonis learned the science he now imparts to students after years of apprenticing with other growers for years during the 1990s. But Capsterdam staff firmly believe the skills to grow, say, three ounces every few months at home shouldn’t have to require years of study to get right. 

“That’s the impetus of Capsterdam — how do we provide that information to interested parties in a way that is fully digestible, versus having to seek some kind of… biology major degree,” Adonis said. “And the idea is how do you remove the stigma? How do you provide a vehicle for those who seek this?”

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