While technically banned in Pasadena, the law remains hazy enough that there are cannabis collectives doing good business in town. Sophia Kercher got down in the weeds to sort out the situation.
BY: Sophia Kercher
Medical marijuana dispensaries may be banned in Pasadena but on North Mentor Avenue two cannabis collectives hand out green buds to a steady stream of patients nearly seven days a week. Here, the operations hang in the constant purgatory of marijuana-related federal, state and local laws. One of these collectives belongs to longtime Pasadena business owner, Liz McDuffie.
McDuffie is the founder of the Medical Cannabis Caregivers Directory, or MCC, and a cannabis storefront called the Landmark Research Collective. MCC has been a fixture in the Mentor Avenue business community since 2006 when McDuffie first opened it as an institute to educate the public and physicians about cannabis as a medical treatment option. “The two most popular classes are the class that explains how the medical marijuana program works and the second is how to start a collective, or a cooperative—that class is full all the time,” McDuffie explains.
California’s Compassionate Use Act was passed in 1996, making California the first state in the nation to allow medical marijuana. Support for the powerful plant continues to grow in the state and throughout the nation, yet recreational cannabis is still not legal here.
Newsweek recently touted 2016 as “the year of the marijuana election,” noting that a 2013 survey found that in California 65 percent of likely voters expressed support for legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana for the 2016 election ballot. Now, the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance are working to draft a 2016 initiative for next November’s election. This measure would legalize recreational cannabis use for adults and likely regulate and tax the drug like alcohol, similar to Washington and Colorado where recreational cannabis is legal.
There’s no doubt that attitudes are shifting with 23 states now allowing the use of marijuana for medical conditions. In Colorado and Washington, there are professional pot critics, weed dispensary employees with health benefits, government cannabis inspectors and marijuana millionaires dedicated to the ever-enigmatic green leaf. Weed is slowing becoming mainstream.
For cannabis collective operators like McDuffie, the mindset is not a matter of if the plant will be accessible to all adults but when, which may be one of the reasons why collectives like hers don’t exactly fall in line with Pasadena’s city ordinance ban.
Open the door to McDuffie’s Landmark Research Collective and visitors are hit with a telltale skunky botanic perfume as they climb upstairs to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, cannabis seekers are prompted to hit a buzz to enter and after a quick security check via video, patients are invited in.
Often they are greeted by McDuffie, who can be found surrounded by her quality kush. With her thick silver hair and black-rimmed glassed McDuffie looks professorial. “I don’t know why but women tend to like the Sativa and men tend to like the Indica,” she tells a patient, who looks to be in his late 50s, as he selects his choice buds.
In California, all one needs to consume cannabis is an easily obtainable doctor’s prescription as well as proof of residency. With these, patients are free to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana. Doctors will often prescribe cannabis for ailments such as migraines, anxiety, insomnia or chronic pain for fees that range from $25-$100.
McDuffie, who is in her 70s, has been operating her cannabis collective since 2012. Her domain is an office-like setting with bars on all the windows for security, and chairs for patients to recline on while they wait for a one-on-one with the attentive McDuffie. Of course there are also the jewels of the operation—handfuls of green buds—enclosed in glass containers. She later explains, “Landmark specializes in services to patients who are using cannabis for a specific medical condition. Professional health care services and information are as important as the product.”
McDuffie earned a degree in Public Administration after working as an educator within the US Army and the Pasadena Unified School District, and she is first and foremost a teacher. Like most teachers, she’s bright and talkative and doesn’t hesitate to explain or re-explain ideas, which is helpful because the challenges that come with a cannabis business can get complex.
“We had a breakthrough in 2012 when the state of California’s Department of Social Services licensed us to teach things like the medical marijuana program,” McDuffie explains in between the bustle of visiting patients. The MCC, separate from her Landmark Research Collective, is now part of Continuing Education Program with classes available online and onsite. There’s also computer software available that advises collectives and doctors alike how to protect themselves from litigation.
McDuffie expanded her business from an education resource center to a marijuana storefront because she wanted to have the ability to collect data on her patients to help educate others, and to demonstrate the collective operating standards and procedures taught by the MCC. It helped that she already had trustworthy contacts in the industry; plus, she quickly discovered business was good.
“We were in hog heaven,” McDuffie says. “Then the city issued a cease and desist, so what do we do? We laid the infrastructure for the data collection and I wanted to fight for us—so I hired an attorney by the name of Stanley Kimmel.”
Kimmel has a background in working with a number of Los Angeles area medical marijuana dispensaries. According to McDuffie, he carefully examined the ordinance and discovered it wasn’t valid. “Now we are in litigation with the city over an invalid ordinance,” McDuffie explains.
Kimmel declined to comment on McDuffie’s case. But McDuffie is adamant. “The damn ban isn’t sound,” McDuffie continues, her voice loud with passion, “It’s a landmark case—and if it’s true the city better rush back and get their ordinance squared away.”
The Pasadena area cannabis community is paying attention to this litigation. McDuffie guesses that if indeed the city’s ordinance is not effective more dispensaries will open. Her business is not the lone collective, below MCC and Landmark Research Collective is another cannabis storefront called Golden State, and others include delivery services that skirt the ban by not having a brick-and-mortar operation. There’s talk within the Pasadena cannabis community of several new dispensaries opening, including one on busy Arroyo Parkway which could be controversial considering its one of the main arteries into the city.
Pasadena’s recently elected mayor, Terry Tornek, insists that despite operations like McDuffie’s the ban on medical marijuana dispensaries hasn’t changed since 2005. But he also admits that he hasn’t been tracking businesses such as Landmark Research Collective and Golden State. “The truth is this isn’t an issue that I’ve been paying a lot of attention to and I’m a little bit surprised,” he says, unaware that cannabis collectives in Pasadena are currently selling marijuana to patients. Tornek adds, “The bigger question, ultimately, is these guys can plan for all the things that they like to do, but, as far as I know, they are not legal and they are not about to become legal and there is litigation pending. So we will see what the outcome of that is.”
According to Tornek, it’s not the city but the voters who will decide medical marijuana’s place in Pasadena in the near future. He says when that happens, zoning, locations and the number of dispensaries will all be carefully considered.
Next door to McDuffie’s business is the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce’s headquarters. It’s a one-story building with emerald green awnings, which houses a modest collection of offices. Left of the Chamber of Commerce are two marijuana collectives and to the right is the hip new comfort food joint Braise & Crumble. Here is where President and CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce Paul Little, who was a member of city council from 1995 to 2007, works.
During Little’s three terms at city council he put forth the city ordinance banning medical marijuana dispensaries. Now, however, he seems to have shifted his attitude. “Next to us are a couple of collectives,” Little explains, describing Landmark Research Collective and Golden State. “They are good neighbors and good business people and law enforcement are aware of them.” He adds, “I don’t see a negative impact in the neighborhood other than that parking can get hectic because they are doing good business over there.”
Little, who has been working for the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce for seven years, is friendly and approachable with silver spectacles that frame blazing blue eyes. He says he was never against medical marijuana per se but when the 2005 ban on medical marijuana dispensaries passed he remembers being concerned by the clarity of the new laws. “The feds at the time were threatening to withhold law enforcement and all sorts of funds if cities allowed it,” Little recalls. “Because the medical marijuana law had just passed in California no one had any idea of what was going on.” He notes that if the local, federal and state governments could all agree on set legal guidelines everyone involved would benefit, including the medical marijuana industry.
Amanda Reiman is the Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance where she works directly on marijuana reform in regards to litigation, legislative and initiative drafting, and other matters, she calls California’s marijuana status quasi-legal because the plant has been available for patients for almost 20 years.
“It’s really piecemeal across the state,” Reiman says on the phone from northern California. “For example, you have a city like Pasadena that has banned commercial activity but has these collectives of growers that have popped up which are protected under Prop 215, and then you have cities like Oakland, where I live, where we have cannabis licensed entities and the city is talking about licensing cultivation and manufacturing.” In Oakland, the medical marijuana programs are working effectively because the city has been proactive in their medical marijuana regulations, setting out clear guidelines. Reiman points to places such as the Inland Empire and Los Angeles as having unclear regulations that led to too rapid, and unplanned expansion of medical marijuana dispensaries. “It’s like putting the toothpaste back in the tube,” Reiman observes. “I think the lesson that we can take away from dispensaries is that regulation works, and that the more proactive cities can be about their commercial cannabis activity the better off it is for them in the long run.”
No business or individual wants to exist in a gray area, yet until the feds, state and local government come to agreement on the status of marijuana, the rules surrounding the medicinal herb remain murky in much of California.
Meanwhile, Pasadena’s medical marijuana critics say that the 2005 ban has been positive for the community. Many point to nearby Eagle Rock, where the dispensaries have suffered burglaries, shootings, lawsuits and orders from the federal government to shut down. Critics are also concerned with the lack of regulation and say that because getting a medical marijuana prescription is so easily obtained there are fears of the plant getting into the hands of kids or teenagers. There is also the fact that, due to decades of government roadblocks on research the public knows little about the science behind the consumption of marijuana, both positive and negative.
This appears to be changing with data from quality studies now gaining traction. Potentially trailblazing studies on marijuana’s healing powers are currently being conducted to find treatments for multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, PTSD, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and sickle cell disease. It is now known that chemicals unique to marijuana plants interact with specific receptors on the cells in the brain, and immune system, which may allow them to reduce inflammation and pain. And, in April, a New York University study found promise in a liquid form of medical marijuana for helping child and adult patients with severe epilepsy that do not respond to other treatments.
McDuffie knows all too well the benefits that the plant holds. She herself smokes the medicine for relief from debilitating migraine headaches she has suffered for decades. She discovered this remedy from a doctor she met while teaching in Germany in 1960, and she has been both a devoted student and an advocate for the medicinal properties in marijuana ever since.
“Every day I see medical cannabis improving the quality of life for patients who are suffering from serious medical conditions,” McDuffie says. She pauses, radiating optimism, “I think the future of medical marijuana will look like any of the professional healthcare facilities that are available to the citizens of Pasadena.” Until then the great California medical marijuana experiment continues.