PASADENA - On a recent rainy morning, Liz McDuffie was lecturing about a dozen students inside a classroom at her Medical Cannabis Caregivers Directory on Mentor Avenue.
She went over the the maze of legal issues surrounding the use and sale of medical marijuana, discussed the process involved in becoming a "primary care provider," and she spelled out the risks of operating a medical marijuana dispensing business.
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"This is a new industry that's going to turn California around, and you're it," she told her students.
With U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder hinting this past week that federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in California and other states may stop in the future - and with last week's introduction of a bill in the state Legislature seeking to legalize and tax marijuana - McDuffie just might be right.
"The bottom line is that arguing the medical benefits of marijuana is like arguing that the world is round," she said.
For the past two years, McDuffie has operated the MCCDirectory office inside a nondescript building on Mentor, with half of her business spot dedicated to a clothing store called Ritz Resale, which is operated by her daughter.
The MCCDirectory has two stated purposes - to provide a searchable directory of physicians and caregivers who prescribe and sell medical marijuana, and to provide training for individuals interested in providing medical marijuana services.
Alhough medical marijuana dispensaries are not allowed in Pasadena, McDuffie's classes and services are protected under free speech laws, city spokeswoman Ann Erdman said. MCCDirectory's business license describes it as a physicians' referral service.
"We are not aware of any sales of any items including cannabis that are being sold from there," Erdman said.
She added that there were no open investigations into the site by code enforcement.
For a $130 class fee, MCCDirectory students like Shaun Szamzit and Bruce Lehman can learn about everything marijuana related - from handling encounters with law-enforcement officials to producing cannabis-infused edibles and ointments.
"We're just learning about the laws and how to protect yourself," said Szamzit.
"It's important knowing what's legal," Lehman said.
McDuffie moves back and forth through the aisles of her classroom, touching her students' on their shoulders and looking them in the eye to get her points across.
She hands out several forms during the five-hour class, some of which describe how to obtain a Department of Health Services Cannabis Card, and others with lists of regulations pertaining to marijuana dispensaries.
McDuffie, 66, has been using cannabis for medical purposes since 1967, she said, when she developed migraine problems. She has since used it for other conditions, she said.
The key to the industry's legitimization, she believes, is in regulation and compliance. She preaches on everything from proper labeling - even doing demonstrations of new software that helps label containers of marijuana - to a medical marijuana certification program, Clean Green, that she was instrumental in founding.
"It's so that people know that their cannabis is organic and safe," McDuffie said of Clean Green.
Run by Chris Van Hook, a licensed USDA organic certifier based in Northern California, Clean Green independently certifies that medical marijuana, according to its Web site, complies "with national and international guidelines for organic and sustainable farming."
Van Hook, who said he's been in the agriculture industry for 23 years, started the Clean Green program about 6 years ago, at the urging of McDuffie.
"She is very, very legitimate in the sense that her interest is only in compliance," Van Hook said. "She's very dedicated to it, and I think she holds her entire operation to a very high standard."
Van Hook said he modelled the program, still in its infant stages, after the USDA's requirements. He said he inspects sites to verify the nonuse of chemical and synthetic fertilizers and sprays and compliance with state laws.
"The advantage of the program is that it assists in differentiating legal and compliant from illegal and noncompliant, and that can only be good for a state that allows medical cannabis," Van Hook said. "I've toured these pot farms, and a lot of them use chemicals that are not legal in California, that are not approved for use, that are totally unregulated."
McDuffie has also been involved in politics, founding a pro-environment political action committee in 2006 called the Coalition for a Safe and Clean Environment with fellow marijuana activist Philip Lujan.
The PAC has donated $17,425 to area politicians. McDuffie resigned from it in June due to time constraints.
Despite Holder's comments last week, shifts in federal marijuana enforcement policies have not necessarily happened on a national level just yet, said Garrison Courtney, chief of public affairs of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C.
"The new administration's coming in, they're still figuring out a lot of the policies. A lot of the stuff hasn't trickled down yet to the agencies themselves," Courtney said.
But in McDuffie's view, the war against medical marijuana is now all but over - and medical pot has won.
"Please - it's here," said McDuffie. "The question is, how do we gracefully make an entrance into the business community?"
By Robert S. Hong and Alfred Lee
Posted: 03/01/2009 07:08:05 AM PST