On Monday March 18, Madeline Martinez, Leia Flynn and I filed with the state of Oregon as chief petitioners of the Legalization Justice Act of 2020 (LJA). The Oregon Justice League was formed to champion legislation for the next presidential ballot. Our intent is to make a dent in the injustices of prohibition that we know still exist post-legalization. If the OJL qualifies for ballot placement, the people will overwhelmingly be on our side.
We formed the OJL because we do not believe Oregon has implemented cannabis legalization in the spirit under which the law was passed. We also know this problem goes well beyond Oregon’s borders to every other state-level legalization regime. Not only are we seeking to right these wrongs, but also provide a model that would allow other states to also implement a more just version of cannabis legalization.
Across the nation, legalization has been sold to citizens as a way to grow, develop and sustain small-business economies; end the discrimination of citizens based on their interactions with the cannabis plant; and uphold, protect and ensure the right of medical cannabis patients to safe botanical access. It seems, however, that the opposite is happening — that corporate interests are getting a head start while our generations-deep craft cannabis community is on the brink of collapse, medical cannabis programs are dwindling, and people are still being penalized, arrested, tried and incarcerated for interactions with the plant. This is not what we worked so hard for.
Germination Of The Legalization Justice Act
I first became a medical cannabis patient in my native California in March 2005, after my first surgery to remove a blocked portion of my intestine. Intestinal blockages are a complication of living with Crohn’s disease, an incurable and chronic autoimmune disease that not only makes the essential human functions of eating and digesting difficult, but comes with a host of other unpleasant symptoms that can include excruciating pain, indigestion, insomnia, nausea, weakness, fainting, wasting and, when I am so sick that I am nonfunctioning, isolation and depression.
Cannabis has been my gateway to herbalism and pharmaceutical-free management of all these symptoms. While I am healthy today thanks to healthy lifestyle changes including a dedicated specific carbohydrate diet and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, processed foods, sugar, starches and grains, cannabis is the plant that keeps me off more dangerous legal drugs. I am just one of millions of Americans living with a life-threatening or chronic condition and I know we all would be better off if cannabis became a first resort in our care, rather than an illicit last resort.
To me, this is an issue that goes deep. It’s about human dignity and reshaping our national and international cannabis policies to be more in line with science, reality and fairness.
I have worked not just as a journalist covering the cannabis industry for more than a decade, but also a media strategist on efforts big and small in Missouri, Utah, Oklahoma and California. I usually choose to stay behind the scenes, but as I pushed my co-chief petitioners to sponsor this initiative, they insisted I sign, too. How could I push them to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself?
Our efforts started in earnest late last fall, when we, as board members of Oregon NORML, brought together industry lobby support in a bid to prompt consumption legislation in the form of Senate Bill 639. We championed this bill, which would have legalized indoor cannabis social cafes. We knew it wasn’t an easy ask. After Oregon passed Ballot Measure 91 in 2014, legalizing statewide cannabis for all uses, the Oregon Legislative Assembly amended the Oregon Indoor Clean Air Act (ICAA) to ban the use of “inhalant delivery systems” and specifically “cannabinoids,” effectively blocking the path to cannabis consumption cafes. The public health lobby is powerful and has made it clear to our legislators that it will not stand for this change to the ICAA and does not wish to “normalize” cannabis use. Following facts, science and reality, we do and we are.
As citizens and taxpayers, we feel we have to take a strong stand against legislators who represent corporate interests over those of the constituents who put them in power. Since we legalized, according to Oregon’s local government, cannabis consumers have paid the state more than $173 million in taxes for the right to legally purchase and possess cannabis. At what point is the money we have paid the state worth more than what the public health lobby is paying our legislators to block our efforts? This question was on our minds when we learned the legislature had no plans of advancing SB 639 out of committee. We knew what we had to do: Go big or go home.
The Legalization Justice Act of 2020 not only amends the ICAA to allow for standalone or dispensary-attached cannabis consumption cafes, farms, tasting tours and special-event consumption space permits, it also creates consumer employment protections, makes the necessary changes to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) to protect patients and provide them safe botanical access, and pushes our governor to advocate for export beyond state borders.
First and foremost, we are taking back the money. We refuse to pay to continue to be neglected. The LJA redistributes recreational cannabis taxes in a way that promotes the social justice goals of cannabis legalization. Once passed, the LJA would designate 25 percent of tax revenues to funding community development and micro-lending initiatives that promote small businesses in minority and underserved communities disproportionately affected by the failed war on drugs. An additional 25 percent would be designated to subsidize medical marijuana purchases for low-income patients with qualifying conditions under the OMMP who have lost their access to direct caregiving from growers. The remaining 50 percent can continue to be used at the state’s discretion.
As a patient living with Crohn’s disease (and who has just two-thirds of my colon left), I feel there are important changes that need to be made to the OMMP and medical programs in all 50 states. In Oregon, it can currently cost up to $400 a year (including an out-of-network visit to an MD) to register as a patient. There are few tangible benefits to registering as a patient with the OMMP, now that the grower-patient relationship that was the cornerstone of West Coast compassion programs has been effectively ended through policy that disincentivizes that relationship. I have not been a registered patient in Oregon for more than two years, and I am not the only one; according to the Oregon Health Authority, the OMMP numbers have been cut in half since legalization began.
We won the battle for public opinion, in Oregon and internationally, off the backs of medical cannabis patients like me. It’s not easy to publicly talk about the darkest and most intimate details of your life, but we had to do it in order to exist legally. Now that corporate interests and the state have the profit incentive with recreational cannabis and pharmaceutical cannabinoid products, we patients have been all but forgotten.
Recognizing that cannabis as a botanical substance is recommended, not prescribed, under the LJA we make it clear that a patient’s right to choose botanical cannabis in their medical care in consultation with a doctor must not be impeded. Patients with incurable or chronic illnesses would be allowed lifetime medical cannabis cards. The qualified providers who could recommend cannabis would be expanded to include naturopaths, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Patients awaiting an organ transplant could no longer be kicked off an organ donor waiting list simply for having THC in their system.
The best option for patients is all options available in a free and fair market, with proper regulations in place to ensure the quality of the product sold commercially. We need access to a diverse marketplace full of competition and innovation. As a patient, having the ability to take care of your own needs is empowering, without the necessity of having to wait for legislators and the medical profession to take care of me. I am tired of everyone using patients to sell their products or argue their points, and it is high time we patients took the power back.
Activists Fighting For Fair Regulations In The Post-Prohibition Era
Madeline Martinez and Leia Flynn, both former corrections officers, have made bold moves when it comes to regulation of the plant, putting their own security on the line to push the envelope and to right the wrongs of prohibition, while also creating safe spaces for cannabis consumers. Martinez is the founder of the World Famous Cannabis Cafe in Portland, which made headlines when it opened shortly after the release of then-Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden’s memo in 2009, which urged the western United States to “not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” However, due to the change in Oregon’s ICAA in 2016, the World Famous Cannabis Cafe was closed.
Flynn is the owner of Flight Lounge, one of Portland’s members-only cannabis cafes currently up and running.
“This is about equal rights, because whenever you pick a certain group and treat them differently, that is discrimination,” says Martinez of their regulation efforts. “Patients, renters, the poor, people of color and women are still marginalized for their cannabis use, despite legalization.”
Indoor Clean Air Acts are meant to protect the public from the known dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke. While there is no federal law regulating where tobacco smokers can smoke, every state in the nation has its own Indoor Clean Air Act modeled on the Clean Air Act of 1963, which regulated public health risks associated with polluted air. The first version of an indoor CAA was passed in California in 1976. All 50 states now have a different version of an ICAA and some localities regulate indoor cigarette smoke in different ways per local ordinances.
The initial ICAA passed in Oregon in 1981. It has been amended and reinterpreted in state courts up to 2017. Although statewide cigar bars and hookah bars with indoor inhalation were grandfathered in, a post-cannabis legalization amendment in 2016 banned indoor use of e-cigarettes and specifically cannabinoids.
ICAAs were specifically passed to protect employees and patrons of known cancer-causing secondhand smoke.
“There is no evidence that sitting in a room full of cannabis smoke has ever caused cancer,” Flynn insists.
In fact, according to the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, government-backed studies failed to link the smoking of cannabis to cancer.
Smokeasies: The Way Of The Future
Flynn’s Flight Lounge is members only and very, very private. People cannot casually walk in off the street. Rather, they have to be invited by a registered member and also become a registered member themselves. There is no cannabis of any sort for sale on-site. It’s bring your own, but you can order a fresh pot of loose leaf tea to share with your friends.
For years prior, Flynn’s lounge had only been open to friends, earning it the Tea House nickname. But on April 20, 2018, prompted by the city of Portland releasing a document of guidelines for private consumption cafes like Flynn’s to operate within so as to avoid interference from law enforcement, she brought in a business partner and transformed the Tea House into the Flight Lounge, now a favorite hangout of local cannabis industry workers and advocates.
Because she is private and has no employees — only co-owners — Flynn is not subject to enforcement of the ICAA.
“People have to understand, these places aren’t profitable. I don’t make money. I would make money if I was allowed to open my doors to the public, but I am not,” she says.
If the lounge isn’t profitable and, while permitted in Portland, runs the risk of expensive state-level enforcement, why do it?
“Why did they open the first medical marijuana dispensary? You have to start somewhere. These places already existed when medical cannabis became legal and they already existed when legalization happened, and all of a sudden these places were illegal and not allowed to be here anymore,” Flynn explains. “People should just be able to come in here and have a safe place where they can come in, sit down, consume their medicine and go about their day.”
Flynn points out that almost every neighborhood in the Portland metropolitan area has a bar. The city is also known for its surplus of neighborhood strip clubs. Any justification for preventing indoor cannabis consumption spaces in a region that permits indoor cigar and hookah smoking and where it rains more than half the year is already addressed through ventilation systems, construction that keeps certain activities out of public view and away from children, and public transportation and ride-sharing options.
“If you have these in each neighborhood, you are not going to have to worry about people driving. Most people aren’t going to commute, they are going to walk,” Flynn says.
Born in Tacoma, Washington and moving to Portland as a child, Flynn had a rough childhood and, living in predominantly black communities, says she witnessed a lot of violence and police brutality.
“I always thought I was going to change the world, so I went to school. To grow up and see it and have the privilege to be able to do things as a white woman, I just have an obligation to change the system,” Flynn says.
She became a corrections officer, but quickly became disillusioned after just one year: “That was all it took for me to realize our system was completely broken.”
Flynn turned to advocacy, working as a legal assistant to longtime Portland cannabis advocate and attorney Leland Berger for the past 10 years. She became a member of Oregon Green Free, one of the first cannabis grower collectives, providing patients access to free cannabis, education and safe spaces to consume. Flynn grew directly for a handful of patients, but now that the caregiver program is essentially dead, she’s since stopped growing.
“When we legalized it, I didn’t realize it would take away that personal touch between a grower and their patients, but it did,” Flynn laments. “If I had known legalization was going to do this to business owners, I probably would not have voted for it.”
Cannabis Consumption Roots
Martinez got into activism at the age of 13, motivated by the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Growing up in East Los Angeles during the Vietnam War, she says she remembers hearing the names of the dead read out daily at school.
“That was really awful, especially when they say someone you know’s name, even if you weren’t that close,” Martinez recalls.
She married at 18 and, two weeks later, her husband Rafael was deployed to Vietnam. They had two children almost immediately upon his return. She took a job as a corrections officer for the state of California for the next 10 years, retiring after an on-the-job injury waylaid her in her mid-30s. Martinez says she always consumed cannabis, and having seen national NORML founder and executive director Keith Stroup on the news in 1970, became an early member and supporter.
In 1995, Madeline and Rafael relocated to Portland, Oregon, where she has become a matriarch of both the local and national cannabis movement. As a Latina woman, Martinez says she stood out in Oregon, where nearly 80 percent of the population is white.
“I think that is what made me more bold. I had to get bold. I just got brave and started speaking up,” Martinez says. “If I didn’t speak up for myself, nobody else would.”
Shortly after the Ogden memo kicked off the national green rush in 2009, Martinez made another bold move: She opened the nation’s first public-facing cannabis consumption space, the World Famous Cannabis Cafe.
“It was like a stoner’s dream come true, like you were in your parents’ basement,” she says. “My inspiration to do a cafe was because I felt like a leper in society. All of us who smoked had to go hide. We needed a place of our own, out of public view, a safe space.”
Cannabis social consumption has always been at the heart of the medical cannabis movement. The first public caregivers network established to treat patients by connecting them to growers was also a safe space for patients to consume cannabis with one another. The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club was a key step in California becoming the first state in the nation to pass a law recognizing smoked botanical cannabis as “medical use,” a movement that had started in earnest as a result of the AIDS epidemic. As the plant has become increasingly more legal in more places, there has been a shift from creating safe access to botanical cannabis to pushing patients toward extracted patented medicines and supplements, and fewer direct interactions with the plant and people who grow it.
The earliest dispensaries were also spaces patients could come together, consume and get educated. Underground farmers markets dotted along the West Coast have long provided valuable venues for consumers to verify and establish a relationship with the growers they sourced their medicine from. As cannabis has become more legal, many more layers have been added between the farm and consumer, with profit incentives built into every step.
As the nation sits on the brink of changing federal cannabis policy — a decision that will affect us all for years to come — we feel it is imperative that we discuss social justice in any conversation about legalization or medical use, because prohibition policies are and have always been based on lies. We need justice, not just legalization.