Madeline Martinez

Departments - Upfront | Roots Of Change

Corrections officer turned cannabis-rights crusader—and her story doesn’t end there.

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November 19, 2015

Madeline Martinez has seen the struggle for marijuana policy reform from many angles—as a peace officer in California’s prisons, assisting medical marijuana patients, leading advocacy efforts with marijuana-law reform organization NORML and as owner of The World Famous Cannabis Café.

Photo: COURTESY OF MADELINE MARTINEZ

According to Martinez, what’s most important are not these big benchmarks, but the steady change in perceptions she has witnessed over time.

“I’ve noticed over the years that medical marijuana was the first crack in the wall of ignorance surrounding our government’s misguided views of marijuana,” she says. “I’ve found that the evolution of marijuana [policy] starts with educating healthcare professionals, state and federal representatives, even fellow patients and consumers along the way.”

Shifting perceptions aside, the proudest achievement—among a career full of them—for the former executive director of Oregon NORML, child of East L.A., mother of two and grandmother of six is establishing the World Famous Cannabis Café.

‘A Place of Our Own’

When Martinez opened the Cannabis Café in 2009, she expected to be shut down and probably arrested. Hanging a shingle on behalf of medical marijuana patients was at the time a bold move, but with Oregon NORML meetings having grown to more than 300 people, she felt it was necessary to create a “safe space” for the community.

Martinez had been executive director of Oregon NORML since 2000, and under her guidance, the organization had grown to become the largest chapter in the United States. The Oregon Medical Cannabis Awards, founded by Martinez and NORML in 2001, shined a light on safety and quality by honoring, each year, the best medicinal marijuana strains. The chapter was giving away hundreds of cannabis plants each month, but Martinez wanted to do more.

“It became clear we need a place of our own, out of public view. We had become lepers in our own society,” she says. At the same time, she recalls, “My hope was to bring light to the issue of medical marijuana patients’ needs.”

The Cannabis Café accomplished both. It provided a dedicated, compassionate space for medical marijuana users, but also brought the movement out of the shadows.

The same year she founded the Café (2009), Martinez became the first Latina to be nominated to the national board of directors at NORML. She would go on to co-found the NORML Women’s Alliance, a “nonpartisan coalition who believe that cannabis prohibition is a self-destructive and hypocritical policy.”

‘Our Criminal Justice System Is … Flawed’

Part of what inspired Martinez’s future efforts to end marijuana prohibition was the fact that she had witnessed, up close, the contradictions of drug laws. As a peace officer with the California Department of Corrections in the 1980s, she recalls “the pungent smell of marijuana smoke wafting down the halls of this maximum security prison.”

“Over a decade I saw firsthand and learned that our criminal justice system is extremely flawed,” she says. “Many Latino have asked me why I don’t work on immigration issues. My answer is that drug policies in this country are the new Jim Crow. We can’t seem to stop the racial profiling, but we can change laws and give our young people a chance to get an education without losing grants and scholarships simply for smoking a plant.”

“Steady and consistent messaging is the best course of action with the public and the media.”

After retiring from her prison post for medical reasons, Martinez took time to raise her two sons. In 1998, after a move to Oregon, she helped collect signatures for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA). In late 1999, she became one of the first patients under the OMMA to be approved (after six failed attempts and a somewhat lengthy battle) for insurance medical marijuana insurance coverage by Kaiser Permanente. “It was then that I became a patient advocate for myself and others,” she recalls.

From there, she worked with NORML, growing the political base, lobbying successfully to improve Oregon’s medical marijuana statute (increasing possession limits to 24 ounces per patient), and of course, founding the cafe.

Initially opened in 2009 and closed in mid-2014, The World Famous Cannabis Café is back—now doing business in a state that has become the third in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana. The club, as Martinez describes it (it’s not a dispensary) is open to adults 21 years and older, with a valid ID and a membership fee. Martinez is finally reaping some of the benefits of her leadership, political savvy, compassion, energy and tenacity in changing the way Oregon—and the country—feels about pot.

What’s the most important thing she’s learned over the years? “I’ve learned patience and understanding of how slowly the bureaucracies move,” she says. “Steady and consistent messaging is the best course of action with the public and the media.”

JIM STURDIVANT is a writer, journalist and marketer. He has written for and edited newspapers, trade magazines and research papers, and is currently a content marketer for a web design firm.