Growing up in Louisiana in the 1950s, Liz McDuffie's only relief from debilitating migraines was pushing her skull against the headboard of her bed to release pressure. As an adult, the headaches continued to plague her, to the point that her only refuge was a dark room and a bag of ice.
Then, one day in 1969, on the advice of a doctor she met while teaching in Germany, she tried hashish. For the first time, she was able to function without the throbbing pain.
As her headaches subsided, they were replaced with an insatiable curiosity about the medicinal properties of cannabis. The deeper McDuffie dug, the more she realized how much the plant was shrouded in misinformation, despite its 3,000-year history.
After teaching for the U.S. Army and the Pasadena Unified School District, earning a postgraduate degree from USC's School of Public Administration and running the upscale consignment boutique Ritz Resale, McDuffie shifted her focus. In a self-described "holy endeavor," she dedicated her life to the one thing that had allowed her to reclaim hers.
"It seemed like it was the only road for me to take," she says in an accent that still carries hints of Southern twang.
The passionate educator's energy and determination belie her age. At 70, McDuffie's petite frame is all the more accentuated as she stands where she's most comfortable -- in front of a classroom full of students. Her copper-streaked hair falls softly around her delicate glasses, but her fervor shines through, with eyes that rarely stray and hands that whirl to emphasize her words.
Her creed, at its core, is that "knowledge is power."
"It all has to do with education," she says. "That's really how you change anything."
Since 2006, McDuffie has been director of the Medical Cannabis Caregivers Directory, or MCC, a nonprofit center where students learn how to grow, use and sell medical marijuana.
The agency's reliance on community-based outreach -- and insistence on adhering to the legal limits of what, as McDuffie says, the "great state of California" has afforded its residents -- has led to groundbreaking collaborations with law enforcement. The MCC has developed computer software allowing collectives and physicians alike to protect themselves from litigation. It also recently received state licensing to teach a course on California's medical marijuana program and how it relates to adult residential facilities.
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Despite MCC's nonexistent advertising budget, more than 4,000 people have come through its doors in Pasadena's Old Town shopping district. Some are cancer patients; others are looking to open a dispensary of their own. Still others seek a natural remedy to replace prescription medication.
As a grandmother and small-business owner, McDuffie has been instrumental in giving marijuana an image makeover, even as federal raids dominate the headlines.
"Historically, at least in my lifetime certainly, this is bringing cannabis back into pharmacology, in the wake of 70 years of really horrible persecution," McDuffie says.