Joan Nathan Makes a Shabbat Meal Infused with Weed


It took two seasons and 19 episodes, but VICELAND’s weed-culinary show “Bong Appetite” finally did a traditional Shabbat episode, which aired last night. The guest chef? None other than celebrated Jewish icon Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon’s Table, who whipped up a “cannivorous” Shabbat meal…and we’re kvelling.

“Have you ever cooked with cannabis before?” asked the show’s host Abdullah Saeed. “This is the first time I’ve ever cooked with cannabis, let me just tell you,” assured Nathan.

So what was served?

Challah (duh), matzoh ball soup, double lemon roast chicken and apple kuchen (to which, Saeed exclaimed, “Kuchen! That’s a fun word!”). A typical Shabbat meal, except totally infused with weed.

Upon entering the kitchen, Nathan was faced with a pantry stocked with cannabis. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen weed in my life, but that’s OK,” an unfazed Nathan said. And so, with the help of chef Vanessa Lavorato (founder of Marigold Sweets) and cannabis specialist Ry Prichard, Nathan elevated a traditional Shabbat meal to a “higher” plateau (eh?).

Here’s how: The flour for the challah was sifted with kief (the strain: “Forbidden Fruit”); schmaltz was infused with hemp for the matzoh balls; THCA (the acidic version of THC) and CBD were pulverized with salt to preserve lemons for the chicken; and coconut oil got a healthy dosage of ganjah for the apple kuchen.

When braiding the challah, Nathan told Lavorato, “What I do is I six-braid it.” Of course she does. Because she’s Joan Nathan and three braids is for amateurs. “Alright, let’s see how this bakes,” she said after putting the immaculately six-braided weed challah into the oven. “Well, it’s already baked,” quipped Lavorato. Ha. Ha. The episode is loaded with puns.

The episode ended with a Shabbat meal (Nathan didn’t indulge). A table was set. A blessing was recited over the challah. Candles were lit (and so were the guests). Oh yeah, and the candle-holder obviously was a bong…

Shabbat Shalom.

Watch the episode here.

Workers sitting on tractor on Kibbutz Ruhama, Israel, October 2016. Photo courtesy of Ran Ferdman.

Can medical marijuana revive Israel’s kibbutz movement?


By all accounts, Eilon Bdil has no personal interest in marijuana.

But as the business manager of Kibbutz Elifaz, he’s a big believer in the herb. Bdil sees medical marijuana as a unique opportunity to revive his remote Negev community.

“This cannabis gold rush has to pan out for us,” he said. “There’s simply no other choice. We need young people with good minds to come here, and medical cannabis is what can draw them.”

Elifaz is one of dozens of kibbutzim – and hundreds of local companies — seeking to join Israel’s new medical marijuana industry. After decades of stagnation, the collectives are betting that the move can revitalize their finances and even their way of life.

Israel’s gold rush – or “green rush,” as some are calling it – took off after the government in February threw its support behind legislation that would allow the export of medical marijuana. The Knesset is expected to pass the measure into law this summer — some industry insiders say as soon as this month. If that happens, Israeli companies would suddenly have access to a rapidly growing multibillion-dollar global industry.

Export is part of a larger government plan to make Israel a world leader in medical cannabis. Yuval Landschaft, the director of the Israeli Medical Cannabis Agency, said well over 700 companies have applied for official permission to grow, produce, distribute and dispense medical cannabis. By the end of the year, he said, the agency would give the OK to the first new medical marijuana farms and factories.

“We are really about to enter the medicalization of the Holy Land,” Landschaft said. “The Torah once spread out from Israel. Now medical cannabis will spread out from Israel.”

After playing a powerful role in founding and building Israel, the kibbutzim slid into social and economic crisis during the national financial crisis of the 1980s. Many young members decamped for the cities. By shifting away from their socialist roots — embracing differential salaries, members working off the kibbutz and non-members working on it — the kibbutzim, which number about 250, have largely stabilized.

Elifaz, located in the Arava Desert valley in southern Israel, is the only kibbutz that is already growing medical marijuana. It is one of just eight farms the government licensed to do so in 2010 as part of a limited system that will be replaced by the new one. (Recreational marijuana use is illegal in Israel, though it was recently largely decriminalized.)

So far, the medical marijuana business has not been particularly lucrative for Elifaz’s more than 100 members and children. The vast majority of its income still comes from date and pomelo farming and tourism. Just last year, the kibbutz began paying differential salaries to its members, a reform most of the once rigidly collective communities have made.

Eilon Bdil overlooking Kibbutz Elifaz, Israel, August 9, 2017. (Andrew Tobin)

But Bdil, 42, who was born on Elifaz and returned to raise a family here, expects the years of experience to pay off when the exporting of medical marijuana starts. He said Elifaz also would benefit from its close ties with other kibbutzim. In the same way the kibbutz produces date honey and date liquor as part of a kibbutz conglomerate, Bdil said, it would one day manufacture cannabis products like extracts, creams and oils.

According to Nir Lobel, 37, Elifaz’s secretary, the kibbutz voted to get into the medical cannabis business in part because it seemed like a natural way to update the traditional kibbutz ethos — and hopefully attract a new generation of members.

“We’re pioneers, and this is a new journey. We’re farmers, and this is agriculture. We care about values, and this is a way to help people who are suffering,” he said.

However, Hagai Hillman — one of Israel’s eight licensed cannabis growers, who co-owns a marijuana-centered pharmaceutical company called BOL Pharma — says most of the kibbutzim and companies rushing into the industry are being overly optimistic.

“For those kibbutzim that don’t have money, medical cannabis is not going to be the answer. To survive in this market you need very deep pockets, and without vertical integration you’re lost,” he said, suggesting that profitable companies will control the medical marijuana supply chain from farm to pharmacy.

“A lot of farmers think it’s like growing melons. But the future of this industry is medicalization.”

Kibbutz Gezer, a largely American immigrant community located south of Tel Aviv, is exploring joining Elifaz in a medical cannabis business partnership with an Israeli pharmaceutical company. Laura Spector, a 62-year-old New Jersey native who immigrated to the kibbutz in 1977, is a leader of the project.

Spector said Gezer had only recently paid off the debt that it, like most kibbutzim, wracked up during the Israeli financial crisis in the 1980s, and was ready to invest. She shares Bdir’s interest in making a principled profit.

“I believe in medical marijuana because I believe in the plant, which can help in so many different ways,” she said. “At the same time, I think there will be a huge financial advantage to Kibbutz Gezer.”

According to Spector, Gezer’s main asset is its land, which is located in the center of the country and is licensed for mixed use. As such, it would be relatively easy to build processing facilities near the crops — a major advantage many kibbutzim have over other farms.

In contrast with Elifaz, Gezer is not motivated by a need for more members. The kibbutz is about 240 strong and expanding. It is building 16 houses for the founders’ children and new members, with plans to add 22 more in the coming years.

Rather, Spector said, she wants Gezer to enter the medical marijuana industry to create communal employment opportunities. For young people, the business could mean a career close to home, and for pensioners, it could provide the purpose and extra income of part-time work, she said.

“I was one of the people who pushed privatization on the kibbutz, but I think there’s a certain social and economic spirit that we should keep in some ways,” Spector said. “I mean, we came here for a reason.”

Few kibbutzim embody the spirit of the movement better than Kibbutz Ruhama, which was established near the border of the Gaza Strip in 1943, several years before the State of Israel’s founding. Today, the kibbutz’s main business is the struggling KR Hamivreshet brush factory, and most of its some 200 members are of retirement age.

According to kibbutz secretary Ran Ferdman, a 40-year-old third generation member, Ruhama voted overwhelmingly to partner with researchers to enter the medical marijuana industry, mostly in hopes of filling up their pensions funds, which were emptied during the kibbutz debt crisis.

“They believed the kibbutz would exist forever, and the younger generation would take care of the older one,” he said. “But everyone has to take care of himself these days.”

Offerings at “Chai Havdalah” on July 8 in Sherman Oaks included a cannabis-infused challah. Photo by Brian Feinzimer

Jews get ‘Chai’ at cannabis Havdalah


Sporting a black hat and a long, black beard in a Sherman Oaks backyard, Alex Klein raised the Havdalah spices to his nose to consecrate the passage from Shabbat into a new week. Taking a whiff, he let out a whoop: The small silver container held a pungent helping of cannabis.

Klein led the blessings for “Chai Havdalah,” a cannabis soiree signaling an increasing openness toward the plant in the Jewish community and beyond. For the cost of a $36 ticket, guests sampled catered courses of cannabis-infused cuisine and tested the wares of weed entrepreneurs, all the while passing around as much pot as they could smoke.

When Klein and his wife, Shifra, arrived at about 9:30 p.m. July 8, the party was in full swing, enveloped in a pungent cloud. Unlike the mostly nonobservant Jewish attendees, the pair, Chabad devotees, were late because they needed to wait to turn on their phone and get in a car — and, of course, to use a lighter.

“You know what I’ve been doing on the way over here,” Klein joked over the PA system as he worked the crowd during the Havdalah service.

As soon as the Kleins extinguished the ritual candle in a saucer of wine to conclude the rites, a softcore reggae band picked up where it had left off, moving harmoniously from a Jewish hymn, “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” to the stoner classic “Pass the Dutchie.” Meanwhile, guests picked at platters of pastries provided by the Kleins, who together run Mitzva Herbal Co., which touts Orthodox Union certification. A party subcontractor, Venice, Calif.-based WeedBar LA, used electronic bongs to serve up concentrated marijuana.

The event exists in a legal gray area, according to Catherine Goldberg, the marijuana marketer and entrepreneur who organized the event. All cannabis products used were donated by growers and producers, so guests only paid for the music, snacks and atmosphere.

“People are welcome to come and consume whatever they want, but there’s no financial transaction,” Goldberg said.

She decided to host the event after moving to Los Angeles about a year ago and attending a number of weed gatherings. Simultaneously, she started to notice a profusion of Jews in the weed industry.

“Jewish people are anxious and weed helps with anxiety,” she said. “I knew it just went together perfectly.”

Goldberg, who grew up attending a Reform synagogue in Miami, said she’d attended only one Havdalah service before, but felt the event would be a good chance to bring together Jewish cannabis enthusiasts and showcase local entrepreneurs like the Kleins. She said she plans to host Chai Havdalah on a seasonal basis, and also to launch smaller, more intimate “Chai Shabbat” events for Friday evenings.

With tickets available on Eventbrite.com, many of the 50 or so guests who attended Chai Havadalah found it online, or otherwise through the local cannabis community, and came to network or to let loose.

Maddy Le Mel, a 75-year-old Jewish mixed-media artist whose work appears in galleries around Los Angeles, came with two Jewish friends, also 75.

Le Mel said that when she started smoking cannabis 40 years ago she couldn’t have imagined one day attending a publicly advertised event where consenting adults came together to get legally stoned. “Never thought it was going to happen,” she said.

She found the party to be a welcome reprieve from her home life, where she deals with her husband’s dementia and other family struggles.

“These girls were like, ‘Let’s just bust out!’ ” Le Mel said. “I just want a really light, fun time, because my life is heavy.”

One of her friends, who also has a husband with dementia, chimed in solemnly: “My husband does not know I’m here.”

“This a very odd experience,” added the third woman.

Both of Le Mel’s friends declined to give their names, worried it could impact their licenses to practice as psychotherapists. Each started smoking within the past year to relieve chronic pain.

The evening’s chef, Holden Jagger, said the party was the first legal Jewish cannabis event he was aware of. He prepared two weed-infused loaves of challah and spiked chocolate baba ghanoush, along with non-psychoactive brisket, latkes and double-fried kugel.

Jagger, 33, a graduate of a local Jewish day school, the Wise School, co-founded a cannabis catering service, Altered Plates, with his sister Rachel after leaving a more conventional culinary career that included a stint as the pastry chef of Soho House in West Hollywood. Before the switch, he worked under the name Holden Burkons; he now uses his middle name as his last.

During his journey into the world of cooking with cannabis, Jagger has come across a good number of Jews — although never before gathered to partake in a Jewish ritual. He hoped to cater other such events in the future.

“I’m excited to do more,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s a lot of Jews in the cannabis industry. We tend to like cannabis quite a bit.”

Episode 34 – AIPAC, weed, and the two-state solution with MK Tamar Zandberg


Meretz, one of Israel’s left-wing, social-democratic parties, was formed in 1992, winning 12 parliamentary seats in that year’s election. Over the years the party has sat on both sides of the aisle, even joining the ultra-orthodox Shas party in Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992 Labor-led coalition. Today, Meretz is part of the opposition and holds 5 seats, one of which is held by Tamar Zandberg.

MK Zandberg was elected to the Tel Aviv city council in 2008 as a member of Meretz. She was a key figure in the 2011 social protests, during which she led, along with other council members, Meretz’s withdrawal from the city council coalition. Zandberg was elected to the Knesset in 2013, and today she is one of the most well-spoken and thought-provoking Kenneset Members. She joins 2NJB to talk about the future of Israel’s left.

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A cannabis plant was brought to the Knesset in 2009 for the Labor Welfare and Health Committee, which was addressing the issue of medical marijuana. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Flash 90

Hebrew University launches cannabis research center with high aspirations


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has launched a marijuana research center in a bid to take a leading role in the burgeoning field.

The Multidisciplinary Center on Cannabinoid Research, announced by the university on Wednesday, will be staffed by leading scientists and doctors, including the Israeli chemistry professor considered the father of cannabis research. It will conduct and coordinate research on cannabis and its biological effects with an eye toward commercial solutions.

“There is so much interest in cannabis at the moment, but a lot remains unknown about its mechanism of action,” Dr. Joseph Tam, the director of the center, told JTA. “My belief is that our multidisciplinary center will lead global research and answer these questions.”

Tam said that no other center in the world has such a broad approach to cannabis research, from agriculture to chemistry, from drug delivery to pharmacology and to chemical development. In addition to bringing together the 27 cannabis researchers at Hebrew University and its affiliated Hadassah Medical Center, the center will draw on other specialists on campus, including in the fields of nanotechnology and pain and brain science. It also will collaborate with scientists and biotech companies around the world.

Dr. Joseph Tam. Photo courtesy of Hebrew University

Dr. Joseph Tam. Photo courtesy of Hebrew University

Last month, ahead of its official opening, the center funded research projects on the use of the chemical compounds in cannabis, called cannabinoids, on traumatic brain injury, the cancer-fighting potential of a cannabinoid receptor and the effect of a cannabis extract on pain and painkillers. It also has signed a memorandum of understanding with The Lambert Initiative, a medical cannabis research center at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Israel is known as a pioneer in cannabis research, which was long hindered worldwide by drug laws and social taboo. Raphael Mechoulam kick-started the field in 1964, when he discovered tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis. He went on to identify the endocannabinoid system upon which cannabinoids act on the body. At 86, he continues his research at Hebrew University and is part of the center.

“It has been shown that modulating endocannabinoid activity has therapeutic potential in a large number of human diseases, hence research on cannabinoids may lead to very significant advances, not only in basic science but also in therapeutics,” Mechoulam said. “Our Multidisciplinary Center addresses many aspects in this promising area, such as cancer, head injury, addiction, bone formation, obesity and others.

Israel remains a leader in cannabis research, much of it centered at Hebrew University. According to Tam, that is thanks in part to an increasingly friendly political environment. Last summer, the government approved a plan by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to relax some requirements for obtaining medical cannabis. In January, the Agriculture and Health ministries allocated 8 million shekels, or about $2 million, to fund research on medical cannabis growth, biochemistry and medicine.

In February, Cabinet ministers backed legislation to decriminalize recreational marijuana use. But that will not affect Mechoulam’s work; he famously claims never to have smoked a joint.

A cannabis plant was brought to the Knesset on Nov. 24, 2009 for the Labor Welfare and Health Committee, which was addressing the issue of medical marijuana. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Flash 90.

Israel’s Cabinet votes to decriminalize recreational marijuana use


Israel’s Cabinet voted to decriminalize recreational use of marijuana.

The Cabinet voted on the policy at its regular meeting on Sunday.

An inter-ministerial committee will now create legislation in order to implement the new policy, which still must be ratified by the Knesset. The committee will present its recommendations to the government by May 7.

The proposal was submitted by Minister for Public Security Gilad Erdan of the Likud Party and Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party.

“The government’s approval is an important step on the way to implement the new policy, which will emphasize public information and treatment instead of criminal enforcement,” Erdan said.

Under the proposed policy, first-time offenders in possession of up to 15 grams and smoking publicly would be fined and not receive a criminal record. The fines would continue, doubled, until the fourth offense, when the possessor of the marijuana can be indicted. First-time minor offenders would be referred to a treatment program.

Selling and growing marijuana would remain criminal offenses.

Prior to the vote, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “This must be done cautiously and in a controlled manner. On the one hand, we are open to the future. On the other, we also understand the dangers and we will try to balance between the two.”

Using marijuana for medical purposes is legal in Israel. About 25,000 people have a license to use marijuana for medicinal purposes in Israel.

Last summer, the government approved a plan to increase the number of doctors who can write prescriptions for medical cannabis, remove limits on the number of marijuana growers, make cannabis available at public pharmacies and make it possible to receive medical cannabis with just a doctor’s prescription.

California may soon legalize pot, but what does Jewish law say?


Among the more puzzling of the Jewish mitzvot is the commandment to get so drunk on Purim that you can’t distinguish the hero from the villain in the holiday story.

This year, recounted Rabbi Yisroel Engel, director of Chabad of Colorado, one ultra-Orthodox Denver man decided to ditch the booze and substitute marijuana brownies to achieve the required inebriation.

“I found that very bizarre,” Engel said in a phone interview.

The experiment was the exception to the rule in Denver’s Orthodox community, Engel said: Most understand that whatever state laws might say, recreational use of marijuana stands contrary to the values of Orthodox Judaism.

“It’s great to get high,” Engel said. “But you know what? You can get high on spirituality, on the soul, on prayer. Get high on God.”

The conventional Orthodox line on marijuana is at best ambivalent.

Nobody is suggesting that taking a puff of cannabis is like eating pork,” said Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, an Orthodox lecturer, writer and pulpit rabbi in Manhattan.

Rosen compared the Jewish view on cannabis to that of wine, which halachah allows — even encourages — but only in moderation.

“Drunkenness is totally disapproved of,” he said, dismissing Purim as a debatable exception. In general, “nobody is in favor of being drunk. But in small quantities of wine, it’s a mitzvah.”

On Nov. 8, Californians will have a chance to vote to legalize marijuana, and in fact, it seems likely they will: A statewide UC Berkeley poll of California voters published last month showed more than 60 percent of California voters favor legalization.

But just because Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, would legalize the drug in California doesn’t mean it would become allowable under Jewish law.

Though most Orthodox authorities consider smoking weed a frivolous pursuit to be discouraged, an end to pot prohibition creates an opportunity to reconsider some of the halachic and religious considerations around lighting up.

To be sure, Jewish texts bristle with verses that poseks — interpreters of Talmudic law — use to prohibit the smoking of marijuana.

Deuteronomy 4:15: “For your own sake, therefore, be most careful.”

Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

Numbers 15:39: “Do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.”

For Diaspora Jews, though, the clearest prohibition is perhaps dina d’malchuta, literally, sovereign law — Aramaic shorthand for the concept that an observant Jew should obey civil authorities as well as rabbinical ones.

Legalizing weed would lighten the dina d’malchuta concerns around using cannabis. But Jewishly speaking, the absence of a prohibition doesn’t constitute permission.

“The idea, ‘Well if something is not illegal it must be OK,’ is very much not a Jewish idea,” said Rabbi Mark Washofsky, professor of Jewish law and practice at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

“Lots of things are not prohibited,” he went on. “At the same time, you might not want to spend a whole lot of time using them. … Just because you’re allowed to drink wine doesn’t mean you should be a drunkard.”

And although wine proves a useful analogy, pot is not explicitly addressed in the Torah. Where the word of law is unclear, as it is with cannabis, the normal Jewish prescription is dialogue.

“Merely because the state of California decides to legalize marijuana does not mean anything for Jews until we talk about it,” Washofsky said.

As it stands, much of the Orthodox mainstream rejects marijuana entirely. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), the Lithuanian-born posek whose pre-eminence in American Jewry is such that the Orthodox often refer to him by only his first name, Rav Moshe, declared smoking marijuana to be “obviously forbidden.”

“It destroys his mind, and prevents him from understanding things properly,” he wrote in “Igros Moshe,” a nine-volume halachic commentary. “This is a terrible thing, since not only can the individual not properly study Torah, he also can not pray and properly perform mitzvot [commandments], since doing them mindlessly is considered as if they were not done at all.”

To bolster his opinion, the rabbi cites the punishment for gluttony offered in Deuteronomy: death by stoning.

A Torah of cannabis

Sure enough, there are those, such as Yoseph Needleman, who dismiss Feinstein’s prohibition as “suck-up-to-the-man disinformation.”

That’s the message in his 2009 book (written under a pseudonym), “Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs (A Memoir),” about the canned answers he received from mainstream rabbis when he was looking for guidance as a high schooler as to how the Jewish religion treats pot.

“Not that I thought I would find one, but I wanted a tradition that was helpful about how to enjoy drugs better — specifically, reefer,” he said. “Because that was a wholly natural thing, according to all the rumors on the street.”

That search led him to Jerusalem, where he spoke with the Journal in March at a café in the Nachlaot neighborhood.

Yoseph Needleman

Needleman is a lanky, bearded man whose words tumble quickly after one another in a rush of enthusiasm. He stretched out his long legs at a sidewalk table on a street of hip coffee shops where it’s not uncommon to walk past several Friday pleasure-seekers rolling marijuana cigarettes in public.

Marijuana laws are more stringent in Israel, but both society and police are just as tolerant of it in some places as they are in California. One gets the sense the cops consider other matters more pressing in Israel.

Where most Orthodox poseks read the holy texts as prohibitive of marijuana use, Needleman sees a potential guide for the perplexed stoner.

For example, in the introduction to his book, he cites Proverbs 25: “‘If you get a taste of honey, take only as little as you need and let the rest pass, lest ye take too much and vomit it all up.”

“Very deep, right?” Needleman probes in the book. “Anything ‘sweet,’ this applies for.”

The Jewish tradition of smoking pot is old and deep, he argues.

Needleman is fond of quoting Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, biographer of the Baal Shem Tov (Israel ben Eliezer), the mystical founder of Chassidism. Yosef once claimed he would trade his portion in this world and the next, all for just a taste of what the Baal Shem Tov got from his pipe.

Law and stigma

Then as now, divisions in Jewish opinion were stark. In a 1772 letter, the Vilna Gaon, a legendary Torah scholar, excommunicated the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, taking issue with their dancing, exuberant methods of prayer and their smoking.

In today’s terms, the letter might have read, “What exactly is it that they’re smoking over there?”

There are many who now take a similar disapproving view of Needleman’s cannabis theology.

“If that’s what you’re talking about as spiritual experience, then Timothy Leary must have been the most spiritual person ever,” said Rosen, the Orthodox lecturer, referring to the psychedelic pioneer who popularized LSD.

“I don’t call that spiritual,” he added. “I call that something else: altered mind state.”

But then, there are plenty who are inclined to agree with Needleman on the spiritual potential of marijuana use.

The manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, Amanda Reiman, is among the top backers of Proposition 64 in the state.

Reiman grew up in the Reform tradition, though today she no longer observes most rituals. Once a year, however, she gets together with a group of friends on Yom Kippur to light up and share insights on how they hope to change and grow in the new Jewish year.

“I would say it’s absolutely been a helpful tool in terms of spirituality,” she said in an interview.

But aside from her own practice, Reiman believes that legalizing pot is a Jewish imperative because marijuana prohibition disproportionately affects marginalized populations, she said.

“As Jews, we’ve had so much in our history of being marginalized and unfairly persecuted,” she said. “I think we have a responsibility to recognize that this has been happening to our communities of color for decades in the United States, and we need to play an active role in righting those wrongs.”

In that belief, she might find some support from halachah.

“If you see an injustice, you have to fix it,” said Washofsky, the Reform rabbi. “That’s what Jewish law tells us. But how we understand the definition of injustice is not always determined by the text. Sometimes we have to look at the world and make the decision on our own.”

Coexisting with cannabis

For years, Ean Seeb, a marijuana entrepreneur in Denver, wanted to sponsor the local Jewish Community Center’s annual poker tournament, and for years the organizers turned him down because they were uncomfortable carrying the logos for his marijuana businesses.

This year, they reached out to him to say they were going to be allowing cannabis-related sponsors and branding.

For Seeb, a regional board member for the Anti-Defamation League who’s active with JEWISHcolorado (formerly the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado), the reversal is a signal that “the negative stigma of cannabis users is slowly fading away.”

If California voters choose to legalize marijuana, run-ins between the recreational marijuana industry and Jewish communities here would be likely, if not inevitable.

They wouldn’t be without precedent: At one time, the South Robertson district, which encompasses several heavily Jewish neighborhoods, was home to more than 20 medical cannabis dispensaries, said Doug Fitzsimmons, president of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council.

For the most part, dispensaries and the neighborhood’s religious institutions coexisted without problems, Fitzsimmons said. Over time, though, it became clear that a lack of strict regulation created nuisances to the community. Because dispensaries are cash businesses, robberies were frequent, and customers would sometimes loiter and smoke weed in front of the shops, Fitzsimmons said.

After a crackdown on dispensaries citywide by the city of Los Angeles, the number of shops dwindled. But if recreational pot becomes legal after the November vote, demand for the plant could bring such businesses flocking back to Robertson Boulevard.

Talking to kids about pot

Each year, Bruce Powell, founding head of school at de Toledo High School in West Hills (formerly New Community Jewish High School), gives a talk to the school’s entire student body. He tells the teens to ask themselves five questions before doing anything:

Is it legal? Is it moral? Does it comport with Jewish values? Is it going to hurt another human being? Can you proudly tell your grandmother about it?

Powell’s prescription addresses risky behavior more broadly. But with regard to marijuana, a change in the law would modify the students’ answer to the first of those questions: Although the product would still be forbidden for those younger than 21, it would exist in the same legal classification as alcohol.

But Proposition 64 wouldn’t touch any of the other questions. Notably, Powell said, it would not impact the Jewish values on which the high school bases its drug and alcohol education.

“This is definitely going to be another challenging parenting moment,” he said of the likely change in legal status. However, “it’s no different than parents talking to their children about drinking, about driving, about sex.”

In all those conversations, Jewish teachings figure prominently for Powell.

“Everything is created b’tselem Elohim [in the image of God],” he said in an interview. “So how do we want to treat that image? Do we want to diminish that image?  Do we want to increase that image? And then we ask the question: What do drugs do to that image? Do they help the image? Do they increase the image?”

Meanwhile, at Chabad of Colorado, Engel has a different strategy for dissuading people from toking.

Instead, he suggested, “Try POT — stands for ‘put on tefillin.’ ”

California’s stressed-out stoners


California tokers, why are you trippin’ so hard?

You keep saying that marijuana helps manage anxiety. But those of you who work in or partake of the cannabis industry sound like the most stressed-out people in California.

And that leaves me wondering what’s in your bongs, especially since 2016 is supposed to be a year of great triumph for you. Cannabis is booming in California. New regulations on medical marijuana are coming together, and a November ballot initiative to legalize recreational use seems likely to pass. California is thus well on its way to becoming Mary Jane’s global capital, and a national model for how to pull cannabis out of the black market shadows and into the legal light.

So if the future looks so dank (that’s stoner-speak for awesome), why do you all look so wrecked?

Did you get some bad schwag or something?

In recent weeks, I’ve posed these questions to people on farms and in dispensaries and I keep hearing two big reasons why cannabis people seem so burned out.  The first involves all the necessary pressure you’re putting on yourselves. The second reason is about all the unnecessary pressure the rest of us are putting on you.

Let’s start with the self-pressure. Cannabis is not just an industry, it’s a movement to end prohibition, and the hardest times for movements can come right when they are on the verge of winning what they want. Your movement’s victory—the end of cannabis prohibition—requires a difficult transition that is stressful and scary.

In California, by one estimate, there are as many as 10,000 cannabis-related businesses—only a couple hundred of which have the proper zoning and licenses to operate a medical marijuana business. That leaves thousands of you trying to work out your futures very quickly—at least before 2018, when regulations for medical marijuana (including a state marijuana czar) and for recreational use (assuming the ballot initiative passes) are supposed to be in place.

Some of you—particularly weed boutiques that operated outside the law—are preparing to shut down. But others of you are engulfed in the difficult, expensive process of making your businesses legal quickly— but not so quickly that you run afoul of the authorities. In the process, you’re learning that while managing an illegal business has its perils, it may be even more dangerous to run a legal capitalist enterprise in the Regulatory Republic of California, and navigate its dizzying array of licensing, workplace and environmental rules

A number of you are taking on outside investors; there’s even a new private equity firm making “strategic investments” in cannabis. Those kinds of big-money decisions raise new anxieties, even as you still have to operate semi-underground. Some local governments don’t want marijuana operations and are sending the police on raids of your facilities. And the federal government, by maintaining that your businesses are illegal, no matter what state law says, has made it difficult for you to use banks and pay taxes.

On top of all this stress comes the burden of being a political cause. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is building a gubernatorial campaign by backing the ballot initiative to legalize recreational use. At the local level, there are competing initiatives that sometimes divide the cannabis industry. And the presidential race creates uncertainty about federal intentions. A Trump presidency might bring Attorney General Chris Christie, who might wipe out medical marijuana. Some of you fear Hillary Clinton would turn the industry over to her rich donors in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

“A lot is being born right now–this is going to be an entirely different animal than anyone is used to,” says Derek Peterson, CEO of Terra Tech Corp, a publicly traded “cannabis-focused” agriculture company. “All of this creates a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for people,”

And what makes this moment even tougher for all of you are the  outside demands that this transition has brought from what cinematic stoner Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski called “the Square Community.”

To put it bluntly (pun intended), California leaders have gotten way too high on the possibilities of fully legal marijuana. Today you hear rhetoric from politicians and media that legal cannabis in California will end the drug war, rationalize our prison and court systems, create new jobs and economic opportunities in poorer and rural areas of the state, save agricultural businesses and lands, and replenish strained local and state budgets with new taxes on weed.

But many of these plans amount to Bogarting weed for selfish priorities. Los Angeles County recently debated a plan to address its homelessness crisis with a marijuana tax. Some environmentalists have been touting how marijuana, which requires considerable water to grow, could pioneer water-saving practices to mitigate the state drought.  And no small number of musicians—chief among them Snoop Dogg, the wizard of “weed wellness,” and Tommy Chong, the “godfather of ganja”—seem to think that by licensing their names to marijuana products, they can replace the revenues that music used to provide, before iTunes and Spotify.

Cannabis has come to be seen by its most zealous champions as a substance that can alter California realities—in ways reminiscent of our craze for gold in 1849 or for oil in the early 20th century. That is an awful lot of expectations to put on this one plant.

Before exploiting legal marijuana for their own schemes, California governments need to get this transition right. The tax system for cannabis should be comprehensible and not so extortionate that it drives out small players (or creates incentives to keep the black market alive). The regulatory regimes for medical marijuana and recreational use should fit together, and be transparent enough that California cannabis goes forward as a competitive market, not a state monopoly. To ease the transition, state government needs to do everything it can to make sure your cannabis businesses negotiate these changes successfully, including protecting you from the feds..

If California gets this right, maybe some of the biggest dreams for marijuana can come true. At the very least, cannabis could be a thriving and well-regulated industry.

But for now, as the marijuana-friendly rap group Cypress Hill like to say, you gots to chill. These are stressful enough times for stoners already.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.

In Jerusalem, medical cannabis is subject of business conference


Sitting outside of a recent conference on medical cannabis in Israel’s capital, Gil Luxenbourg took a pull from a marijuana cigarette and exhaled a fragrant cloud.

The lanky redhead is the chairman of the Israel Medical Cannabis Association, a patients’ organization, and also alleges to be the seventh medical cannabis patient in Israel — he uses it to treat Crohn’s disease, an intestinal condition. He was hardly the only one medicating. 

The second annual CannaTech conference was in full swing on March 8, by all accounts Israel’s largest business gathering on medical cannabis. Outside the hilltop campus of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, where the event was held, just a short walk from the Knesset, attendees stood alone or in groups, busily testing their product.

Israel’s medical marijuana sector operates on a profound contradiction. 

On the one hand, tough control over the drug creates significant hurdles for would-be patients, and recreational use is a criminal offense punishable by jail time. 

On the other, the country is noted for its cannabis science: In 2013, CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta called Israel “the medical marijuana research capital.”

Far from putting a damper on research, stringent laws are “the reason we’re considered the leading country with regards to biomedical cannabis,” Luxenbourg said.

Luxenbourg, 37, is not in favor of the strict laws against marijuana use, saying they create an atmosphere of stigma and confusion for patients. 

But there is a flipside.

“Stronger regulations, they push the market to prove — with the same tools as they prove that normal Western medicine works — that cannabis works on patients,” he said.

The conference had the exuberant atmosphere of a festival, pumped up by Israel’s startup-nation bravado and the certainty that Israel could lead this emerging tech field as it does so many others.

Israel Cannabis (iCAN), the industry group that organized the conference, trotted out some of the country’s industry leaders.

Raphael Mechoulam, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem chemist widely credited with discovering delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the main psychoactive compounds in marijuana, headlined the event on its first day in Tel Aviv. His work is Israel’s principal claim to fame in the industry.

“Without this man, we would not have an industry,” said Cheryl Suman, a cannabis marketing icon who runs the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club, who also spoke on the first day of the conference.

The cannabis economy in Israel is markedly different from the American market.

In the United States, medical marijuana is governed on the state level, and, where the law allows, grown and distributed by a multitude of private businesses. 

In Israel, eight farms have licenses from the government to grow medical marijuana. For those businesses, the state provides strict oversight, but also the same type of support it lends to growers of other crops, according to Baruch Louzon, an official of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development who attended the conference.

Louzon is the director of the Regional Extension Service in the Arava district of Israel’s Negev desert. His job is to advise Israeli farmers on how to grow five crops: dates, grapes, mangos, dragonfruit — and cannabis.

The Israeli government’s embrace of pot farmers means that even while patients have difficulty accessing the drug — Luxenbourg said doctors sometimes forgo prescribing marijuana because of the hostile government bureaucracy even when they know pot can help — researchers can access it with relative ease.

As a result, Israel has even begun to export its industry knowledge: Breath of Life, one of the eight Israeli growers, specializes in clinical products, sending cannabis-based pharmaceuticals and research products to other countries, though it declined to say which ones.

By contrast, United States law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug — defined as highly addictive with no known medical use.

Presenting in Jerusalem, medical researcher Suzanne Sisley said she was dismissed from the University of Arizona College of Medicine when she began looking into marijuana as a potential treatment for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the drug’s stigma.

Undaunted, she continues her research with the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. But she still struggles to overcome bureaucratic hurdles set by the U.S. government to pursue her research. 

For example, a government organization called the National Institute for Drug Abuse maintains a monopoly on marijuana as a research product, she said. 

As a result, even after she had full government approval for her PTSD study, she had to wait to obtain a research product that is inferior to what would be available in Israel.

“We had to wait 20 months for marijuana that any other expert grower here in Israel could produce in three months according to spec for us,” she said.

Speaking earlier at the conference, Sharren Haskel, a Likud Knesset member who chairs the Lobby for Medical Cannabis, lamented that Israel maintains a draconian approach to marijuana use, even while speeding ahead with research.

She said the country spends 600 million shekels ($157 million) each year enforcing laws against recreational use of marijuana, and that doesn’t include what’s spent fighting sales and trafficking.

“The law today creates this perception, creates this stigma, not just on the drug but on the people who use it,” she said.

Earlier this year, Haskel introduced a bill to decriminalize cannabis in Israel.

“It’s a good step, whether it passes or not,” Luxenbourg said of the legislation. “It gets the government to acknowledge there’s an issue here that’s not just for stoners.”

There are other signs of a legal thaw in how Israel treats cannabis use.

At the conference, Yossi Tam, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem School of Pharmacy, announced the university would create a full-blown research center on the medical use of cannabis, called the Multidisciplinary Center of Cannabinoid Research.

But as at many conferences, this one’s main action arguably took place offstage, as growers, distributors and a range of industry professionals shared knowledge and talked business.

Outside of the conference hall, overlooking rolling hills of Jerusalem stone buildings, the air was thick with industry jargon — from cannabinoids to concentrates — and pot smoke.

“We really, truly brought in the top caliber of the cannabis industry internationally,” said Saul Kaye, founder and CEO of iCAN. “We knew deals were going to be made at Canna-Tech, and I’m hearing whispers of everything going on.”

Pot doesn’t need kosher certification, Canadian agency says


On the day kosher-certified medical marijuana first went on sale in New York, Canada’s largest kashrut agency said it believes such certification is unnecessary.

Following a debate Thursday, the Kashruth Council of Canada announced that medication need not be kosher, The Canadian Press reported.

Last month, Vireo Health of New York announced that the Orthodox Union, one of the largest kashrut agencies in the world, is certifying its medical marijuana products, which come in three forms: pills, oils and vapor.

Canada’s Kashrut Council considered the issue after MedReleaf, a producer of medical marijuana, inquired about obtaining certification.

“Something that is medicine, that’s prescribed from your doctor, that you need to take for your health, that doesn’t need kosher certification,” the group’s managing director, Richard Rabkin, told the Press.

“We don’t really want to get into the business of providing kosher certification for something that is doctor-prescribed,” he added.

Not all kashrut agencies are in agreement on the issue, however. In a statement on its website, the New York-based OU said claims that cannabis, because it is a natural product and because it helps with life-threatening conditions, requires no certification are “factually incorrect.”

“While the cannabis plant is inherently kosher, the final product may contain kosher sensitive ingredients such as alcohol, gelatin and oil,” the statement said. ” The qualifying medical conditions are not always life threatening, and even in such instances where there is a threat to life, it is preferable to use a kosher medication when available.”

Noting that it “stands by” its decision to certify medical marijuana, the OU statement concluded: “New York residents who are experiencing intense pain, can now use OU supervised Vireo Health medical marijuana and not be concerned that the product might contain non-kosher ingredients.”

Kosher Check, a global kosher certification agency headquartered in Canada’s British Columbia decided two years ago in favor of certifying edible medical pot products, but has not yet certified any such products, according to The Canadian Press. A representative of the group said smokable marijuana does not need to be certified kosher, but that edible forms, including capsules, should be certified.

On Thursday, New York became the 23rd U.S. state where medical marijuana is legal. However, it is subject to numerous regulations: Only five producers, including the kosher-certified Vireo Health of New York, have been approved by the state, and sales must go through state-approved dispensaries. In Canada, all forms of medical marijuana are now legal.

First kosher-certified pot to go on market next month


A New York company is preparing to market what it says is the world’s first kosher-certified marijuana.

The Orthodox Union has certified Vireo Health of New York’s non-smokable medical marijuana products, Vireo announced in a news release Wednesday. Vireo is one of five medical marijuana providers selected to participate in a New York state medical marijuana program that goes into effect next month; none of the others will be certified kosher.

“Being certified kosher by the OU will not only help us serve the dietary needs of the largest Jewish community in the United States, but also combat unfortunate stigmas associated with medical cannabis,” Vireo CEO Ari Hoffnung said in a statement. “Today’s announcement sends an important message to New Yorkers of all faiths and backgrounds that using medical cannabis to alleviate pain and suffering does not in any way represent an embrace of ‘pot’ culture.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the O.U.’s kashrut department, said in a statement that Vireo’s medical cannabis products “were developed to alleviate pain and suffering in accordance with the New York State Compassionate Care Act.”

The statement adds, “Using medical cannabis products recommended by a physician should not be regarded as a ‘chet,’ a sinful act, but rather as a mitzvah, an imperative, a commandment.”

Vireo operates a facility in the upstate town of Perth and will open four retail dispensaries in January, including two in the New York City area.

Hebron police destroys 3 tons of marijuana


Hebron police officials on Monday morning set fire to about 3 tons of marijuana valued at $50 million, seized in an operation over the past few months, Palestinian media sources reported Tuesday.

Hebron governor Kamal Ahmed praised the efforts of his police force, and called for joint efforts against the “drug disease” which, according to Ahmed, is part of the Israeli occupation’s attempts to destabilize the Palestinian society.

Raid Dudin, who heads the Hebron Police Department drug fighting unit, said the marijuana that was destroyed was “30 times stronger” than regular marijuana, thanks to the efforts of “an Israeli scientist” who improved the species.

Dudin did not specify which method was used to determine the strength of the marijuana.

Israeli police have also detected a rise in the cultivation of marijuana in Judea and Samaria in recent years. Police investigators have uncovered a number of large marijuana production labs in those areas, as well as small labs used by residents for private consumption. The police attribute the increase to the shortages across the country.

Young pot entrepreneurs hope for potent business mixing Jewish and cannabis connections


 

Seth Wong’s place of work is heavily cluttered, with shelves loaded with moldy bagels, stale cake and fermenting carrots. There’s a not-so-faint smell of urine in the air.

But if all goes according to plan for Wong and his new business partner, JJ Slatkin, their new office soon will have something else in abundance: marijuana.

The two Jewish 30-somethings are launching a new company that will offer contaminant testing and potency analysis for cannabis, which Colorado legalized in 2014.

Wong’s current place of work is no frat house; he is president of a 70-year-old company called Industrial Laboratories, which does food and drug analysis. The aging cakes and other foods are being analyzed for shelf life and examined for pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, the clutter includes $500,000 machines that deconstruct molecules to ensure the nutritional claims on food product labels are accurate, and the stench of piss comes from racehorse urine being tested for banned substances. The lab also drug screens the urine of livestock, carrier pigeons, greyhounds and Iditarod racing dogs.

“Normally, our lab smells like a stockyard,” Wong told JTA during a recent tour of the facility in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, just west of Denver.

When it comes to their new company, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Wong and Slatkin are hoping two elements will give them a leg up over the competition: Wong’s strong reputation for quality microbiological testing and their personal connections with many of the state’s leading marijuana producers — many of whom happen to be Jews.

“Many of the original real trailblazers and entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry are Jewish, and there are a handful of major operations within Colorado that have Jewish ownership,” said Slatkin, who has a background in finance. “Our Jewish community relationships have definitely been important.”

There’s Ean Seeb, chairman of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a Jewish federation leader who has his own Jewish events company. There’s Joseph Max Cohen, who started the Clinic Medical Marijuana Center in 2009 and now has multiple facilities in the Denver area. Many of the administrators at the Pink House Blooms chain of marijuana dispensaries are Jewish. So is Richard Greenberg, executive vice president of Global Cannabis Ventures and an investor in an Israeli company focused on improving marijuana breeding methods.

Slatkin and Wong are well-connected in this world, largely through their Jewish associations. They count Seeb as a good friend. They often run into marijuana entrepreneurs at events sponsored by the local Jewish federation, where Wong and Slatkin are young leaders. (Wong met his fiancee on a Jewish federation retreat.) The business partners are also Wexner Heritage fellows, a program that supports young Jewish volunteer leaders.

Wong, 34, has an unusual Jewish background. His mother is from a Jewish family in Philadelphia and his father is from a Protestant Chinese family. Wong’s grandfather came over from China in the 1920s at the age of 9 as a “paper son” – with fake identity papers. Though his father and brothers already were in the United States, they were running bars and brothels during Prohibition and weren’t much help, and Wong’s father was adopted by a Jewish family.

He never became Jewish, but four decades later his son – Wong’s father – brought home a Jewish wife. Wong himself grew up in Boulder, going to Hebrew school and Jewish youth groups, yet relishing his family’s famed Chinese roast pork recipe. When he turned 13, Wong asked his father – who owns Industrial Laboratories, which Wong now runs – to convert to Judaism so he could stand alongside Wong on the bimah platform at his bar mitzvah. He obliged.

Slatkin, 32, comes from a long line of Denver Jews. Five generations ago, his ancestors fled pogroms in Russian to move to aJewish agricultural settlement in Cotopaxi, Colorado, that flourished briefly in the 1880s. After the settlement failed, they migrated to Denver and in 1887 founded an Orthodox synagogue on Denver’s west side, Congregation Zera Abraham, and had a hand in founding several others.

A Jewish day school graduate, Slatkin is a leader in his minyan at the Hebrew Educational Alliance, a Conservative synagogue in Denver, and he maintains a weekly Torah study date with an Orthodox rabbi in town. He and Wong met through Jewish channels.

“My personal life revolves almost entirely around Jewish life in Colorado,” Slatkin said. “The continuity of the Jewish people is probably the most important goal in my life. That and getting married at some point – to a Jewish girl, obviously.”

Professionally, Slatkin and Wong’s near-term goal is getting their new company up and running – and courting clients. They’ve obtained state licensing, are building their new lab at the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus in Aurora and have raised about half of the $1.5 million they need to get started. Once they are certified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and other third-party certifiers, they’ll be ready to go – perhaps as soon as June.

Colorado already has nine labs certified to provide potency testing and four labs certified to provide residual solvent testing. But TEQ, Slatkin said, would be certified to meet all testing requirements mandated by the state.

There’s a bit of a Wild West element to Colorado’s marijuana industry. Fearful of federal retribution (marijuana is still illegal under federal law), banks are wary of dealing with marijuana companies, so almost everything is handled in cash. The state is wary of licensing any entrepreneurs with criminal histories dealing or growing pot. Potency labeling is confusing and inconsistent – a problem Wong hopes the lab will help rectify.

The principal psychoactive element in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol – better known as THC. Currently, cannabis producers must disclose the amount of THC present in each serving of their product, but producers are still seeing great variability in potency. Slatkin and Wong say TEQ can help remove that variability so products have a consistent level of potency.

“We’ve been watching the cannabis industry for some time, and the industry could benefit from a lab of our expertise,” Wong said. “Now is our time.”

At Cannabis Seder, Bob Marley tunes and a blessing over the weed


This seder included a legal disclaimer.

“The cannabis products at this Seder are available to OMMP cardholders only,” the sign at the check-in table read, referring to the state of Oregon’s medical marijuana program. “All others consume at your own risk.”

The fine print explained the facts: While Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana use last November, the measure wouldn’t take effect until July 1. Portland’s district attorney had vowed not to prosecute in the meantime, but the message was clear: If I wanted to get stoned on pot chocolates, the hosts of the country’s first official Cannabis Seder bore no responsibility.

Heading into the airy warehouse where the third night seder was held, I ran into Roy Kaufmann, one half of the married couple behind the evening’s festivities. Roy – a seasoned activist – co-founded the advocacy group Le’Or, which since its founding last year has worked to put marijuana legalization on the Jewish communal agenda. (JTA profiled the organization in February.)

The Cannabis Seder for a New Drug Peace —  billed as a place for “an honest Jewish conversation about topics we were taught were strictly taboo – about drugs, race, and justice,” marked Le’Or’s inaugural event. (Kveller, earlier this month published an April Fools post “Blazin’ Seder: How to Incorporate Marijuana Into Your Passover Celebration.”)

But the Le’Or event, which brought together about 50 people, was no joke.

Seated around reclaimed hardwood tables, seder-goers passed bowls to celebrate Oregon’s newfound cannabis freedoms, and twice sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” along with a vocal soloist. (“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.”)

When it came time to begin the seder and say the blessing over the wine, a new tradition was added to the service: reciting the blessing over the weed.

In the absence of a prayer for cannabis, Kaufmann – author of the Drug War-themed Haggadah that guided our seder – borrowed from the Havdalah ritual. The prayer  — “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, the king of the world, who creates myriad fragrances” —  traditionally recited over the fragrant spices at the close of every Sabbath became the defacto ganja blessing.

“Given that cannabis is one of the most fragrant of spices,” the seder book read, “this is a fitting blessing for tonight’s celebration.”

The evening’s major sponsor and president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company, David Bronner, was seated at my table, along with his partner in hemp activism, Adam Eidinger. Eidinger had flown in from Washington D.C., where he led last year’s successful campaign to legalize recreational marijuana use in the nation’s capital. (Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company provided seed money to found Le’Or.)

Other seder guests included Marsha Rosenbaum and Amanda Reiman of the Drug Policy Alliance – a driving force behind marijuana legalization efforts nationwide – and Diane Goldstein, a 53-year-old retired police lieutenant from Rendondo Beach, Calif., who traded in her badge to speak out against the Drug War. The ongoing four-decade “war” has resulted in prison time for an unprecedented number of Americans convicted of drug-related crimes.

At the Le’Or seder, while some Passover rituals were left intact – the washing of the hands, for one – most were subject to reinvention. Even the seder plate looked different from all other seder plates: As a symbol of freedom and protest, a marijuana leaf had been substituted for the usual piece of lettuce.

By the time the seder meal (wild-caught salmon) was finished, glass Mason jars previously stuffed with Oregon’s Finest sat empty, and the spread of dark chocolate truffles “made with full extract cannabis oil,” according to the Leif Medicinals label, had been plundered.

What remained was a sordid array of hemp wick, unopened jars of cannabis butter, and a room full of activists who committed to ending America’s Drug War in the name of the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam, or building a better world.

Medical marijuana may soon get kosher stamp of approval


Kosher marijuana could soon be available to Orthodox Jews in New York State — but only on doctor’s orders.

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher certification agency, said he has held “preliminary discussions” with several companies interested in obtaining a kosher seal of approval for medical marijuana.

Read more at Forward.

Le’Or aims to put marijuana legalization on the Jewish agenda


“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them?”

That was President Richard Nixon speaking to his top aide, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, during a recorded White House meeting back in 1971.

Fast forward some four decades, a new nonprofit group based in Portland, Ore., is hoping to prove Nixon right. Le’Or, founded about a year ago with seed funding from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company, wants to convince American Jews that ending marijuana prohibition belongs on the progressive Jewish communal agenda alongside marriage equality and immigration reform.

“Our goal is to erode the stigma, so that the Jewish community at large can see that supporting marijuana legalization is not just the right thing to do, it’s the Jewish thing to do,” said Roy Kaufmann, who founded Le’Or with his wife, Claire.

The Oregon governor’s speechwriter by day, the Israeli-born Kaufmann, 36, is a staunch opponent of America’s decades-long War on Drugs. Launched by Nixon in the 1970s and expanded during the Reagan era, the ongoing drug war has resulted in an unprecedented number of U.S. citizens — and a disproportionate number of African-American males — being sent to prison for drug-related offenses.

Part of the answer, legalization advocates say, is to make marijuana a controlled substance on par with alcohol and cigarettes. In November, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., joined Colorado and Washington state in legalizing recreational cannabis use. The four states will tax and regulate sales of the plant, while D.C.’s law, which sanctioned possession only, has yet to take effect following a congressional move to block its implementation.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana is now legal in 23 U.S. states. While cannabis is still prohibited under federal law, as the tide shifts toward legalization, even Congress is softening its stance. Last December’s government spending bill included a bipartisan amendment that blocks the U.S. Justice Department from using funds to target patients or collectives in states with medical marijuana programs.

The seeds of Le’Or — “to illuminate” in Hebrew — were planted when the Kaufmanns began to lament the lack of Jewish communal involvement in pushing for marijuana legalization.

“There’s a disconnect between the civil rights issue and the number of Jewish people who, let’s be honest, enjoy the cannabis plant,” said Claire Kaufmann, now a marketing and branding consultant for the burgeoning cannabis industry. “It seems to me to be a contradiction.”

Specifically, it outraged the couple that while white Americans — themselves included — could casually smoke marijuana and get away with it, their black counterparts were far too often arrested and incarcerated for the same low-level crime.

A business school graduate and the mother of three young children, Kaufmann, 35, said she never imagined she’d wind up working in the marijuana industry. The Portland resident became involved, she said, because of her commitment to drug policy reform, not to reap the kind of profits that have given rise to a new crop of cannabis entrepreneurs in what has been dubbed the “green rush.”

“My real passion is the racial and economic injustices,” said Claire Kaufmann, who blogs about the industry at rebrandingcannabis.com. “I see marijuana legalization as the gateway issue to a much larger and more uncomfortable issue around prison sentencing reform.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, black people use drugs at about the same rates as whites but are three to five times more likely to be arrested as a result.

In 2012, Roy Kaufmann led the first campaign to legalize marijuana in Oregon. He was struck by how few rabbis and Jewish communal leaders jumped on board. After the failed bid, he turned to Dr. Bronner’s to back his idea for a Jewish pro-cannabis group.

Dr. Bronner’s has played a leading role in hemp and marijuana legalization efforts since 2001, when David Bronner, the company’s president and grandson of the spiritually minded German-Jewish soapmaker, launched a successful lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Agency to allow hemp imports into the United States. The Vista, Calif.-based company uses non-psychoactive hemp oil imported from Canada in its all-natural line of soaps.

While Bronner, 41, was raised Protestant, he also grew up reciting the Jewish Shema prayer and said he feels a strong connection to his Jewish roots. His grandfather’s universalist “All-One” message — touted on famously wacky soap labels with references to Rabbi Hillel and Jesus — remains at the core of the company’s progressive philosophy.

“The major drug reform groups in the country are already led by Jews, and they’re doing it out of a deep-seated commitment to social justice,” Bronner said. “Furthermore, Israel has been a real pioneer in cannabis.”

One of the world’s only countries with a national medical marijuana program, Israel has long taken the lead on marijuana research. THC, the psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant, was first identified in 1964 by Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, for example. And just this year, an Israeli research company announced that it had developed an oral patch so that medical marijuana users can ingest the drug without inhaling smoke.

Bronner himself helped jump-start Israel’s $40-million-year medical marijuana industry more than a decade ago when he donated $50,000 to the country’s first dispensary, Tikkun Olam, which takes its name from the Jewish mystical tradition of repairing the world. In 2014, the Magic Soap Company donated more than $100,000 to both the Oregon and Alaska legalization initiatives, and some $250,000 to the D.C. campaign.

But Bronner’s activism has been more than monetary. In 2009, he planted hemp seeds in front of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s D.C. headquarters to protest the U.S. ban on hemp farming, and three years later he locked himself in a steel cage with a dozen industrial hemp plants — they contain only trace amounts of THC — in front of the White House.

Last year, President Barack Obama signed into law a farm bill that included an amendment to allow industrial hemp farming for research purposes. The amendment was co-sponsored by Jared Polis, a Jewish Democratic congressman from Colorado who recently introduced a bipartisan bill to allow hemp production for commercial purposes as well.

As Bronner noted, the leaders of many of America’s major drug policy reform groups are also Jewish. Among the organizations they helm are the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit that studies the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and marijuana and was founded by the Jewish Chicago native Rick Doblin. There’s also the Drug Policy Alliance, whose founder and executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, is the son of a prominent Reconstructionist rabbi and links policy work to “the broader Jewish tradition of fighting for social justice.

Jewish advocacy groups, however, have largely hung back on issues of marijuana legalization and drug policy reform. Those contacted by JTA, including Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and the American Jewish Committee, which lobbies Congress on behalf of issues such as immigration reform and marriage equality, declined to comment.

But according to Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, “the lack of engagement on this issue by the organized Jewish community is not because it’s a taboo issue, it’s because we have to set priorities. And this issue has not emerged as a priority.”

Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the umbrella body of local community relations councils — agreed with Kahn’s assessment, but added that as the marijuana legalization issue becomes more prevalent, the local councils will have to take a closer look.

“I’m not aware of a lot of communities that have delved deeply at this point,” Felson said. “But it’s likely that over the next few years that will change.”

Within the organized Jewish community, however, the Reform movement has been a marked exception. In 1999, Women of Reform Judaism passed a resolution in support of medical marijuana that four years later was adopted by the full Union for Reform Judaism. More recently, the Reform movement’s public affairs arm, the Religious Action Center, has lobbied Congress on behalf of legislation reforming prison sentencing.

“The core priority for us has been addressing the sentencing disparity between white Americans and black Americans who are convicted for drug-related offenses,” said Barbara Weinstein, the RAC’s associate director.

For some prominent Jews, however, it’s not merely about whether or not to prioritize other issues, but about actively working to block marijuana legalization.

In Florida, where a November bid to legalize medical marijuana lost by 3 percentage points, Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson pumped $5 million into the campaign to defeat its passage. The casino mogul’s Israeli-born wife, Miriam, is a drug addiction specialist who runs a rehabilitation center in Las Vegas and believes that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to harder, more dangerous substances — a belief that legalization advocates dispute, citing studies to the contrary.

But if Le’Or has its way, Florida could indeed legalize medical marijuana in the next election cycle – and California might well take the next step and allow recreational use.

“We’re talking about some of the biggest Jewish communities in the U.S.,” Roy Kaufmann said. “I look at 2016 and I think, ‘This is an opportunity to start building something now.’”

Letter to the Editor: Marijuana, Persians and the Oslo Accord


More on Marijuana

It can be seen by the article “Light-Up Nation” (Oct. 4) that medical marijuana is truly a science and has medical and emotional benefits. My hope is that funds will be allocated in the near future so that more research and clinical trials can be done. Why is it considered OK in the Jewish communities to partake of alcohol and, as the distributor might say, “drink responsibly,” but marijuana is still looked at in a different light? Not everyone who smokes is a “stoner,” in the classical sense of the word. There are many of us who use it responsibly and productively. The foolishness of some patients’ use should not outweigh the wondrous benefits of a product. Any product — be it tobacco, alcohol, food, pain medication — can be overused and abused. How is marijuana any different? I know there will come a time in the future when the community will open its mind to see the healing effects of cannabis.

David Perl via e-mail


The article gives many anecdotes of beneficial effects of marijuana. I believe the author should have listed some of the side effects, such as impaired cognition and increased incidence of auto accidents in users.

Dr. Stuart Goldman via e-mail


Perspective on Persian Civilization

I enjoyed reading Gina Nahai’s article “On Being Persian” (Oct. 4). However, the historical information found in her essay is incorrect regarding one issue and disputable regarding another. The Persian civilization is not “the oldest civilization known to man — one that predates Egypt’s by 500 years.” Rather, the Persians first appear in historical documents in the seventh century B.C.E., while Egyptian civilization can be traced back to the fourth millennium B.C.E., predating Persia by close to 3,000 years. 

Further, Nahai refers to the Cyrus Cylinder as a “declaration of human rights,” which “states that all people captured and enslaved by the rulers before him should be allowed to return to their homelands and worship … whichever god they please.” While Cyrus did allow the Temple vessels to be returned to Jewish authorities and the rebuilding of the Temple and the Jewish community in Judah, that these events are based on what we read in the Cyrus Cylinder is not so clear. The contents of the inscription do not clearly mandate that subject peoples are allowed to go home, but only that their gods can. The intent of the inscription is to legitimize Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon and the vast empire that came with it. 

Thus, while Cyrus is viewed very positively in Jewish history for granting permission to the Jewish community to rebuild the Temple and restore Jewish life in their homeland, the contents of his cylinder do not necessarily reflect a recognition of human rights and religious freedom. Will I nevertheless go to the Getty Villa to view the Cylinder during its visit to Los Angeles? You bet.

Elaine Goodfriend, adjunct lecturer in Jewish studies CSUN, The full version of this letter is at jewishjournal.com.


On the Oslo Accords 

I did not attend the American Freedom Alliance conference on “Oslo @ Twenty,” but if the Journal account (“20 Years Later, the Oslo Accord,” Oct. 4) is any indication, the lack of any support for the Oslo accords expressed at the conference means that the attendees were badly served.

Unmentioned in the article, and apparently at the conference, is the fact that the Israeli government itself has used the threat of not cooperating over that part of the Oslo accords that remain in effect to discourage independent Palestinian Authority behavior, such as statehood recognition from the United Nations. The fact is, Oslo is very much alive, especially in the minds of those working for peace. And so are the peace optimists. 

Barry H. Steiner, political science professor CSULB


A Thank You From Cantor Pressman

Thank you for this (“Unafraid of Death, Cantor Offers a Philosophical Love Fest,” Oct. 4). Not sure that one of so many people facing cancer deserves such a fuss, but I am honored.

Cantor Joel Pressman via jewishjournal.com


Boyarsky’s Loss Brings Empathy

I have met Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who is beloved by many (“Seeking Consolation,” Sept. 27). I’m glad he was a source of solace. The High Holy Days always lead me into meditation on the losses and the blessings of this life. Bill Boyarsky’s loss of his oldest daughter, Robin, is a wound I cannot imagine. In time, I hope it heals.

Linda Deutsch via jewishjournal.com


A really lovely piece, Bill. I wish I had a Chaim in my life. I think of Robin all the time, as I think about our Cindy.

Al Martinez via jewishjournal.com


correction

An article about Cantor Joel Pressman (“Unafraid of Death, Cantor Offers a Philosophical Love Fest,” Oct. 4) mistakenly reported that a cover story on Pressman had appeared in the Beverly Hills Courier. It was the Beverly Hills Weekly that published the story. 

Green gold: Israel sets a new standard for legal medical marijuana research, production and sales


Just over six years ago, in the lush Upper Galilee of northern Israel, the nation’s first large-scale harvest of legal medical marijuana was flowering on the roof deck of Tzahi Cohen’s parents’ house, perched on a cliff overlooking the bright-green farming village of Birya. Until then, fewer than 100 Israeli patients suffering from a short list of ailments had been allowed to grow the plants for themselves, but this marked the first harvest by a licensed grower.

The Cohen home soon became a temple in the area for believers in the healing powers of cannabis — a legendary family operation that, in this early golden era, served as a grow house, a pharmacy and a treatment center all in one. In “Prescribed Grass,” the 2009 documentary that would open the eyes of Israeli politicians to the vast potential of medical cannabis, a group of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans, suffering from army wounds such as phantom pains and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are shown sitting around a table at the Cohens’ house. There, they help trim the harvest, smoke their medicine from a small glass bong and sing the miracles of cannabis.

Those were the farm’s whimsical beginnings. Today, up a country road from the Cohens’ house, at a guarded location hidden by trees but open to steady sunshine, sits the family’s now-massive operation. It’s an almost three-acre setup of greenhouses, high-tech “Twister” trimming machines and huts with labels such as “Flowering House” and “Mother House.”

The Cohens have named their farm Tikun Olam, the Hebrew phrase for “healing the world” — and they believe their marijuana-growing and -processing facilities to be among the most advanced on Earth.

“It was amazing, the professional quality of the guys up there,” said an Israeli psychiatrist who visited the farm and recommends the Tikun Olam product to his patients, but who wished to remain anonymous, as he was instructed by the Ministry of Health not to give press statements. “All the measurements and everything were so precise.”

Despite its impressive new digs, Tikun Olam’s industrial garden retains an air of spirituality. Farmhands play traditional Jewish music to the plants and believe that kabbalah legend Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, buried on a nearby hill, watches over the farm and protects it from harm. A creaky little synagogue on site is hot-boxed with the fragrance of marijuana. “People from the neighborhood come to pray here,” said Ma’ayan Weisberg, spokeswoman for Tikun Olam, on a recent tour of the property.

Israeli lawmakers continue to classify marijuana as a dangerous and illegal drug. The national police force has waged a decades-long drug war against marijuana and hashish smuggled in from Lebanon and Egypt. But beginning in 1995 — when an Israeli government committee recommended that medical cannabis be legally distributed to the sick — a determined set of activists, scientists and politicians have nurtured a small, secure medical-cannabis program that might be just rigid enough to survive where other international efforts have unraveled.

Last November, Tikun Olam hosted a mob of international reporters from BBC, CNN, Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times and more at its homey plantation near Safed. Leading the pack was Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli government’s then-Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs. He proudly announced that Tikun Olam had bred a special strain of cannabis that contained super-high levels of cannabidiol, or CBD — a non-psychoactive yet medically diverse component of the plant — but was almost entirely lacking in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient that makes users feel stoned. This new strain could offer patients relief from various physical ailments, including chronic pain and seizures, without cannabis’ infamous psychedelic high.

Tikun Olam also informed the media that the farm had grown a strain — named Eran Almog, after a patient — that contained 28 to 29 percent THC, which it claimed was the highest THC level ever recorded. (THC is known to prevent nausea in cancer patients and build appetites in people with AIDS, among other applications.)

“The new thing here is that what has always been thought of as just a drug, a negative thing, has become — through the good work of the growers here — a medicine which, in fact, is not a narcotic,” Edelstein told the reporters.

But after dozens of headlines equating “Israel” with “cannabis” hit global news outlets, the Ministry of Health, which runs Israel’s medical pot program, got cold feet and imposed a no-press policy on the farm, Weisberg said.

In tense committee meetings on how to handle the country’s expanding medical cannabis program, Israeli politicians and top brass at the Ministry of Public Security have expressed fears that Israel will earn a reputation as the Amsterdam of medical marijuana.

That fate may already be sealed. CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta called Israel “the medical marijuana research capital” in his game-changing summer documentary “Weed,” and dedicated more than five minutes of the film to Israel’s remarkable advances in cannabis research and regulation.

Gupta was amazed to see how seamlessly Israel had integrated cannabis into its health-care system. He visited the Sheba Medical Center, where he was shocked to watch a cancer patient inhale cannabis from a vaporizer installed in his hospital room. He also spoke with Moshe Rute, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor whose nursing home provides him cannabis from Tikun Olam to ease his post-stroke symptoms, as well as his childhood memories. “The marijuana … took him out of the darkness,” CNN’s Gupta narrated as the old man lit up.

Although Tikun Olam is the most widely publicized brand available through Israel’s now world-famous cannabis program — the company calls itself “the flag bearer for the medical use of cannabis in Israel” on its Web site — seven more farms have grown simultaneously in its shadow. They are working within an infrastructure created by the Israeli government, testing the levels of CBD and THC in their product at federal or university labs and distributing it out of a cramped little room behind the high-security gates of Abarbanel, the country’s central mental institution.

To get access, Israeli cannabis patients — of which there are currently almost 13,000 — currently must wrangle a hard-to-get cannabis license from the Ministry of Health, then receive training from experts familiar with the farms’ different strains. Individuals pay a fixed price of about $100 per month, regardless of the amount of cannabis prescribed. With the exception of Tikun Olam customers, who pick up their weed at a closely guarded storefront with prison-like window bars on Ibn Gabirol Street in northern Tel Aviv, the nation’s cannabis patients pick up their monthly rations at Abarbanel Mental Health Center.

This tight-knit system of production and distribution, carried out under the paranoid thumb of the federal government, has positioned Israel to create what could become the world’s first successful, government-run pharmaceutical system for medical cannabis.

“We think that medical cannabis should be distributed to the patients as any other medical drug — at pharmacies,” Ministry of Health spokeswoman Einav Shimron Grinboim wrote in an e-mail.

The ministry first announced that a new, cutting-edge distribution program would be unveiled in spring 2012, but — due partly to a turnover in the Israeli Knesset, and the challenges of setting up such an unprecedented structure — the ministry now predicts it will go into effect by the end of 2014.

The head of Israel’s newly created Medical Cannabis Unit, political unknown Yuval Landschaft, has a no-press policy of his own, and the Ministry of Health will not reveal the details of his new plan. But insiders told the Jewish Journal that Landschaft and a team of brand-new hires, whose sole duty is to oversee and redesign Israel’s medical cannabis program, are racing to build a streamlined pharmaceutical system that could set a new global standard in the field.

“Yuval’s dream is that everything be sent to a central warehouse, where it’ll be packaged for distribution,” said Mimi Peleg, director of patient training at Abarbanel’s cannabis center.

Under the plan, government-affiliated pharmaceutical supplier Sarel Ltd. would be in charge of testing each batch of cannabis to verify its quality and consistency, and would then stock pharmacies across Israel with measured doses of marijuana — as it does with any other medication.

Similar programs have previously been tested in both Canada and Holland. However, Canadian officials recently announced that they will hand the industry back to private suppliers in 2014, eliminating the federal government’s previous role of approving and educating cannabis patients. And in Holland, the number of patients has dropped to less than 1,000, with critics alleging that the quality of legal coffee-shop weed consistently tops the medical stuff.

State and city programs across the United States have spiraled even further out of control: A patchwork of conflicting laws at the local and federal levels have prevented a cohesive program from taking shape in any of the 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) where medical marijuana is legal.

If Israeli officials can overcome this cannabis curse — requiring them to fit a radically complex, villainized and under-studied plant into a rigid pharmaceutical system — the small Jewish nation could become the first to pull off a federal program that the medical community can get behind.

WEST COAST ROOTS 

Right around the time the Cohens founded Tikun Olam, former Los Angeles resident Yohai Golan fled the Wild West medical cannabis scene in California to start growing small and humble again at his mother’s house in Israel.

Golan and the Cohen family each received founding grants in 2008 — $15,000 and $50,000, respectively — from David Bronner of the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps fortune, who told the Jewish Journal he was inspired to donate the money because “the government in Israel looked like they were going to set an example of a more reasonable approach.” Bronner also funded a visit to Israel from leading cannabis experts at the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, who coached the growers through their startup phase.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv in early September, dressed in a stone-studded Peter Pan hat worthy of Burning Man, Golan told turbulent stories of growing medical cannabis in Venice Beach and San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s, running with the crews of big celebrity pot advocates like Jane’s Addiction front-man Perry Farrell and actor Woody Harrelson. Although Golan claimed he was legally licensed to grow in California, he said his grow houses were subjected to constant raids by local police, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents and even motorcycle gangs.

“California is where it began, but it became a mess,” he said. So Golan returned home to Israel, where he poured everything he had learned growing marijuana in California into a farm he later named Better.

“My friend is the owner of Bodhi Seeds out of Santa Cruz, and he went and took master strains that I liked and cross-bred them especially for me to use in Israel,” Golan said. “He created a Purple Kush strain — a cross of Purple Kush, Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel — that was made especially for the desert.” It has since become Better’s most popular strain.

Unlike the Cohens, who chose their spot in the Upper Galilee for its pure mountain air and mystical history, Golan eventually decided to base his farm a few hours south, in the Valley of Elah. “We have no humidity and desert winds that drop into the mercaz,” he said. The Better farm now grows another buzzed-about strain called “cheesepie,” which contains 13 percent CBD and less than 1 percent THC, along with seven other standardized strains and many more in the development stage.

Various cannabis growers in Israel confirmed that a few months ago, they received a letter outlining some of Landschaft’s proposed changes — including grouping the strains into four medicinal categories based on their levels of CBD and THC.

Nativ Segev, CEO of Better, said that as long as strain experimentation isn’t limited, he believes the strongest cannabis growers will still be able to thrive within the ministry’s egalitarian vision. “The best thing to do is specialize in growing — to grow the best you can, and then sell it to the government,” he said. “If you grow good things, if you grow the best [strains], you will be OK.”

Other farms are hesitant to move toward a more socialist system, which would involve sharing their gardening secrets with the feds, said Dr. Yehuda Baruch, Abarbanel’s director and former head of the cannabis program (before a changing of the guards in January).

“I tell the growers, ‘This is not the THC Olympics,’ ” said Boaz Wachtel, one of Israel’s original cannabis advocates and founder of the country’s fringe Green Leaf Party. “They’re very competitive.”

Up to now, a healthy competition between farms, as in many Israeli industries, has livened up the market and encouraged top product quality. However, a more centrally regulated system under construction at Israel’s Medical Cannabis Unit would eliminate some farms’ current branding advantages, and would allow patients and doctors to choose from all the farms’ strains, instead of just one. (Currently, patients report that it’s almost impossible to switch from one farm to another.) “If every grower has a number of great strains to offer, it won’t be a problem,” Wachtel said.

“The most important thing is that we stabilize phenotypes so that we can depend on what we’re getting from one season to the next,” said Abarbanel’s Peleg, who does strain testing for three of the farms. “The way to get there is to start sharing genetics — to have this national grow where we have a nursery for everybody, and start making better and more healthy clones that we’re giving away to the growers.”

However, she added, “this sharing attitude is not popular here.”

Doctors and other cannabis experts who spoke to the Jewish Journal agreed that one of the keys to writing cannabis into modern medical history, and to completing the clinical trials needed to more fully legitimize its use, will be to create standard strains or oils that can be replicated and expected to have consistent results, patient-to-patient.

Peleg said she hopes ego wars among growers won’t block Israel’s road to a more compassionate system. “We have the opportunity to really do something better” than anywhere else in the world, she said. “And I hope we take advantage of it.”

MEDICINE OR SNAKE OIL?<

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In the United States, the exasperated Drug Policy Alliance, a leading organization in the fight to turn around backward cannabis policy, has long argued that American scientists and physicians interested in studying and prescribing cannabis are stuck in a sort of catch-22.

Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the alliance’s California branch, wrote in a March 2013 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: “Marijuana’s Schedule I classification, which places it alongside heroin, defines it as being too dangerous for most research. Consequently, almost no research on marijuana’s medical benefits gets funded, so there’s practically no way to find the evidence that would result in marijuana’s reclassification.”

Due to this lack of hard evidence, doctors in Los Angeles — from the so-called Dr. Feelgoods along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to pricey boutique physicians in Beverly Hills — are not even technically allowed to prescribe cannabis. Instead, they issue patients a recommendation slip, no questions asked.

“A doctor can recommend cannabis, but they can’t tell [patients] where to get it, and they can’t have a conversation with them about using it,” Reiman said in an interview, adding that in Israel, on the other hand, “when your federal government participates in the program, doctors don’t have to worry that if someone finds out, they’re going to get a bad reputation.”

Peleg, who worked for many years in Santa Cruz for the respected dispensing collective Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana before moving to Israel, added that in California, “Doctors aren’t supposed to talk about strains and methodologies, and sellers aren’t supposed to talk about diseases and implementation.” This leaves patients in the dark about the nuances of the cannabis plant in relation to their symptoms, and they find the right strain and dosage through trial and error.

“It’s irresponsible for us to consider this a medicine and treat it like snake oil,” Peleg said. “Just because it works on everything doesn’t mean it’s snake oil. We need the studies for the right reasons — because people deserve to know what to expect. We need to know really basic questions, like do strains matter or not, or do cannabinoids matter? Let’s prove it.”

Although there is a world of research to conduct before the ingredients of marijuana are 100 percent understood within a medical framework, much of what doctors do know has come out of the Holy Land. “In many ways, Israel is providing the research we need to move forward,” Reiman said.

Researchers in the United States complain that due to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s stronghold on the scientific cannabis supply, it’s near impossible to conduct the studies and clinical trials that doctors need to more confidently prescribe marijuana to their patients.

Conversely, in Israel, a tiny country of 8 million with intimate connections but big dreams, a circle of talent in the field — including cannabis growers, scientists and physicians — are all within one phone call to a friend-of-a-friend.

Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known internationally as the grandfather of cannabis research for being the first to isolate THC in the 1960s, remains today a top professor and researcher at Hebrew University. In the middle of an interview with the Jewish Journal, the kindly and soft-spoken 82-year-old took a panicked phone call from a local physician who wanted to know whether his cancer patient could benefit from cannabis. “I get that several times a day,” he said.

“Until well-designed clinical trials have been done and have been published, physicians don’t know what to do,” he added.

Mechoulam famously got his hands on his first batch of Lebanese hashish in the early ’60s, through a friend who had connections at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police. “Later we found that both the head of the investigative branch of the police and I had broken quite a few laws,” Mechoulam wrote in the British Journal of Addiction. “The Ministry of Health was in charge of illicit drug licensing and not the police, and I had broken the severe drug laws. Luckily, being ‘reliable,’ I just had to apologize.” He would later go on to receive the Israel Prize in exact sciences, the nation’s highest honor, for his work with cannabis.

In the decades since Mechoulam’s groundbreaking discovery, he and dozens of other Israeli scientists, in collaboration with their peers around the world, have built a foundation of knowledge on which a sane medical cannabis program can be built — all with the crucial blessing of the federal government.

Professor Ruth Gallily at Hebrew University has proven herself the queen of CBD research, confirming it highly effective in treating many types of inflammation, including that which leads to severe spine and back pain and even some heart disease.

“I can really tell you that CBD is a fantastic anti-inflammatory,” she said. “I have seen the benefit of it to so many people.”

Dr. Ephraim Lansky, an Israeli physician who specializes in studying herbs, published a now-famous case study based on a cancer patient who came to him with a golf-ball-sized tumor in his head. Lansky treated the young man with about one gram of high-CBD cannabis per day, ingested orally.

Eight months later, according to Lansky, the tumor had shrunk by 75 percent, and his patient’s seizures had faded completely.

“Cannabis is just another herb, and it belongs within the wider context of herbal medicine,” Lansky told the Jewish Journal. “Of all the other herbs I use, it’s the most useful. I’d even have to put it ahead of garlic.” He hopes to spend the next few years publishing case studies on his cannabis patients, which could become the building blocks for full-scale clinical trials.

Mechoulam is likewise interested in the greater context of cannabis as a sort of cure-all: He continues to explore and lecture about his discoveries within the human body’s own natural endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors that line up with the dozens of active ingredients in marijuana. The system could hold the secret to why marijuana is able to ease such a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses.

Their work is not going unnoticed.

Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Colorado physician who treated an epileptic 5-year-old with high-CBD cannabis as the crux of Gupta’s CNN documentary, has announced that he is immigrating to Israel to take advantage of the more expansive research opportunities.

“We have an obligation as a medical community to study cannabis so that we can understand how it works, and more effectively decide what cannabinoids are most effective for what, and at what dose,” Shackelford told the Jewish Journal in a phone interview. He added he is “humbled by the opportunity to take what I know and expand on it in collaboration with these committed people in Israel who have done so much more.”

Shackelford hopes to study cannabis’ effectiveness in treating seizure disorders, among other conditions. “Israel’s the perfect place to do it, because of the openness to inquiry, and because of the relative lack of pejorative government opinion — because federal legislation is not restrictive,” he said.

Shackelford is also determined to help set up a system in Israel wherein physicians are involved in learning about the particulars of cannabis as a medicine.

The real remaining obstacle to putting scientific theories about cannabis into medical practice, and setting up a sound pharmaceutical system, is a lack of funding for clinical trials on humans, said Shackelford — a problem echoed by many other experts in the field. Researchers must first test various combinations of THC and CBD (and other cannabinoids) on patients, under strict controls, before the medication can be properly prescribed.

“Clinical research is not an easy thing to do,” Mechoulam said. “And because cannabis came from the wrong direction, from the direction of an illicit drug, it’s difficult to get it into the clinical trials.”

The Israeli government has approved some of the only clinical trials involving cannabis in the world, including an exciting look at the response of PTSD patients to cannabis high in THC. However, these trials have only just touched the tip of the iceberg. And while some pharmaceutical companies have taken cautious interest in refabricating the elements of marijuana and running their own trials, they still seem generally unsure of how to brand and patent such a complex product of Mother Nature.

Thanks to this absence of conclusive research, it’s not easy for patients to snag a coveted pot license from the Ministry of Health.

Although the number of license holders in Israel has been growing in recent months — according to the ministry, the total now sits at about 12,700, up from about 11,000 at the start of the year — estimates by pro-cannabis politicians and even the Ministry of Health itself put the number of potential cannabis patients still left out in the cold at between 40,000 and 100,000.

Doctors in California can recommend medical marijuana for any condition as they see fit, while Israel’s Ministry of Health instructs doctors only to prescribe marijuana as a last resort and keeps a strict list of medical conditions that qualify for treatment, such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Some patients wait months, even years, before they see their requests approved.

Israeli activists have not stood idly by: An angry mob staged a hunger strike outside Health Minister Yael German’s house in May, responding to a further tightening of the list. (German has since expanded the list to include Parkinson’s disease and Tourette syndrome.)

An Israeli psychiatrist who wished to remain anonymous said he has seen a mere four or five new cannabis licenses issued to his PTSD patients in the past few years, out of hundreds who have applied. This, despite the fact that he has seen “spectacular results in patients with post-trauma.”

A recent pilot for a clinical trial out of Abarbanel showed similarly promising results. However, “In order to convince the specialists to agree that cannabis is good for post-trauma, you need to [isolate] certain cognitive functions that you can test very precisely,” the psychiatrist said. Rick Doblin, founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in California, also attested that the study was “very haphazard and irregular, with no information on things like how much marijuana they used — but still it showed that it seemed to be helpful for quite a few people.”

Tragically, as researchers fumble in uncharted territory, many of the unusually high number of Israelis with PTSD are unable to find relief in the top-of-the-line bud their country has to offer.

THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS 

“We have to consider, what are we doing when we don’t give people this medication? That’s the real question,” Dr. Itai Gur-Arie, then-chairman of the Israel Pain Association, said in the documentary “Prescribed Grass.” “It’s not that the patients won’t get any medication at all. They’ll get other medication — opiates. In other words, we won’t give them marijuana, we’ll give them heroin.”

Wachtel, one of Israel’s first cannabis advocates, had to rush out of an interview to consult a family whose teenage daughter, stuck at home for the last nine months with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, couldn’t get cannabis through her doctor — “so the family decided to go to the black market, to see if it helps,” Wachtel said.

On the positive side, patients in Israel lucky enough to meet the government’s cannabis criteria — and, in many cases, persistent enough in pressuring their doctors — are overwhelmingly impressed with the results.

A 32-year-old cannabis patient in the western Galilee who wished to remain anonymous said he experienced violent spasms in his legs after being paralyzed in a swimming-pool accident a couple of years back. After trying marijuana on his own, he found that it instantly relieved the spasms.

So the quadriplegic told his doctor he needed cannabis for back pain, because pain is one of the approved conditions on the Ministry of Health’s list — and was prescribed 20 grams a month, the ministry’s conservative starting dose. Although the patient said he believes he needs a few more grams per month, he has been highly impressed with the strains he receives through IMC Agriculture, another licensed grower in Israel. (He said he chose IMC over Tikun Olam because the latter “became too commercial.”)

“When I go to swim, if I’m not using the cannabis, my body starts having spastic seizures — my body becomes completely stiff,” the patient said. But with a few puffs of cannabis beforehand, his paralyzed limbs are able to relax in the water.

With the help of cannabis, the 32-year-old has eliminated all but one of seven pharmaceuticals from his daily regimen.

Paulette Azar, 55, a recovering breast-cancer survivor who lives on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, said she fights for about three months each year to renew her annual cannabis license to treat her lingering cancer pain and PTSD symptoms.

“It was very painful, the cancer — very painful,” she remembered, clutching her forearms tightly. “The doctors tried to give me other medications, but I didn’t let them. I had to be rude with them. I shouted, so I got [the cannabis]. And since then, I have no more pain when I smoke it, and I am very happy. I put music in my house, and I can live my normal life.”

Since the humble beginnings of the Ministry of Health’s cannabis program, the standard dose has plummeted from 200 grams to 20 grams per month. “At the beginning of the month, there are so many people who need their medicine, so we have to wait in line for, like, two hours,” Azar said.

Still, Azar said she is shocked and grateful that such a security-obsessed government allows her up to 70 grams of Tikun Olam product monthly.

Another Tikun Olam patient, Mor Hagdi of the Ramat Gan suburbs, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 22. He said he tried cannabis as a last resort, when his cocktail of pain pills wasn’t able to ease his suffering and was turning him into a zombie. “The pain is chemo pain,” he said. “I swear to God, I wouldn’t want even my enemy to get this pain. Now when I am talking about this, I cannot sit, I must walk — it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody in the world. But when I smoke the cannabis, I just feel the pain going down. It’s relaxing — and now there is no more pain.” The marijuana has also helped stoke his dwindling appetite.

Three years ago, Zach Klein, the filmmaker behind “Prescribed Grass,” initiated a very do-it-yourself clinical trial at the Hadarim nursing home just south of Tel Aviv — the same one where CNN’s Gupta watched a Holocaust survivor smoke away his dark past.

“One of the families [of a patient] saw the documentary and asked the head nurse for medical cannabis,” Klein remembered. “She said, ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ But they insisted. So she called me and told me, ‘You made this movie, so now come here and help me out.’ ”

Klein, who worked as head of research and development for Tikun Olam at the time, came to the home and tried blowing cannabis in the face of a 75-year-old woman with dementia.

“I saw an immediate change,” he said. “She stopped shouting; she created eye contact with me. The nurse almost collapsed, because for months, this was the tiger in the place. And after a few minutes, we actually had some kind of communication — I was calling her name, and she was responding. After a few minutes, she was even laughing.”
One of the most outspoken medical pot advocates in the Israeli Knesset has also been the most unlikely: Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, the same religious conservative who ignited the Israeli right this year when he posted to Facebook that he didn’t see anything wrong with shaking women’s hands. Feiglin is furious that it has taken Israel so long to build a system wherein marijuana is prescribed to everyone who needs it.

“Israel has reached a very, very high level of research and development of new kinds of cannabis,” Feiglin said in a phone interview. “It can help the whole world, and it can help the Israeli economy tremendously. I find it hard to believe that people are trying to restrict it. You cannot stop something that is so clear — so good for the patients and so good for the economy.”

Currently, only Holland allows its medical cannabis farms there to export marijuana to other countries, and the quality of Dutch medical strains is hugely lacking, according to Israeli activist and expert Wachtel. Israeli cannabis farms are anxious to share their strains with the world. At least two farms have been preparing for the coming revolution: Tikun Olam and Better have grown a loyal following around the world via social media, racking up about 1,300 and 24,000 followers on Instagram, respectively. Better’s fans drool over close-ups of the harvest, leaving comments such as “Dank!” “Gorgeous!” “Teach me your ways” and “You’re an inspiration to growers everywhere.”

Beverly Hills PR maven Cheryl Shuman, who calls herself “the Martha Stewart of marijuana,” made a highly publicized trip to Tikun Olam territory in early September, bringing back with her high praise for the Holy Land.

“What I’ve seen in Israel is the first time a business model is working on all cylinders — with the government, growers, counselors and patients all engaged on such a high level,” Shuman told the Jerusalem Post Magazine for a cover story on her visit. “This is the perfect role model to take to other countries. … That’s why I’m here. I’ve got tons of money behind me, and investors who believe in what I’m doing. They’re counting on me to bring them the right people to take this industry to the next level, and I’ve found them in Israel.”

Tikun Olam spokeswoman Weisberg said the farm is more than willing to meet that tall order. “This is a product that we can send to the whole world,” she said.

One of Colorado’s most active medical pot advocates, Bill Althouse, said he has communicated with growers in Israel about the possibility of sharing cannabis strains by shipping their genetic material internationally. Yet, the Ministry of Public Security, which runs Israel’s police department, has been a roadblock to the farms’ expansion, arguing in government meetings that medical cannabis is “leaking” into the hands of non-patients. Police keep a close eye on the farms — mandating video security systems worthy of Israel’s nuclear research center in Dimona — and poke around every once in a while to make their presence known.

Tikun Olam has received numerous warnings to stop selling “special” baked goods such as chocolate praline and tahini cookies containing cannabis butter, on the basis that their effectiveness has not been properly researched. Police sent an undercover agent to Tikun Olam’s cramped storefront in northern Tel Aviv three years ago to prove that the supplier was over-selling to patients.

“I don’t think they themselves know why they’re here,” said Weisberg on our tour of the Tikun Olam farm, ducking into the portable office building when she realized cops had arrived to survey the premises.

But despite ongoing complaints from growers and patients that Israel’s medical cannabis program is too tightly regulated, many experts see the strict and tedious beginnings of the Israeli program as essential to its eventual success.

“The con in Israel is there are a large number of patients who can’t get recommendations because they don’t meet this limited list of conditions that have been chosen to start the process,” said MAPS’ Doblin. “But the advantage is that Israel is building public support in a pretty steady way, with no backlash. When you have these broader, anything-goes [policies], there often is the potential and actuality of a backlash.”

Peleg, who is working as MAPS’ liaison in Israel, agreed that the Israeli government’s heavy hand has been a blessing in disguise.

“In a democracy, you’ve got to take into consideration that it’s all about compromise. And in terms of slow and steady growth, we are having a responsible growth rate,” she said. “I was shocked when I recently did a tour of cannabis clubs in California and Colorado to learn that in those states, you don’t have to be taught how to use cannabis, ever. There’s a real disconnect going on there that I think we’ve got solved here.”

Study: Legalizing marijuana would help Israeli economy


Legalizing marijuana would generate more than $450 million annually for the Israeli economy, a new study shows.

The black market for cannabis in Israel is worth $707 million annually, according to the study released Tuesday by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies. If the sale of marijuana were legalized and taxed at rates similar to cigarettes, it would add about $268 million in tax revenues and another approximately $198 million in savings to law enforcement directly related to illegal marijuana use, the study found.

At least 275,000 Israeli adults used marijuana in the past year, the study found; the tax revenue estimate was based on that number.

Some 75 percent of those questioned in a public opinion survey analyzed in the study said they believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses. Israeli support for medical marijuana was similar to the level of backing recorded in the United States in a survey earlier this year, according to the institute.

[Related: What Israel can teach America about medical marijuana]

Twenty-six percent of Israelis supported the legalization of marijuana, the survey found, with 64 percent opposed. In the United States, 52 percent of survey respondents supported legalization.

The Jerusalem-based firm Kevoon conducted the survey of 500 respondents reflecting a representative sample of Israeli Jews. The survey had a sampling error of 4.5 percent.

“Recognizing the enormous financial gains that would come from legalization demands that the government take a serious look at the proposal to legalize cannabis use under specific guidelines,” said Yarden Gazit, a co-author of the survey. “There is no disputing that if the public is able to get past the wholly negative misperceptions associated with marijuana usage and appreciate the potential benefits with limited social or health care costs, this is an idea that needs open-minded and serious re-examination at this time.”

Israeli rabbi: Weed is kosher if it’s medicinal


An Israeli Orthodox rabbi ruled that distributing and smoking medicinal marijuana is kosher, but using weed for fun is forbidden.

Efraim Zalmanovich, the rabbi of Mazkeret Batia, a town south of Tel Aviv, made the distinction in a recent halachic ruling, NRG, the news site of the Maariv daily reported on Friday. Leading rabbis frequently weigh in on matters of reconciling halacha, or Jewish law, with modern living.

Zalmanovich’s ruling modifies an opinion by Rabbi Hagai Bar Giora,who in March told Israel’s Magazin Canabis: “If you smoke it, there is no problem whatsoever.”

Zalmanovich, the author of a book on alcoholism in Judaism, said: “Taking drugs to escape this world in any excessive way is certainly forbidden.”

However, if the drug is administered to relieve pain, then the person giving it is “performing a mitzvah,” and the person using the drug is using it “in a kosher fashion.”

Some 11,000 Israelis use medicinal marijuana, including people with post-traumatic disorders and Parkinson’s disease, according to the Israeli health ministry.

Is there a place in religious life for marijuana? Ask Yoseph Needelman


After graduating from a Modern Orthodox high school in New York, 30-year-old author Yoseph Needelman moved to Jerusalem to explore the use of marijuana in Jewish tradition. For eight years he bounced around religious institutions, interviewing spiritual leaders to find out if there was indeed a place for drugs in the Jewish world.

The result of his research is compiled in “Cannabis Chassidis,” a book that explores the Jewish use of marijuana. The book was published originally in 2009 under Needelman's pen name, Yoseph Ibn Mordachya.

With Colorado and Washington having recently voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, popular views of the drug are rapidly evolving. Needelman’s book may find an audience among those seeking religious and practical advice on the use of marijuana.

JTA caught up with Needelman while he was on a book tour in America.

JTA: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to write this book?

Yoseph Needelman: I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and went to Modern Orthodox day schools. I went to Israel after high school to find things in Judaism that I felt must have been part of ancient traditions of how to live well, notably cannabis. I was introduced to drinking in a religious context, but relating to marijuana [religiously] was a big question for me. If the Torah is a religious framework that guides us in enjoying everything that is good, it must relate to other things I connected with, like pot or yoga.

I wrote this book because I think kids need advice and counsel on doing drugs that they are going to do anyways. If they are smoking pot and taking other drugs, they need to know how to do it effectively. My book discusses how to do those things in a helpful, effective and responsible way. That might include noticing the point where you don’t need a particular drug anymore.

Why do you think religious institutions have a negative outlook on drugs like marijuana?

Judaism is defined by its certain rejections. It is designed to protect us from foreign ecstasies and bad habits. I think here in America, certain Western values became the law, and they reject smoking and using herbs for a bunch of reasons. Judaism, which emerged from the ashes of Jerusalem's survivors, the people who were able to make themselves seem most unthreatening to the state, demands that its successful leaders not threaten anyone, especially not the state, so it’s become taboo. Marijuana is not identified as being especially Jewish, even though a lot of big rebbes traditionally were associated with it.

Where is it written that Chasidim use drugs, and who are some of the famous ones?

The Vilna Gaon [an 18th century rabbi and opponent of Chasidism] wrote in his cheirim, or writ of excommunication, that Chasidim are untrustworthy because they dance, sing and smoke. Some famous rabbis that sound like they used drugs were Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer, or Ba’al Shem Tov, the father of the Chasidic movement. A Baal Shem/Doktor is someone who picked wild grasses and barks, and made medicines out of them which he would sell, along with advice on how to use [them] properly. He used to smoke from a water pipe to experience an “aliyat neshama,” or ascension of the soul.

His biographer, Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polonoye, said that he would give his entire portion in this world, and in the world to come, just for a taste of what the Ba’al Shem Tov got from his pipe.

Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn used to smoke a pipe, too, and fill up the entire room before Shabbat. He would open a window and say, “These are the clouds of the week leaving, and the clouds of Shabbos are coming in.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev used to smoke a pipe before he prayed.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who came much later, was actually opposed to drugs, but he would smoke occasionally [in order to gain trust] by the people who were already on a high level of spiritual awareness and curiosity. Carlebach, however, was always frustrated by the sense of dependence the group had on it.

Was marijuana ever used for Jewish practices?

In Exodus 30:23, it talks about the anointing oils and there’s an ingredient called “knei bosem.” [The 11th century commentator] Rashi says it is “important,” and the Ramban explains in greater detail that the ingredient is “universally valued, in every country, and every empire.” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, a later redactor, gives over other opinions, one which is this ingredient is marijuana because it was globally popular, especially in traditions of lands like Yemen and Morocco.

Are there any biblical references to psychedelic use?

There is an opinion circulating amongst some academics and theoreticians lately that the Jews in the desert [experienced hallucinations] from the matzah they ate. Matzah was unbaked, raw, rye dough that was carried around and slowly cooked in the sun. It went through a process called St. Elmo’s fire, where their food turned into psychoactive substances, causing the entire nation to start hallucinating. The text alludes to these hallucinations when it talks about the splitting of the sea, like the nation seeing the skies crashing down on the Egyptians or seeing visions of all their ancestors. The text also talks about hallucinations when the Jews received the Torah, how they saw the voices and heard the lightning. Eventually the hallucinations got too overwhelming and the priests had to intervene.

In your book, do you talk about using drugs for a spiritual experience?

No, I don’t like when people say that. The drugs don’t create a spiritual experience. Maybe the intentions of why you are using can be spiritual. But pot alienates you from your responsibilities and needs. It’s not like alcohol that makes you feel warm. But then again, marijuana is the least dangerous drug — the worst thing it can do is make you lose track of your priorities.

What are the benefits of marijuana? 

The main advice I suggest are a few things. The best framework for smoking pot is when you are on your own and you have an activity to focus on. It’s also good to be in a small group of people that you really love. It’s also really important to make sure that smoking pot won’t become a problem for you, and that it won’t keep you from noticing what’s really important.

The good effects are that it [can give] a sense of peace of what’s going on around you. It can help you break down daunting issues that might be on your mind and help you process things more easily. Weed is also great for praying, especially if you’re not in a hurry. And of course, the best way to use it, spiritually, is to share it with someone.

Do you think people’s view on pot will change now that efforts to legalize its use are gaining momentum?

Honestly, I don’t know. Historically, Chasidim never cared much about what was legal and not legal. I’m not sure if people will change their view on it. I’d love to watch and see. But the people who are interested in using marijuana in a good way are already doing it. They are already aware of the powers and limitations of these things, so I’m not sure how things will change. But things will change, and the more people know how to take responsibility for being awesome and whole, the more we all can't help but to change for the better eventually. L'chayim!

Recipe for marijuana cholent


Now that the states of Colorado and Washington have legalized the recreational use and commercial sale of marijuana for its residents 21 years or older, there are all sorts of way to get creative in incorporating the new legal substance with Jewish edibles. Here's a recipe for “Happy Cholent” that one seasoned “cook” shared with the JTA — he guarantees it will uplift your Shabbat spirits.

HAPPY CHOLENT

Ingredients:
3 1/2 grams dried marijuana
1/2 cup olice oil
1 onion
3 cloves fresh garlic
3 potatoes
2 sweet potatoes
1 cup barley
1 can baked beans
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon paprika
3 tablespoons Frank's hot sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
1 piece flanken with bones
2 cups water
 
Preparation:
Heat oil over low flame. Grind marijuana by sprinkling with hand or by using grinder. Add to oil, keep on low flame for 20 minutes or until weed turns light brown. Pour content through sifter, throw out weed residue, and pour oil into bottom of crock pot, put on high high setting. Saute onion into oil, add rest of ingredients, cook on low setting overnight. Serves 8-10; side effects will take 20-30 minutes to kick in if served hot.

Jewish pot activist Mason Tvert hits new high with marijuana legalization vote in Colorado


Say what you will about Mason Tvert, the Jewish activist behind the marijuana legalization campaign that passed in Colorado, the man clearly has a sense of humor.

Some years ago, in his efforts to persuade the public that marijuana is far less of a health menace than alcohol, Tvert famously challenged both the mayor of Denver and the heir to the Coors brewing fortune to a sort of intoxication duel: Tvert would smoke pot while the others drank, and they would see who dropped dead first.

Neither man took up Tvert on his offer.

[Related: Recipe for marijuana cholent]

But after Colorado voters on Nov. 6 adopted a newly permissive approach to marijuana following a campaign for which the 30-year-old was the public face and a leading strategist, Tvert's tomfoolery is no longer just a laughing matter. The measure, and a similar one adopted last week in Washington state, is a watershed, permitting residents over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to grow up to six plants for recreational use.

Though somewhat overlooked amid the cacophony of a hard-fought presidential campaign, the new laws in Colorado and Washington are unprecedented.

Colorado's Amendment 64: The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012 is more liberal than even the Netherlands' famously permissive drug laws, which still consider pot possession a misdemeanor. The new law goes well beyond the medical marijuana provisions now on the books in 18 states that permit use of the drug with a doctor's permission, and directly challenges federal authority, which still considers cannabis a Schedule I controlled substance along with heroin and LSD.

“We have forced a major international, let alone national, discussion on this issue,” Tvert, the executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER, told JTA. “And I truly believe the more people talk about this issue amongst each other, the quicker we're going to see broader change in how our country and our state and our world treats marijuana.”

Tvert grew up in a Jewish family in Scottsdale, Ariz., and attended the University of Richmond. His consciousness around marijuana reform was galvanized in college when, for reasons he claims not to know, he was subpoenaed in a multijurisdictional investigation into marijuana use.

“It was really just a shakedown, more or less,” Tvert said. “They start with college kids who probably have a lot to lose. They work their way up from there.”

Tvert likes to compare that to an earlier incident in which, taken unconscious to the hospital to have his stomach pumped after excessive alcohol consumption, he was later released without any questioning from the police — despite being under age. The discrepancy informs one of the pro-legalization campaign's most frequent talking points: They say marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol, which itself was once the target of a costly and failed effort at prohibition, and should be regulated as such.

Critics counter that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug whose legalization would legitimate its use by the young and lead to a range of social ills.

After graduation, Tvert moved to Colorado and co-founded SAFER, a small group that raised just $132,000 in 2010 and shares office space with Colorado's Jewish newspaper, the Intermountain Jewish News. He was instrumental in two earlier legalization efforts in Colorado: the 2005 adoption of the Denver Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative, which permitted the possession of marijuana in Denver, and a 2007 measure that required officials to make marijuana offenses the city's “lowest law enforcement priority.” State law remained unchanged, however, and thousands of Coloradans still were being arrested each year for possession of marijuana.

Tvert persevered, developing a reputation as someone with a knack for media stunts.

In 2008, after a rash of alcohol-related disturbances at Denver's airport, Tvert called a news conference to urge authorities to allow marijuana in the airport's smoking lounge to cut down on traveler stress. Two years earlier he had a billboard erected near a speech by the visiting White House drug czar, John Walters, that quoted Walters saying that marijuana is the safest drug around. Tvert has called the state's governor — an owner of a popular Denver brew pub — a “drug dealer” whose product just happened to be legal. In another Tvert billboard, a woman in a marijuana-colored bikini appeared above the caption “Marijuana: No hangovers, no violence, no carbs!”

“He is just almost a media force of nature,” said Steve Fox, the president of SAFER and the director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, which provided about 90 percent of the funds for the $2.2 million Colorado campaign.

“He's just been brilliant in terms of being on message at all times, developing relationships with the media so they trust him and are willing to come out when he's doing some sort of event. And just the body of communications skills were just excellent for this. That's really where he's excelled.”

As the campaign moved to the state level, advocates buttoned up their image somewhat, attracting some high-profile support in the process. Former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, who is best known for his staunch opposition to immigration, endorsed the initiative. Actress Susan Sarandon recorded a robocall targeting Colorado voters. Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge did a radio spot.

The group also upgraded its message from one that emphasizes marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol to one that emphasizes the potential tax revenues of regulated marijuana, misplaced law enforcement priorities and overcrowded prisons. Amendment 64 specifically requires the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenues be used to support capital funding for Colorado schools and, unlike a similar but failed attempt in 2010 in California, requires the state to design a tight regulatory regime.

The legalization campaign in Colorado no doubt benefited from a sea change in American attitudes toward the drug. A 1969 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans opposed legalization; by last year the number was down to 46 percent, with 50 percent favoring legalization.

It's unclear exactly what happens next for Tvert and the wider marijuana legalization campaign. Washington could justify a crackdown under the doctrine of federal supremacy, but it's still unclear how the administration will react to the new laws in Colorado and Washington. After years of looking the other way at the budding medical marijuana industry in California, the Justice Department last year cracked down on pot shops in the state.

But it may not have the same incentive to repeat that in Colorado, marijuana activists say.

“There's no need for a knee-jerk federal response,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York and one of the country's top marijuana activists. “There is ample time for rational discussion of how state regulatory authorities will accommodate federal concerns.”

Besides, Nadelmann added, “Colorado is an important swing state. Why make enemies unnecessarily?”

Israeli researchers grow marijuana without a high


Israeli researchers say they have developed a cannabis plant that gives no high.

The research firm, called Tikun Olam, operates a marijuana plantation in northern Israel, according to The Jerusalem Post. Medical marijuana has been legal in Israel since 1993, though its recreational use is illegal.

Tikun Olam claims that its new marijuana plant does not contain THC, the constituent of the plant that gives users a high. But the new plant still contains Cannabidiol, which doctors say can aid the treatment of a variety of illnesses.

The Post, citing the Healthy Ministry, reported that cannabis is used to treat 9,000 people in Israel.

“Sometimes the high is not always what they need,” Zack Klein, head of development at Tikun Olam, told the Post. “Sometimes it is an unwanted side effect. For some of the people it’s not even pleasant.”

Opinion: My war on drugs


When medical marijuana became legal in the state of California, I went out and got some. I say this not because I am cool, or like to get stoned — I’m not, and I don’t.

My hard drugs of choice are yerba mate, Famous Grouse and red wine. But within me there lives an inner Ron Paul, a cranky conservative libertarian who wants government just to lay off. That voice has long told me that one of the most foolish, destructive wars we have engaged in as a nation — among many — is the War on Drugs.

So one fine spring morning several years ago, hoping to do my small part for the cause, I headed to the Venice Boardwalk in search of a doctor.

The dispensary I chose was on the second floor of a two-story converted beach house. The waiting room of the clinic was filled with some of the healthiest young people I have ever seen — shirtless blond men with surfer bodies, young women overqualified for the cover of Shape magazine. We all sat with clipboards, filling out our medical histories, indicating our specific ailments.

I checked the box marked “back pain,” because, well, who doesn’t get a little twinge now and then?

The nurse explained that they only took cash and that an ATM (service fee $4) was located in the lobby. She then took me to meet the doctor. His nameplate said Dr. Christian Weinberg. He wore dirty white scrubs, white socks and sandals. He asked me to take a seat at his desk, flipped his laptop so the screen partially faced me, and said, “You gotta see this.”

It was the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” about an African tribe thrown into turmoil by the discovery of a Coke bottle.

“Yes,” I said. “Great movie.”

We both watched for a good five minutes, until Weinberg glanced over my form. He asked me if I’d tried other treatments for my back pain. As he asked, he stared me in the eyes and nodded his head slowly up and down.

Following his cue, I said, “Yes.”

He asked me if anything had worked. He shook his head from side to side.

“No,” I said.

“Have you tried marijuana at some point in the past?,” he asked.

“No,” I started to say but saw him nodding this time, so I said, “N-n-yes?”  

“And it helped?”

Now I caught on.  “Oh, yes,” I said, watching him nod vigorously.  “It saved my life.”

“Excellent!” The doctor signed my form, shook my hand and returned to the movie. The nurse met me in the hallway and escorted me to the dispensary, a pot-choked room with rows and rows of brown glass bottles and a TV screen with prices for medicines with names like “Cherry Bomb” and “Venice Skunk.”   

Since that time, critics of the medical marijuana law have cited its rampant abuse, while defenders have raised incontrovertible evidence that pot really does have significant medical uses and should be legally available to those who need it.

But this debate is really just a sideshow in the ongoing debacle known as the War on Drugs.

I reflected on my own small attempt to join the front lines, legally, when last week I watched the documentary “The House I Live In,” at an April 5 screening at Creative Artists Agency (CAA). The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and its director, Eugene Jarecki, was in town to drum up support for it and for changing drug laws.

You are going to hear about this movie. It is a powerful piece of agitprop, and the case it lays out against the drug war is damning.

As the film reports, President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971. Some 40 years and 44 million arrests later, Jarecki says in his spare and moving narration, we’ve lost more than a trillion dollars, and yet drugs are more available than ever before, sold by younger and younger kids, and the purity level is higher.

America has become the world’s largest jailer, with 2.3 million people behind bars, five times the rate of other developed countries. Between a quarter and a third of those in jail right now are there for drug crimes.

The war’s ultimate cost are the thousands of lives, the vast human potential, destroyed through severe sentencing, civil-asset forfeiture and lack of rehabilitation opportunities. The film indicts every president since Nixon, including Barack Obama, for failing to reverse a failed and unjust set of policies.

It’s not a perfect movie. Jarecki offers us no responsible opposing points of view — a pet peeve of mine. More foolishly, Jarecki, whose family escaped from Nazi Europe, makes the dubious choice to compare America’s history of draconian drug policies to the Holocaust. That ridiculous comparison undoubtedly will pull focus from the serious indictments the film makes. But these weaknesses shouldn’t damn the facts and stories he presents.

Following the CAA screening, several experts, including former law enforcement officials who now are part of the Drug Policy Alliance, spoke in favor of smarter drug laws. Despite Obama, the tide is turning, they say, as Americans of all political stripes see the true costs of this phony war.

“So many officials know this is the right thing to do,” said professor Michael Romano, of Stanford University’s Three Strikes Project.

The gods may be crazy, but must we?

A career in cannabis


In nearly 50 years of researching the legendary powers of cannabis, Raphael Mechoulam, an 80-year-old chemistry professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, says he’s only sampled the stuff himself once. That was in 1964 at his home in Tel Aviv.

“My wife baked a cake and my research partner and I spread THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the oily, active ingredient in cannabis) on the top. We used 10 mg of THC on each slice – too much, I think – and we and a group of friends and colleagues started eating,” says Mechoulam in his office in HU’s pharmacology labs.

“I felt a little high, but nothing more. My wife said she didn’t feel anything at all. One man said he didn’t feel anything, but started having laughing fits for the next hour. One woman had a bad trip – she was a very reserved person and suddenly she felt exposed in front of everyone. One man said he didn’t feel anything, but then didn’t stop talking for three hours, which I suppose was to be expected since he was a member of Knesset.”

Mechoulam and his partner at the time, Yehiel Gaoni, discovered THC. Until then, scientists did not know what it was in marijuana and hashish that made people high. Since that discovery, made while the pair were working at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science, the field of cannabis research has spawned thousands of medical advances, notably in the treatment of cancer patients. Early this month, cannabis researchers came from across the U.S. and Europe to Hebrew University for a scientific conference that was timed, the professor mutters, “so they could congratulate my genes for letting me stay alive until the age of 80.”

His father having been a prominent physician in Bulgaria, Mechoulam’s family dodged the Nazis and then the Communists before immigrating to Israel in 1949. He got his first taste of research – “addictive,” he calls it – in the Israeli army, where a connection, so to speak, was made that would prove invaluable to the start of his career in cannabis.

“You couldn’t buy marijuana or hashish in the store, of course, so the only way I could think of getting it was from the police. I asked the administrative head at Weizmann if he knew anybody in the police department, and he called the head of the investigative branch, who he’d served with in the army. I went to the police headquarters in Tel Aviv and walked out with a five-kilo bloc of hashish, smuggled from Lebanon, that they’d confiscated in an arrest. I carried it back with me on the bus to Rehovot, and I remember some of the passengers near me sniffing the air, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.”

What made him choose cannabis for his life’s work? “By the 1960s, it was the only one of the three major illicit drugs, the others being opium and coca, whose chemical structure remained a mystery. The other two had been ‘solved’ many decades before.”

He applied for a grant from the U.S. National Institute of Health, but was turned down: “They said marijuana wasn’t a problem in America.” That attitude soon changed, and for the following five years or so, “most of the chemical research done on cannabis in the United States made use of the quantity of THC oil that I provide the NIH in my grant proposal.” For the 40-odd years since that initial rejection, the NIH has pitched in on the financing of Mechoulam’s work.

Over the years, cannabis researchers have discovered what dope-smokers who don’t even have a master’s degree know: The drug tends to stimulate your appetite, give you a mild feeling of euphoria, but, if taken in too large quantities for too long, causes anxiety.

Finding that the appetite-enhancement properties of THC can counteract nausea, Mechoulam’s team has developed a compound that stops vomiting in children undergoing chemotherapy.

“I give THC to the cancer department (at Hadassah Medical Center, which is connected to Hebrew University’s medical school),” he says. “Patients undergoing bone marrow transplants receive 5 mg under their tongue. When they get to that stage, they’re really depressed, anxious and in pain. They don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. The dose of THC lifts their mood, they sleep better and all of a sudden life is not so awful.”

In Israel, possession of marijuana or hashish is illegal, but possession of THC is not. When it comes to prescribing cannabis for medical purposes, Israel is one of the world’s more liberal countries, he says.

Asked if he thinks marijuana and hashish should be legalized altogether, Mechoulam begins by saying that these substances are “much less addictive than tobacco, and even if you do become addicted after protracted use at high dosages, breaking the addiction is relatively easy.”

Still, in principle he is not enthusiastic about legalizing cannabis because he doesn’t think it’s healthy for people “to solve their problems with a crutch.” But in the end, he says each society has to decide for itself.

“Marijuana and hashish will not be legalized in Israel because this is a conservative society. But in California, where the crime attendant to dope smuggling from Mexico is so enormous, maybe the population would want to legalize it. In Utah, on the other hand, I’m sure they wouldn’t.”

Mechoulam still gets the raw material for his research from the police locker, only now it’s all done formally with permits from the Health Ministry. The octogenarian known as the “father of cannabis research” doesn’t have to ask twice. “Most of the Health Ministry officials used to be my students.”

Prop. 19 goes up in smoke [VIDEO]


From LATimes.com:

After taking a serious look at legalizing marijuana, Californians voted Tuesday to reject Proposition 19, which would have made the state the first to allow the drug to be sold for recreational use.

The measure drew strong support from voters younger than 25, as the campaign had hoped, but those voters did not turn out in unusually high numbers, according to a state exit poll. The initiative also failed to win over the moderate voters who make up the state’s decisive swing vote.

The San Francisco Bay Area was the only region to tilt toward the measure, but it did so just slightly. In Los Angeles County, where a quarter of the state’s voters live, the initiative lost.

Read more at LATimes.com.

Allison Margolin, L.A.’s dopest attorney


Allison Margolin, 33, is speaking rapidly and interchangeably into two phones. Scribbling notes with her right hand and gesturing with her left, she punctuates points by emphatically tapping her 3-inch-stiletto-heeled boot on the floor.

It’s 10 a.m., and Margolin, dressedin skintight leopard-print pants, a striped T-shirt and oversize glasses, is working from home. The nanny for her 2-year-old daughter is off this week, which means the single mom is on child-care duty.

Two assistants help manage her calls. And as Los Angeles’ self-proclaimed “Dopest Attorney” — arguably one of the most recognizable local faces for criminal defense in marijuana cases — her phone lines are hardly ever quiet.

The Cultivation of a Dope Attorney

Born and raised in Southern California, Margolin comes by her specialization honestly; her father is attorney Bruce Margolin, who has been defending marijuana cases for more than 40 years. The elder Margolin also serves as the director of the Los Angeles chapter of theNational Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and his client list has included such famous drug-dabblers as Timothy Leary.

Growing up in Beverly Hills, Allison Margolin attended Temple Emanuel Academy Day School and Beverly Hills High School before heading East for Columbia University and then Harvard Law School. As an undergraduate, she edited the school newspaper and committed herself to studying. “Since I was 8 years old,” she said, “I’ve been very disciplined.”

After graduating law school and moving back to Los Angeles, Margolin worked with her father briefly before being given a case by a friend of her mother’s — also a criminal defense attorney — and in 2004, she opened a private practice operating out of the Flynt Building.

That same year, Margolin began to market herself. She took out ads in local alternative papers, describing herself as “L.A.’s Dopest Attorney,” some of which featured her wearing dark sunglasses or fishnet stockings.

The ads didn’t necessarily help her drum up business, she said, but they did make her a quasi-celebrity: “They kind of got me well-known … and led to other press.”

Margolin remained in her Wilshire Boulevard office for six years, growing her client list and her reputation. This month, she packed it up and moved a few blocks north, to partner with her father.

Inside the Margolin Operation

The office that Allison and Bruce Margolin share with three other attorneys is in a small building, just south of the Sunset Strip. In the waiting room, a large coffee table is stacked with magazines — including High Times and SPIN, as well as “The Margolin Guide” to state and federal marijuana laws, an instructional booklet written by Bruce Margolin.

Zach Lodmer, 30, walks into the waiting room with a big grin. As one of the firm’s newer associates, he’s adjusting to the transition of working as a criminal defense attorney after having been a prosecutor for two years — a switch that he calls part of “an epiphany.”

Working with the Margolins is, Lodmer said, “a trip.” But Allison’s frenetic personal style belies what he calls an “absolutely amazing” courtroom technique.

“I’ve seen nearly 120 closing arguments [in my career],” he said. “She was the best I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

Of about 12 cases that Margolin has argued in court, only two have resulted in sentences that were worse than what the district attorney originally offered. One was a client charged with identity theft, and the other was a DUI case, in which her client received community service in addition to standard DUI fines and penalties.

Margolin estimates that 60 to 70 percent of her cases are marijuana-related, and this fall, her area of expertise has become particularly topical. As an outspoken advocate of Proposition 19, which would legalize growth and possession of small amounts of marijuana, Margolin — who rattles off historical facts about prohibition and drug law as effortlessly as if she were reading the ingredients on a cereal box — has participated in several debates about the subject and has more scheduled leading up to the Nov. 2 vote.

She has yet to be impressed with the opposition’s arguments.

“This [one] guy said one of the health risks of marijuana is obesity,” she said incredulously, leaning forward and peering over the rim of her glasses, “because people get the munchies.”

Family Comes First

While her professional life has taken off, there’s no question that the central force in Margolin’s life is her family.

Back at her apartment, her 85-year-old grandmother — a Holocaust survivor — has stopped by for a visit. After letting herself in and promptly requesting a change in lighting, she sits down at the kitchen table to play with the baby and watch her granddaughter in action.

“I don’t know how she does it,” she says of Margolin’s deft juggling of work and family.

But the young attorney shows no signs of slowing down and, in fact, seems to thrive on the constant buzz of energy that surrounds her. After fielding a call from a worried client, Margolin hands off the phone before moving on to another task.

Taking the receiver from his boss, her assistant speaks calmly: “99 percent of the time,” he reassures the caller,  “when she says that it will be OK, it is.”

Pico-Robertson’s pot prince


In a way, medical marijuana dispensary owner Matthew Cohen is just another small businessman.

For the past five years, he has been working diligently to grow his shop, The Natural Way of L.A., located on Pico just east of Fairfax. Cohen claims to carry the best-quality product in the world, which he says is very important to his clients, many of whom are fellow Jews with discerning taste.

“Jews know good pot,” Cohen said.

Cohen’s shop is one of nine dispensaries active within a mile and a half of the intersection of Pico and Robertson as of press time this week. Like all dispensaries, Natural Way is a nonprofit, and in that highly competitive market, it hasn’t made money yet. Cohen, 43, says that he will “lose less than ever” in 2010, partly thanks to a new ordinance that put some of his competitors out of business.

Cohen relies on quality to distinguish his shop, but he has tried to cater to his fellow Jews, too. He used to carry kosher marijuana-impregnated “edibles,” and although he says he has “many obviously Jewish patients,” he hasn’t carried that product line in awhile. “It did nothing for us,” Cohen said — although the kosher-for-Passover chocolate-covered matzah made with weed was a hit (no pun intended), as were the marijuana macaroons. “They were labeled pareve,” Cohen said. “I’m not sure which rabbi was in charge of that.”

But he insists quality product is of the foremost importance. “The Dutch have been playing catch-up for the past five or six years,” Cohen says with considerable salesmanship bravado, and thanks to his years of growing experience, Cohen’s pot sells out before the next batch is ready to harvest. He believes that he has helped make Los Angeles into the new Amsterdam: “For 10 days every month, we have the finest pot in L.A.,” Cohen said of the product he grows, “which means we have the finest pot in California, the finest pot in the United States, and I can promise you, the finest pot in the world.”

Cohen is a fast-talker, an engaging storyteller and a user of his own medicine — taking marijuana to treat the chronic pain he has suffered from since 2001. Before opening Natural Way of L.A. in 2005, he held a few different jobs, including running a network of veterinary hospitals, working as a radio sportscaster and as Major League Soccer’s first vice president of sales. He later headed the sales staff for the LA Galaxy soccer team.

Wearing mesh shorts and black high-top Nikes when this reporter came to meet with him, Cohen clearly has left the executive suite behind, although his sales patter is still polished and convincing, especially when he talks about the people who grow his pot. Cohen estimates that he’s set up grow rooms for 120 to 130 people in the past two years.

Marijuana buds ready to be sold. Photo by Dan Kacvinski.

“You can get your first harvest from that room in 90 days,” Cohen said. “We set you up with the Cadillac of systems — lights, an airflow system, the works — and it will grow diamond-quality pot.” Cohen charges $5,500 to set up a 144-square-foot grow room, which can produce three or four harvests of 4 pounds each. Cohen buys back quality bud for $3,000 a pound. Even though grossing $36,000 a year out of a spare bedroom sounds great, Cohen takes care to explain that growing pot is hard — but rewarding — work. “You’re gonna feel really good,” Cohen said, “like a real farmer — even though you’re sitting in Century City.”

Cohen estimates that 45 percent of what he sells is grown locally, either in people’s homes or on site at the dispensary, and he’d like to raise that figure to 80 to 90 percent, especially in light of the Los Angeles City Council ordinance that went into effect June 7. That ordinance, which forced three-quarters of the city’s marijuana dispensaries to close, also outlined regulations for the remaining dispensaries, including a requirement that they grow their product on site. “Every real dispensary should be adding lights as fast as they can,” Cohen said, referring to the high-powered lights used in indoor grow rooms, “because the ordinance makes clear for the very first time that we have to grow 100 percent of our medicine.”

What Cohen calls a “real dispensary” — one that grows its own marijuana — has been the exception rather than the rule. He estimates there are between 50 and 80 “real quality dispensaries” in the city growing their own pot. The rest — at one point, there were as many as 600 across the city, by some estimates — don’t grow any of their own stuff. “None of the Russian-owned dispensaries, the Armenian-owned, the Israeli-owned — they don’t grow any of their own pot,” Cohen said. “They’re buying their pot from vendors.”

The ordinance dictated that every dispensary that opened in Los Angeles after November 2007 — some 437 shops — had to close, and by now many already have shut their doors. At one point, 15 dispensaries were located in the Pico-Robertson area. Six appear to have closed, most of them in the past four months, since the ordinance went into effect. Of the nine that remain, only Natural Way of L.A. has been declared eligible to stay open. Many dispensaries are contesting the ordinance in court.

Cohen chalks up his continued legal status to having good lawyers who could comply with the “dirty little tricks in the ordinance,” and to the fact that Natural Way is, with 3,000 active patients, smaller than many other shops. Cohen stayed small because he has never sold to what he calls “the fastest-growing group of patients,” namely, 18- to 21-year-olds.

One reason Cohen doesn’t sell to patients under 21? “I’m a dad,” he said. (His daughter is 8.)

The City Council ordinance is, in practical terms, far more important for the future of marijuana in Los Angeles than the much more widely discussed Proposition 19, the ballot measure that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. Nevertheless, Cohen, who’s a bit of a pot policy wonk, has a lot to say about the proposition.

“I am going to be happy and disappointed whichever way it goes,” Cohen said. “And what I mean is, if it’s voted in — and right now it’s polling ahead, I’m very surprised — if it passes, there is the huge, huge bounce that the entire marijuana issue gets. Legalization, medicalization, everything about marijuana would get shoved right to the forefront, nationwide.”

Cohen plans to vote against the measure because he believes access to medical marijuana will be restricted rather than improved as a result of Proposition 19. “The right thing for marijuana users, both medical and nonmedical,” Cohen said, “is for this to not pass.”

But, Cohen added, “The right thing to push forward marijuana legal reform is for this to pass, because it’s going to push forward the cause across the country.”

Plenty of Jews on board California’s bid to legalize marijuana


Ed Rosenthal has been working to legalize marijuana in California since he moved to the state in 1972.

Vindication may finally be at hand for the Bronx-born former yippie.

On Nov. 2, California voters will consider Proposition 19, a ballot initiative to legalize the cultivation and possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, and empower local governments to regulate and tax its sale.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, and is legal now in 13 other states and the District of Columbia. But if Prop 19 passes—recent polls show opposition and support running neck and neck—California will become the first state to legalize pot for general use.

Plenty of Jews are throwing their weight behind the initiative.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Rosenthal, 66, a a longtime marijuana activist and the author of books on everything from growing the herb to avoiding jail time.

Rosenthal, a columnist for High Times magazine, is sitting in his office—a small, cluttered room in the Oakland home he shares with wife, Jane Klein. An ashtray on the desk is filled with roaches, and a lifetime achievement award for his drug policy reform work hangs on the back wall.

He makes no secret of his own marijuana use, saying that he smokes it, drinks it, eats it and puts drops of it under his tongue. Rosenthal no longer grows the stuff, however, acting now as a consultant, developer of a new herbicide and an organic pesticide, and executive director of Green Aid, a medical marijuana legal defense and education fund.

“Jews have a special affinity to marijuana,” he mused. “It’s an intellectual drug, not a drug that takes you outside your senses like alcohol or opiates. And a lot of marijuana research comes out of Israel.”

THC, the active hallucinogenic ingredient in cannabis, was first isolated in 1964 by Raphael Mechoulam, now a professor of medicinal chemistry at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Other studies of the drug’s effect have been conducted at Israeli institutions.

“A lot of my parents’ friends in Boca Raton use it,” chimed in Klein,  an active member of Oakland’s Temple Sinai. “My aunt’s husband was diagnosed with liver cancer. I gave [pot] to her and said this isn’t just for him for after the chemo, it’s for you because you’re going through stress. She’s in her 80s, and it gave her back her appetite.”

Even if Prop 19 passes, Rosenthal points out, marijuana is still illegal under federal law, putting those who wish to grow, sell or possess it at risk of federal prosecution. That’s the case in states such as California where marijuana is legal for medical use.

In 2002, federal agents arrested Rosenthal in Oakland even though he had been deputized by the city government to grow marijuana for medical use. He was convicted the next year by a jury that was not told of his connection to the city—an omission that later caused many of the jurors to denounce their own verdicts. A sympathetic judge sentenced him to one day in prison, time served.

In February 2003, a group of supporters from Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, a Silicon Valley Reform synagogue, handed out “Ed Rosenthal—Hero” buttons to delegates at the Reform movement’s West Coast regional biennial.

The campaign was organized by policy analyst Jane Marcus, who headed the congregation’s Medical Marijuana as Mitzvah project, itself launched to support medical marijuana on the grounds of Jewish values of social justice and compassion for the sick.

Jewish institutional support for legalizing marijuana has been spotty and limited to tentative support for its medicinal use.

In 1999, Women for Reform Judaism passed a resolution calling for greater research into its pain-relief properties, and urging the U.S. Congress to permit physicians to prescribe it for critically ill patients. A similar resolution was passed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association, in 2001.

In 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a “resolution on the medicinal use of marijuana” urging federal legislation to permit the drug’s medicinal use under a physician’s supervision, and calling upon Reform congregations to advocate for such legalization at the local, state and federal levels. The Reform movement thus became the first religious body to call for such legalization, followed soon by the Presbyterians.

No other Jewish denomination has come out publicly for or against marijuana’s legalization. No Jewish institutions, including any Reform bodies, support Prop 19.

But individual Jews have been vocal in their support , including mega-philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, who penned an Oct. 20 editorial for the San Jose Mercury News urging its passage on the same grounds that Prohibition was repealed 77 years ago.

“Prohibitions of widely desired products or services don’t work,” he wrote, adding that taxing and regulating marijuana along the lines of alcohol will fund badly needed social services, free up the jails and court system, and bring rationality to an argument that is often anything but.

A state report values California’s marijuana crop at $14 billion annually.

Marcus, who is on the board of Women for Reform Judaism and a member of the URJ’s Commission on Social Action, last week sent a letter in support of Prop 19 to all the Reform congregations in the state.

Noting that she was “speaking as an individual,” she urged Jews to vote yes on Prop 19 in the name of social and racial justice (a preponderance of those arrested for drug use are non-white), compassion for the ill, social and financial stability (taking a multibillion-dollar crop out of the hands of drug cartels and taxing it for the country’s benefit), and general good sense.

“I keep going back to the issue of Jewish values,” Marcus told JTA. “The Just Say No generation didn’t allow us to be honest with our kids about the relative dangers of alcohol versus marijuana. Our country’s drug policy is wrong—addiction should be treated medically, as an illness.”

Ethan Nadelmann is executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit he founded in 1994 that supports legalization and regulation of marijuana, among other drug policy reform issues. He was in California last week stumping at a San Francisco Reform synagogue on behalf of Prop 19, as well as taking part in a conference call with the leadership of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“Is this good for the Jews?” he asked JTA, speaking rhetorically. “It’s good for individual values and social justice, so yes, it’s good for the Jews. The alternative—the war on drugs—is grounded in ignorance, fear, prejudice and profit, values one would like to believe are [anathema] to Jews.”

Jews have always been involved in social justice work, Nadelmann points out, and drug policy reform “is the cutting-edge social justice issue of the day.”

Even so, he adds, whereas Jews constituted the bulk of his staff and supporters a decade ago, more and more African Americans, Latinos and GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) activists now fill those ranks.

“To a certain extent, gays are the new Jews in drug policy reform,” Nadelmann said, noting that those who cut their political teeth in the AIDS battle are now turning to marijuana legalization as another issue affecting their community. “I’m struck by the number of GLBT activists involved in my organization and among my funders.”

Opponents of Prop 19, who include most key elected officials in the state, police associations and seated district attorneys, call it deeply flawed and chaotic. They say that because regulation and taxation is left to local governments, wildly different situations could exist city by city. Drug-free workplaces could no longer be enforced, the opponents say, and while lighting up behind the wheel would be forbidden, lack of enforcement mechanisms in the bill means that drivers who are already high could operate moving vehicles such as school buses or delivery trucks.

Prop 19 foes also fear that greater availability will lead to more users, leading to health problems and a greater number of regular users of the drug.

But even if the initiative does not pass, Nadelmann, Marcus and Rosenthal believe its political impact already has been felt.

“It’s changed the conversation,” said Marcus. “It’s not a question anymore of whether it will pass but when.”

What will Rosenthal do then? He looks up with a sly grin.

“Well, I moved here 38 years ago for Prop 19,” he said. “If it passes, my work here is done. I’ll probably go back to the Lower East Side. Or maybe Williamsburg.”

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