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.’ ”

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.”

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 scientists invent marijuana ‘without the high’


Israeli scientists have cultivated a cannabis plant that doesn’t get people stoned in a development that may help those smoking marijuana for medical purposes, a newspaper said on Wednesday.

According to the Maariv daily, the new cannabis looks, smells and even tastes the same, but does not induce any of the feelings normally associated with smoking marijuana that are brought on by the substance THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol.

“It has the same scent, shape and taste as the original plant—it’s all the same—but the numbing sensation that users are accustomed to has disappeared,” said Tzahi Klein, head of development at Tikkun Olam, the firm that developed the species.

Read more from AFP via Google.

Tikkun Olam Medical Marijuana Greenhouse

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.

Researchers still exploring science behind medical use of marijuana [VIDEO]


Doctors who write recommendations for medical marijuana have developed an unfortunate reputation. Ask any Angeleno how easy it is to get the drug and you’ll likely hear about storefront practitioners who pointedly ask clients about “back pain.” Wink, wink.

It’s a notion, however, that masks the reality that any physician in California — from the highest-paid Beverly Hills doctor on down — could approve the use of the drug for his or her patients under state law.

But the health risks and medicinal properties of marijuana are still being studied, and until the drug makes its way through standard channels of scientific research, writing recommendations for it is a risk many providers don’t want to take.

Marijuana is classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule I substance, meaning that it is defined by federal law as having “no currently accepted medical use” and has a “high potential for abuse.” Other Schedule I substances include heroin and LSD.

It’s a classification with which many medical experts disagree.

The National Institutes of Health and the American College of Physicians believe that marijuana should be further studied as a federally approved drug. And some doctors say the classification doesn’t line up with what is already known.

“I think it doesn’t match the scientific evidence at this time,” said Dr. Igor Grant, a professor and the executive vice chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. “There certainly are good indications that [marijuana] may be useful in some things.”

Grant is also the director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) at the University of California, San Diego, which was established in 2000 to study the potential medical benefits of marijuana as well as the inherent risks. The center conducted some of the first significant clinical trials of marijuana since the early 1990s.

In a report released this year by the center highlighting the results of 10 years of research, experts found hope in the drug’s potential. 

“One of the most promising is the treatment of what’s called painful peripheral neuropathy,” said Grant. “People suffer burning, tingling, painful sensations in their feet and hands and arms related to diseases like AIDS, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.”

While treatments for these symptoms exist, including anti-depressants and anti-epileptic medication, Grant said, they don’t always work, and some patients report negative side effects.

Larry David tackles medical marijuana on an episode of “Curb.” Story continues after the jump.

Marijuana also holds promise in treating painful muscle spasms associated with diseases like multiple sclerosis, he said.

“[Muscle spasms] can affect people’s ability to walk and write and do activities of daily life,” said Grant. “It’s another area where marijuana may be useful.”

But, like any other drug — legal or not — marijuana isn’t without risks.

“Everything we ingest has some risks,” said Dr. Itai Danovitch, who serves as the director of addiction psychiatry services in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “The question is, how do the risks appear for each person?”

Current research suggests that about 8 to 10 percent of people who use the drug will develop an addiction. Danovitch also points to research reporting that the use of marijuana might be a trigger for mental health disorders.

“For people who have underlying risk of things like schizophrenia,” he said, “it appears to unmask that in 1 to 2 percent of the population.”

The acute side effects of marijuana — those that take place at the time the drug is used — are fairly commonly known. They include feeling decreased tension, feeling sedated and possibly hungry. For some users, they include feeling more anxious and even paranoid.

The longer-term effects are less clear, although experts agree that there’s little evidence of a lasting negative impact on the brain. And while marijuana smoke can be irritating to the lungs, it has never been proven to cause lung cancer.

Until the risks and benefits of marijuana are fully understood, though, it’s unlikely that doctors practicing in large medical or academic institutions will be willing to incur the risk of writing a recommendation for patients.

First of all, Danovitch said, marijuana isn’t stocked in most hospitals formularies, which serve as pharmacies to patients.

“Marijuana is definitely not in Cedars’ formulary,” he said.

There are also currently no state or federally regulated growers, aside from some used for federal research, which means that doctors have no way of knowing for certain what they are prescribing. 

Additionally, Grant said, there is no uniform way to administer marijuana.

“Smoking is not a route of administration that’s going to be acceptable for some patients, and not in a lot of settings,” he said. “In hospitals, for instance, you have oxygen tanks, or [in] homes with young children, where you may be worried about secondhand smoke.”

And of course, there’s always the question of the feds.

“It’s not legal under federal law for doctors to prescribe or recommend marijuana,” said Joel Hay, a professor of pharmaceutical economics and policy at the University of Southern California, “so a lot are very leery about doing that — I would argue, the more reputable ones.”

Hay added that doctors practicing out of academic institutions would put their institution at risk by prescribing a federally illegal drug.

“Any doctor that works at an academic medical center like USC or UCLA wouldn’t do this,” he said, “because they would jeopardize all federal funding that institution receives.”

But medical marijuana advocates — activists and researchers alike — believe in the promise of the drug — that, eventually, it has the potential to reach the mainstream as a legitimate way of treating illness and disease.

“From a medical standpoint,” said Grant, “what I would favor is much more serious research on marijuana itself, with much larger clinical trials, and then looking to how the benefits can be delivered ultimately in a different way.”

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.”

Jews’ view of the pot initiative? Mixed


Marijuana is everywhere. Smokers come from every walk of life — from the college student to the cancer patient, from the wealthy older couple to the heroin addict who started out just smoking weed.

Jews care about this issue because Jews, like every other group, can be found among those who use, who dispense, who grow, and also those who disdain this all-pervasive drug. In fact, the halachah of pot is not entirely clear.

The Talmud states that the law of the land is the law. But when it comes to pot, what does that mean? State and federal rules on marijuana are rapidly changing. California has legalized medical use and decriminalized recreational possession of small amounts, but many smokers still rely on the black market. And marijuana remains completely illegal under federal law, although enforcement is inconsistent.  Now, Californians face Proposition 19 on the Nov. 2 ballot, a measure that would allow possession, purchase and taxation of marijuana for adult recreational use.

The Jewish perspective on pot is ambivalent, and observant Jews could plausibly take either side of Proposition 19, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of ethics and Jewish law and rector at the American Jewish University. On one hand, Judaism “is very insistent on responsibility for our actions,” Dorff said, meaning that becoming extremely intoxicated on any substance is forbidden. Any drug that harms the body is also forbidden because “in the Jewish tradition, God owns our bodies, and we have a fiduciary relationship to take care of [ourselves],” Dorff said.

On the other hand, marijuana may be more akin to alcohol — a drug that observant Jews may take in moderation — rather than tobacco, which the Jewish tradition frowns upon as dangerous and highly addictive, Dorff said. Where marijuana falls on that sliding scale is an “empirical question,” he added, and the answer may affect how Jews vote on Proposition 19. Schools, synagogues, drug control experts and law enforcement all have a role to play in providing that answer and determining the boundary between the law and making a responsible individual choice.

Cities Rule

The most distinguishing feature of Proposition 19 is how much authority it delegates to cities. Possession of up to 1 ounce would be legal statewide, but California already has made possession of that amount an infraction on par with a speeding ticket. The real meat of Proposition 19 is that cities would become free to make their own rules on regulating and taxing the commercial sale of marijuana to adults over the age of 21. 

“I think they’re trying to make sure cities can opt out, like with liquor stores [or] medical marijuana dispensaries,” said Kyle Kazan, a former Torrance police officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which supports the measure. “You can zone it away.”

Story continues after the jump.

Opponents, however, see the delegation of authority to cities as a “legal nightmare,” which has become one of the catch phrases of the No on 19 campaign.  “You’re going to have 550 different versions of this law, city by city,” said Rodney Jones, chief of the Fontana Police Department and a Proposition 19 opponent. County sheriffs will have a particular problem, Jones said, because they cross city lines and will be responsible for enforcing small differences in rules on marijuana.

But Kazan said police already handle similar complexity in enforcing various city ordinances on the sale of liquor.  And if the initiative had set a single rule for marijuana sales statewide, supporters worry that “the other side would say, ‘How dare they have a one-size-fits-all solution?’ ” said Hanna Liebman Dershowitz, an attorney and member of the legal committee of Yes on 19.

The Case for Talking to Kids

Even if only a few cities authorize sales, both sides agree that Proposition 19 almost certainly would increase overall use of marijuana in California.  It would be more widely available in stores than it is on the black market now, and it would not be stigmatized as illegal. And unless governments levy huge taxes, it would also likely be much cheaper. The real debate is whether the inevitable increase in use will be more harmful than the status quo.

Drug war veterans have long argued that marijuana physically damages the brain and other organs, but the data on that are inconclusive. “ ‘Reefer Madness’ isn’t true,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama. “The [idea that] everyone who picks up a joint has their life ruined is absurd,” he said. 

But that doesn’t mean marijuana is harmless, Humphreys said. “I don’t deny that some people use marijuana and they’re fine, but if a million people pick up regular marijuana use, probably at least 10 to 20 percent will have significantly adverse experiences in life, maybe do badly in school, maybe get in a car accident.” Legal marijuana would be particularly harmful to high school students who are already on the verge of flunking out, he said.

Nobody knows exactly how much usage will increase, but Humphreys predicts the state could add anywhere from 1 million to 3 million new smokers. Vulnerable groups, such as teens and the poor, are particularly likely to smoke more, he said, because they have less disposable income and will be more attracted by the lower price.

Jason Ablin, head of school at Milken Community High School, has worked with high-school students for 20 years, but he’s not convinced that the status quo of criminalization is an effective deterrent, either.

“I think if kids are going to use drugs and alcohol, they’re going to find ways to acquire them — they do it with alcohol already,” Ablin said. “We have a lot of double standards with marijuana use. The association with marijuana is counter-culture, so that becomes a lot more damning than, say, alcohol,” he said.

For Dershowitz, that association is patently unfair. “As we look inward [following] Yom Kippur and the New Year, we also need to look outward to reflect on our actions as a society,” she said. Dershowitz is particularly troubled by the social and legal stigmas that follow a young person who is busted by law enforcement for marijuana, even now that the penalties have been reduced. “We should abhor a system that erases other people’s chances to turn toward the good simply because they’ve chosen an action that we singled out for disdain.”

Instead of focusing on heavy-handed scare tactics and criminalization, Ablin prefers to engage kids in a broader public policy discussion about the way society treats drugs in general. “Because I work in schools, I have a lot more confidence in kids to critically think through problems,” Ablin said. “You’re not getting anywhere with kids by talking at them. [You’ll do] much better work by listening to them.”