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.”

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.

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

Montel Williams in Israel looking at medical marijuana practices


Former talk show host Montel Williams praised Israel’s stance on dispensing medical marijuana and is visiting the country to learn more about its medicinal cannabis policies.

Williams, an outspoken advocate of legally sanctioned marijuana use to control pain from his multiple sclerosis, will meet in Israel with legislators, scientists and physicians. Diagnosed in 1999 with MS, Williams told reporters that he takes marijuana on a daily basis to ease pain.

He formerly hosted the popular long-running talk show “The Montel Williams Show.”

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.

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.”

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.”