L.A.’s reigning queen of cannabis is a pot ‘doctor’ to the stars

Stepping into the lobby of the West Hollywood medical marijuana dispensary where Dina Browner serves up buds to movie stars, it’s hard to miss the name Snoop Lion splashed across a hydroponic grow box painted red, green and gold.

The Rastafarian rapper formerly known as Snoop Dogg didn’t have anyone to operate the custom-made indoor marijuana greenhouse that came as a gift from its manufacturer, so he asked his “doctor” to keep it filled with cannabis flowers.

The public face of Alternative Herbal Health Services, Browner — who believes she was the inspiration for the hit Showtime series “Weeds,” about a suburban housewife turned pot dealer — became an unofficial weed doctor a decade ago, when she had a physician write Snoop his first recommendation for medical cannabis. After seeing the hip-hop artist on the news for marijuana-related legal trouble, Browner, 40, decided to do her old friend a favor.

“I called him and said, ‘I’m going to bring a doctor over, and it’s going to change your life,’” she recalled. “He’s like, ‘What, you crazy? A doctor for weed?’ He kept saying ‘Dr. Dina, Dr. Dina,’ and from then on it was my nickname.”

Since 2003, when Browner became the first woman to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Southern California, she has cultivated an A-list clientele that includes actors, hip-hop moguls and politicians (including a few Republicans who publicly oppose pot legalization, she says). More than a decade later, as more states move to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana use, Browner is emerging as a spokeswoman of sorts for the cannabis plant, touting its medicinal value on “Good Day LA,” gracing the cover of Dope Magazine and lighting up “the world’s most expensivest joint” with rapper 2 Chainz in a GQ video that went viral.

Inspiration for her career as a medical marijuana consultant came from an unlikely source: United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth group. At her first USY convention, Browner spent the day organizing Braille books at a charity for the blind. Afterward, she said, she was struck by how good helping others made her feel.

“I was learning about tzedakah and giving back,” she said. “That’s what started me in the industry I’m in now.”

Claire Kaufmann, a Portland, Oregon-based cannabis consultant and co-founder of the Jewish pot legalization group Le’Or, described Browner as a pioneer.

“She’s blazed a new path for the industry overall, particularly for women,” Kaufmann said, “and has done it all with a clear passion for activism and a connection to her Jewish identity.”

Browner, a telegenic brunette with a camera-ready smile, grew up in a conservative Jewish family in the San Fernando Valley. Her first brush with pot came in the early 1990s, when she smoked a blunt with Snoop Dogg in a friend’s backyard.

Her friend’s stepfather happened to be the lawyer defending Snoop in his murder trial (he was acquitted in 1996), and as Browner tells it, her teenage friends warned the rapper to be careful, lest straight-laced Dina rat him out for smoking weed. Snoop called Browner over to his circle, pointed to the blunt and said, according to Browner, “You better hit this.” That way, if he went down, so would she.

When the pair reunited a decade later, Browner — who has consulted to dozens of dispensaries in California, Colorado and Oregon — was still in the closet about her profession (she’d told her boyfriend’s parents she was a “business consultant”). But a couple years ago, her cover was blown when Snoop outed her as his weed doctor in a GQ magazine story.

Browner actually believed the former Death Row Records artist had done as much eight years earlier, when she thought she recognized herself on a giant billboard for “Weeds.” The woman on the billboard turned out to be the actress Mary-Louise Parker, the protagonist of what was then a new series premiering on Showtime.

Browner remains convinced that the hit comedy was more than partly based on her life. Like Nancy Botwin, Parker’s fictional character, Browner lived in an upscale suburban community in Southern California. But unlike Botwin, who worked the black market, Browner has always sought to keep her weed-related activities within the law.

A former fashion sales representative (her father’s family was in the clothing business), Browner stumbled into the cannabis industry by accident. In 2003, a friend who had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer called and said he wanted to kill himself — that’s how sick the chemotherapy was making him. Browner brought her friend a joint to ease his suffering, and his appetite and spirits improved almost immediately, she said.

“His stomach started to growl, and he said, ‘I can’t believe this. It’s the first time I’ve wanted to eat something since starting chemo,’” she recalled. “The next day he called and said he needed more.”

But in the early 2000s, a recommendation for medical marijuana was still hard to come by, even though California had legalized its use in 1996. After some research, Browner eventually found a doctor in the Bay Area who was willing to recommend the cannabis plant.

While her sick friend threw up in the car, she drove him north to San Francisco, where they waited three hours to see that doctor. Then Browner and the pot doctor struck a deal: He would fly to Los Angeles one day a week to see patients if she would run the office.

But the problem wasn’t solved. Short of turning to the black market, patients still had nowhere to purchase their medicine.

“At that point, I realized we had a need for dispensaries,” Browner said. “So I talked to a couple friends who decided to open a dispensary in West Hollywood. Flash forward a decade later, we’re still here and we’re still doing it.”

Lacking long-term plans, many U.S. Jewish cemeteries in neglect

For years, the historic Jewish cemetery was so overgrown with weeds, plagued by toppled headstones, and littered with fallen branches, beer cans and snack-food wrappers that at least a quarter of its graves were impossible to reach.

Even now, after a $140,000 cleanup and improved maintenance procedures, the 35,000-grave cemetery relies on the generosity of a non-Jewish volunteer to repair its tombstones, fences and mausoleums.

The cemetery isn’t in Eastern Europe. It’s the Bayside Cemetery in the Queens borough of New York City, and it’s among countless Jewish cemeteries across the country in varying states of disrepair. Some 40 to 50 of them are in the New York area alone.

There are a plethora of reasons for Jewish cemeteries’ troubles. Many are owned by synagogues, associations or burial societies that no longer exist or are on their last legs. Once a cemetery stops bringing in revenues – i.e. fresh graves — the operating budget dries up unless sufficient money has been set aside for the long term. At Bayside, annual cemetery upkeep costs $90,000.

“Based on current practices, substantially all Jewish cemeteries will be unable to pay for their upkeep within 25 to 50 years after their last grave is sold,” said Gary Katz, president of New York’s Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, a group founded in 2007 and funded largely by UJA-Federation of New York.

[Related: Restoring Mount Zion Cemetery]

While most nonprofit cemeteries are required to put aside a certain percentage of their revenues into endowment funds for the future — ranging from 10 percent to 40 percent, depending on the state — most experts say that amount is not enough to ensure a cemetery will remain financially viable. Furthermore, many Jewish cemeteries are registered as religious organizations and wholly exempt from state regulations. At such cemeteries, plot owners have no way of knowing whether the family plot will be maintained two or three generations on.

Mark Stempa, who according to tax filings earned more than $500,000 in 2012 running two large nonprofit Jewish cemeteries in Queens — Mount Zion and Mount Carmel — and is a paid board member of a third, says his cemeteries are approaching capacity and already relying on investment income to cover operations.

“We conservatively invest, and hopefully that income generated from the trust funds is going to care for the cemetery in the future,” he told JTA. But, Stempa acknowledged, “What’s going to happen in 100 years, I really don’t know.”

By the time a cemetery is full, it should have 20 times its annual operating expenses in an endowment, says Stan Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America and executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts. But few do, he says.

“As the community changes, we’ll have more defaults,” Kaplan said.

In city after city, local Jewish communities – often, as in Bayside’s case, the local federation – are having to step in and put up money to save Jewish burial grounds.

“If the cemetery doesn’t have enough money and its owners abandon it, whose responsibility will it be to take care of it?” asked David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, a national organization that provides training to Jewish burial societies.

A number of communities are trying to ensure that their Jewish cemeteries are cared for in perpetuity by reshaping the way their cemeteries operate. The focus is on collaboration and long-term financial planning.

The Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati was established as a nonprofit in 2004 by pooling the endowments of struggling and financially viable cemeteries and raising $6 million. The organization now runs most of the Cincinnati area’s Jewish cemeteries.

“We were very fortunate to have the Jewish foundation willing to put up a lot of money to make this happen,” said David Hoguet, executive director of the organization. “If money were available in other cities, you’d see more of this happening.”

The Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, created in 1984, now manages 108 cemeteries. It originally took over only insolvent cemeteries, but later absorbed several healthy and operational ones as well. It has raised $10 million to endow its operations — one-fourth of what is needed to cover its annual expenses in perpetuity.

A cemetery association launched in 2004 by the Jewish federation in New Haven, Conn., has taken ownership of eight cemeteries and created a centralized maintenance system that other Jewish cemeteries pay to use.

But cemetery collectives are the exception rather than the rule. Most Jewish communities don’t have any central association to deal with cemeteries, and those that do often have minimal funding or limited purviews. It’s also hard to get operational and financially healthy cemeteries that might be able to subsidize the care of other cemeteries to come under a communal umbrella.

Zinner says Jewish communities need to face the challenges of cemetery maintenance collectively – and ahead of time.

“Don’t wait until there’s a disaster,” he said. “Every Jewish cemetery should have a representative of the Jewish community at large on its board.”

It’s SHOWTIME for this Cantor

At the dawn of Hollywood talkies, “The Jazz Singer” told the story of a young Jewish man’s conflict between a career in the entertainment industry and being a cantor. The sacred and the profane seemed two poles whose opposing magnetic draws tore the protagonist apart. But that was 1927.

Today, more than 90 years later, I only had to drive to Westwood to meet Gary Levine, who has his feet planted comfortably in both worlds. During the week Levine is executive vice president of original programming for Showtime Networks, in charge of such edgy series as “Dexter,” “Weeds,” “The L Word,” and “Californication.” On the weekends, he is the cantor at Ahavat Torah, a small congregation in Brentwood. This is the story of how these two worlds not only coexist but flourish in one soul.

Levine grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. His family was not particularly observant, but Levine attended a conservative synagogue in Flushing, Queens, whose rabbi, Aaron Pearl, engaged him with his provocative and often political oratory — so much so that he continued to attend services regularly beyond his bar mitzvah.

“It was like listening to ‘Meet The Press,'” Levine recalled.

But the congregation itself wanted a rabbi who was comforting, not controversial. So they fired Rabbi Pearl, and, Levine said, “my temple time came to an end.”

Levine sang in chorus in high school, but it was as a student at the State University at Binghamton (now Binghamton University) that he first took voice lessons. David Clatworthy, a New York City Opera baritone, had just joined the faculty, and over the next six years, under his tutelage, Levine, who had never really listened to opera before, became a trained opera singer.

“It just opened up this door for me.” Levine said.

However, upon completing a master’s degree from Binghamton in 1976, Levine went to work not in the world of opera, but of nonprofit theater: “That was the end of my singing.”

Over the next decade, Levine worked as a producer and as the manager of a number of theater companies, including the Roundabout Theater Company in Manhattan and The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, culminating in a five-year run as managing director of the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Nonetheless, by 1985, Levine found the not-for-profit world overly small.

“I needed to move on to the next thing,” Levine said. “I needed to make a midcourse correction.” So, in the immortal words of Horace Greeley, he decided to “Go West.”

Barbara Corday, then president of Columbia Pictures Television, offered Levine an apprenticeship. After a few months, the position of director of current programs became available, and Levine was asked to fill it. From there, he rose to become a vice president, in charge of a mix of shows both in comedy and drama.

“It was a great way to learn the business,” Levine said. “Things just progressed from there.”

Levine is being modest: Over the next decade, he ran drama development at ABC, at a time when the network still had “China Beach” and “Thirtysomething” on the air, and he developed such shows as “Twin Peaks,” “Life Goes On” and “NYPD Blue.” From there, he went on to become president of Witt-Thomas Productions, one of the most successful producers of comedies, a hands-on experience where he was “on the stage every day.” Witt-Thomas led to a position at Warner Brothers Television in charge of all development — both comedy and drama. Among the shows that were created under his tenure, Levine takes special pride in “The West Wing.” Levine’s rise in Hollywood was as well-rounded as it was meteoric.

Then Levine’s boss at Warner Brothers was fired. This was not good for Levine. And given that this coincided with the first internet boom, in the late 1990s, Levine moved to Icebox, an internet start-up, founded by TV writers Howard Gordon, Rob LaZebnik and John Collier, that promised to be the next generation of entertainment studios.

Levine found himself working in a cool warehouse space in Culver City, meeting “with unbelievable creators,” such as Larry David and “almost every executive producer of ‘The Simpsons.'” However, he admits, “There was no business plan to support it.” (Just to show how crazy Icebox was, they once bought a pitch from me and my much more talented partner on the project, Sandy Frank, which is how I first met Levine.)

Whether my pitch was the moment that Levine realized that the Internet bubble was going to burst was a question I did not raise in our recent interview, but shortly thereafter Levine leapt at an opportunity to move to Showtime.

Levine’s mandate was to put Showtime on the map with series, while at the same time also overseeing their movies and miniseries. That was seven and a half years ago, and “slowly but surely,” he said, they’ve been doing just that.

But there’s a whole other Gary Levine story, too. Take a step back, to 1994, when Levine was asked to coffee to meet a young rabbi, Mordecai Finley, who was leaving Stephen S. Wise Temple to start his own congregation, Ohr HaTorah.

“I really liked what he had to say,” Levine recalled.

Soon enough, Levine found himself attending services for the first time since high school, while his children attended religious school. “Mordecai does ignite people,” he said.

One day, Meirav Finley, the rabbi’s wife and partner in the administration of Ohr HaTorah congregation, announced that the shul’s cantorial soloist was leaving. Rather than replace her, the plan was to invite congregants to help lead services.

“I was not happy about it,” Levine said.

Eventually, Meirav approached Levine saying, “I need you to volunteer.”

Levine was reluctant. In what he described as “typical Finley fashion,” she said, “That’s why you have to do it. We don’t want someone who wants to perform.” Levine agreed on two conditions: One, that he could in fact learn how to do it; and two, that doing so should not rob him of the enjoyment of attending services.

The following week, Meirav announced to the congregation that Levine would be leading High Holy Day services — just five months away. Levine wasn’t sure he could do it, but he and Meirav worked together.

“She was an excellent teacher,” he said.

Not only was he able to chant the services, but he said that doing so became “if anything, a deeper experience.”

Using his voice to help carry a congregation along was “enormously satisfying.” In some mysterious way, Levine’s early voice training and temple attendance, all of which he had forsaken, had come together for some greater purpose.

For the next eight or nine years, Levine served as one of the congregation’s volunteer cantors. He assisted Rabbi Finley at services, at weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. Once, when Finley was asked to officiate at a Wexner Heritage Foundation event and was allowed to invite any cantor in the country to assist him, he chose Levine.

However, at a certain point, Levine and Finley reached what Levine refers to as “creative differences” — a euphemism from his showbiz world. Levine stopped officiating and returned to being a congregant. Yet that, in time, proved too frustrating an experience.

“We drifted away,” Levine said.

Levine was without a congregation. On occasion, he freelanced, as when a congregation in Montecito whose cantor was on bed rest called him to fill in for the High Holy Days. But he thought his cantorial days were behind him.

Then, in 2002, he heard from a group who wanted to start their own minyan, several of who were former members of Ohr HaTorah. Levine declined, not wanting to be part of a breakaway group.

However, as the group grew and formalized themselves into a congregation of their own — Ahavat Torah — and were joined by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Levine accepted the invitation to come in and chant. That was about five years ago, and Levine has been their cantorial soloist ever since.

Levine describes Ahavat Torah as a congregation for the 40-plus crowd (age, not suit size), whose kids are out of religious school — people not forced to find a congregation but seeking one where the prayers are vociferous, and with intense, interesting Torah discussions. They have fashioned their own siddur (prayer book) with the prayers mostly in Hebrew; it’s egalitarian; and people dress from casual to traditional. The drash (or sermon) is given by the rabbi once a month, while others come from guest rabbis or congregants. Levine describes it as “very cordial, very inviting, small and warm.”

Let me say this loud and clear: Levine invites you all to come by some time and try it.

“People who experience it, find it very seductive,” he said.

Levine told me that his two lives overlap very occasionally. One time, two writers he had worked with happened to attend services and couldn’t get over how much the cantor “looked just like Gary Levine,” never imagining the two could be one and the same person.

On another occasion, Levine was in the middle of a Showtime meeting when his assistant interrupted saying “Dustin Hoffman’s on the line.”

Hoffman was not calling to pitch Showtime; instead, he was standing on a soundstage and needed Levine to intone the Kaddish for a movie he was mixing (Levine has officiated at Hoffman family events).

Levine has also contributed cantorial content to “The L Word,” (not only the show, but also the soundtrack CD), and even appeared onscreen in “Sleeper Cell,” in a scene where a meeting took place at Sinai Temple.

Which brings me back to my original point. What I find so interesting is that Levine finds no conflict between his two professional commitments. Never has he been called to choose between cantorial and professional duty. (A friend of mine once had a job interview with Rupert Murdoch scheduled for Yom Kippur. Ask yourself: Was it a test? Did Murdoch know? What would you do?) Never has the content of his shows posed a conflict, and never has the content of his religious duties colored his development duties. Peaceful coexistence in a two-state solution, if you will.

Although the leap from singing “Sim Shalom” (“Song of Peace”) to giving notes on a script about serial killer Dexter or “Californication’s” debauched writer Hank Moody seems a great one, Levine argues that characters such as Dexter, Hank or even the pot-selling mom on “Weeds” are multidimensional characters “who are tested — very tested” (and in that respect they are not unlike the very flawed, very human characters one encounters in the Torah).

“I’ll stand by the humanity of the work,” Levine said.

What Levine accomplishes weekly, Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” could not. At a time when we all, regardless of race, creed, or political party, hope for change, let’s take this as one reminder of how far we’ve come. Or of what one very talented individual, Gary Levine, can accomplish that we can’t. Take your pick.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.