Going to Pot

The Jews are experts in finding ways to create and nurture markets that never existed — and medical marijuana is no exception.

“Whenever the people are for gay marriage or medical marijuana or assisted suicide, suddenly the ‘will of the people’ goes out the window.” -Bill Maher

Like the green shoots of spring dotting once barren trees, shiny new businesses are opening up among the vacant offices and empty stores around this economically depressed state. Some of the bright lights and gleaming signs advertise, “hydroponics equipment — selling everything for the soilless garden”; and it’s not because hothouse tomatoes are suddenly the rage.

Ever since April 2009, when the voter-approved Medical Marihuana Law (that’s how the state spells marijuana) went into effect, these high-wattage stores have been springing up all around Michigan like — well, like weeds. And enthusiastic entrepreneurs of all stripes have seized upon an opportunity to make their living supporting marijuana culture — beyond just the growers and consumers.

Now, like anything that affects wide-ranging aspects of life — business, health, law, as well as cultural and religious norms — the inevitable question readers of a periodical such as this ask is: Is it good for the Jews?

How’s this for an answer? A number of the entrepreneurs in the medical marijuana business belong to the Jewish community. Full-fledged, card-carrying men and women of the Tribe grow and distribute marijuana, write prescriptions to certify patients or license providers, give legal advice to users and growers — and even prosecute some of the aforementioned players.

Why look surprised? Jews and pot go way back, certainly further back than Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan. In fact, there’s evidence that suggests a link between the chosen people and their weed of choice extending all the way back to the Bible. (Not only through Mel Brooks’ creative interpretation of history, either.)

Alan Rosenthal, who owns the well-established, family-owned garden supply business Harry’s Garden Center in Warren, knows something about the art of interior agriculture. Actually, Rosenthal’s family was 20 years ahead of its time — from an indoor growing perspective — branching into hydroponics sales in the early 1990s.

The family opened Harry’s in 1951. The way Rosenthal tells it, two decades back, on a family trip to Florida’s Epcot Center (the “Center” was dropped for brevity years later), a family member got energized by a futuristic exhibit demonstrating techniques in farming without soil; shortly thereafter, Harry’s added hydroponics to its repertoire of advice and equipment.

At first, Rosenthal says, hydroponics amounted to a tiny part of the business. Each year, though, the store would see a small but noteworthy increase in the number of customers asking about indoor cultivation.

However, in the past decade, Rosenthal says, emergent baby boomers, downsized into condominiums, have visited Harry’s in more frequent numbers, missing their backyard gardens and asking how to grow flowers and vegetables indoors.

The steady business in hydroponics sales led the Rosenthals to conclude — pun alert — there was a growing market for the materiel, which led to the opening of a second store in Farmington Hills called HydroHarry’s.

And then came April 2009 — when Medical Marihuana went into effect — and a valve opened, pouring a new flow of customers into the store.

Rosenthal says that a portion of these new customers come with licenses as caregivers, permitted by state law to provide marijuana to patients. Rosenthal expresses support, even admiration, for these caregivers. In a tough economy, they have been able to earn a living by helping their neighbors.

“There are,” he says, “hundreds, probably thousands, of different varieties of marijuana. Doctors,” he adds, “prescribe the drug without knowing which varieties have proven effective for each specific condition.”

Demand has been steady enough that Rosenthal opened a second HydroHarry’s in Walled Lake earlier this spring.

Point of Fact: Legitimate research into the active chemicals contained within the Cannibis Sativa plant does not generally happen in the United States, where political leaders actively discourage the pursuit. Scientists who want to study marijuana have had more success in Israel.

Ever since Yehiel Gaoni and Raphael Mechoulam first isolated the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, at the Weizmann Institute in 1964, Israel has remained in the forefront of marijuana research.

Matt Abel, a Detroit attorney specializing in marijuana law (who knew that subspecialty even existed?), had his interest piqued after meeting Dr. Mechoulam at a conference. Abel offered to buy the researcher a drink, but Mechoulam declined, explaining that he doesn’t drink; so Abel bought him a Diet Coke.

As a young lawyer in Detroit, Abel, who grew up in the world of academia — where his father ascended to the presidency of Central Michigan University, took part in all sorts of cases, from mortgages to murders.

As time went on, he says, criminal defense cases predominated. He was in solo practice, defending people charged with drug offenses. Then came the Michigan Medical Marihuana Law.

Suddenly, Abel needed to hire several associates to keep up with increased business. His firm, now called Cannabis Council Here to Help, still maintains its criminal drug defense practice, but at least as many clients hire the firm for its services as a business consultant — helping growers, suppliers, caregivers and patients learn how to navigate the Medical Marihuana Law.

The law is a difficult one to pilot, which kept one medical professional out of the prescription-writing business.

When the law first went into effect, one Southfield dentist, who requested his name be withheld given the sensitive nature of the subject, felt the temptation to develop an easier way to make his living.

“I realized I could charge $100 or $150 for each prescription, and it just doesn’t take that long to write a prescription,” he said. “A few hours of work could earn me everything I need for the week. So I made an appointment and asked my lawyer about it. He just laughed. He asked me if I thought I was the first person to think of this. Plenty of other doctors have already made the move.

“He told me I would have lots of competition. Besides, the lawyer said, the legal situation is still not clear. You want to keep away from this.”

While the Southfield dentist held back, plenty of other medical practitioners didn’t employ such self-restraint. As reported by the Detroit Free Press on April 21, 2011, the Michigan Department of Community Health listed 2,197 doctors in the state who have written at least one prescription for marijuana.

Many of these doctors wrote just a few prescriptions. A few doctors made the prescriptions a major part of their practice. Of the 64,000 certified medical marijuana users in Michigan, 71 percent received their certification from only 55 doctors; those doctors certified an average of 818 patients each. Cha-ching.

Meanwhile, the legal situation still remains unclear. Michigan is one of 15 states with laws permitting and regulating marijuana use for various purposes, but the federal government still lists marijuana as a “Schedule I” substance, a dangerous drug with no legitimate, useful purpose. It prohibits growing, processing, selling, purchasing and owning marijuana.

In the past few years, the discrepancy between state and federal law, as well as between state law and local ordinances, has resulted in different levels of government working at cross-purposes.

Since the Medical Marihuana Law went into effect, several Michigan municipalities, including Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Livonia, have passed ordinances banning medical marijuana, in apparent contradiction with state law.

When law enforcement officers ignore the Medical Marihuana Law, or when local municipalities pass ordinances designed to exempt their communities from the law, Dan Korobkin, a young staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, swings into action.

He initiated a suit against Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Livonia last year on behalf of a medical marijuana patient, Linda Lott, who has suffered from multiple sclerosis for 28 years.

Now blind and using a wheelchair, Lott wants to make sure she can continue using the drug to control her back spasms, without fear of arrest. The case, filed in December 2010, is currently pending decision by the court.

Another example: James Simpson uses marijuana to control pain from his esophageal cancer, which has spread to his liver. In the fall of 2009, Detroit police officers observed Simpson buying a single marijuana cigarette and took his car into possession, applying a “forfeiture” law that allows law enforcement to take away property they believe was purchased with the proceeds of criminal activity. Simpson was never personally charged.

A letter from the ACLU legal department reminded the prosecutor of the Medical Marihuana Law; the case People vs. 1995 Honda Civic was dropped, and Simpson got his car back.

How did Korobkin get involved in the legal defense of marijuana users? The son of a physician, he grew up in Ann Arbor, which probably helped (the city hosts its annual Hash Bash each April with the goal of reforming federal, state and local marijuana laws).

As a college student, Korobkin did summer internships with the ACLU, and he says, developed a deep admiration for the organization. When, after graduating from Yale Law School, he had the opportunity in 2008 to both return to Michigan and work at the ACLU, he says he didn’t hesitate.

Whether real or imagined, some people — including former president Richard Nixon — believe that Jews are at the forefront of support for the legalization of marijuana.

As reported in Newsweek, the following quote attributed to Nixon from May 1971 has him asking his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman: “That’s a funny thing; every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them?”

Of course, opposition to the “war on drugs” comes from some Jews, but not “the Jews.” Many Jews support the war on drugs while others take a balanced, cautious view of the conflict and are noncombatants. But it would be hard to deny that at least some Jews have leadership roles in the quest to legalize marijuana.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalization, spoke at a San Francisco Reform synagogue last fall, just before the electorate was set to vote on a state ballot proposition that would legalize marijuana, the Nation reported.

“Is this good for the Jews?” he asked — and answered. “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.”

The ACLU’s Dan Korobkin speculates about why: “I think many Jews have civil libertarian views because we think government should not interfere with people’s private decisions. Maybe it goes back to the long struggle to practice religion without government interference. We similarly do not think the government should interfere with medical decisions made by a patient and doctor,” he says, noting a parallel in which Jewish tradition endorses exceptions to its own rules for medical needs.

In a June 2006 scholarly article, Rabbi Wallace Greene a New Jersey clergyman awarded the 2010 Jewish Educator of the Diaspora Award by the World Council for Torah Education/Lifshitz College in Jerusalem, applied the argument to medical marijuana, writing that if a product, even a controversial one, might help some patients, they should be allowed to use it.

The hard part is balancing the needs of some patients with the danger to the rest of society, according to Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, the founder and national director of Kids Kicking Cancer, who has years of experience working with young patients in extreme pain.

Goldberg, rabbi emeritus at the Young Israel of Southfield and assistant professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University, offers a carefully balanced view:
“I have seen the benefits of marijuana as an analgesic for people in extraordinary pain. I have also seen its widespread misuse and the utter destruction that psychological addiction can cause in an especially nefarious way since people assume marijuana is rather harmless. One has to be concerned that the deficit to society does not overweigh the benefit to individuals in specific circumstances. How to police that concern seems difficult, obviously.”

Though Jews have a reputation for valuing sobriety, some researchers seek sources in the Jewish tradition for a relatively permissive attitude toward marijuana.
Yoseph Leib, author of Cannibis Chasidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs (a Memoir), offers a source for “the earliest possible biblical drug policy.” Leib writes that God, before forbidding Adam fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, makes the policy clear: “I give unto you all the seed-bearing herbs; they shall be for your consumption” (Genesis 1:29).
The late scholar Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan thought “cannabis” might come from the Hebrew name for a spice mentioned in the Bible (Exodus 30:23) as an ingredient in anointing oil: “kaneh bosem.”

It sounds something like ”cannabis,” and literally means “spice reed” or “aromatic reed” or “medicine reed,” all of those reasonable descriptions of marijuana. Leib further points out that the Bible calls the ingredients in this anointing oil “head spices.”

It seems like the scuttlebutt of the marijuana issue is in the pipe of the beholder. There are those who are vehemently against marijuana for any purpose (including Uncle Sam) and those who advocate its full legalization — regardless of intention.

Whether or not growing, selling and/or using marijuana is a moral issue can be answered 50 different ways, by 25 different authorities both secular and religious. But without debating the medicinal benefits of cannabis, it’s pretty clear that the Michigan Medical Marihuana Law, and the new opportunities it has created in the worlds of business, health and the law, has been good for the Jews.  RT

Louis Finkelman, a Southfield-based writer and researcher, teaches at Lawrence Technological University.  He earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from City University of New York, and ordination from the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University.

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