Joint interest: Many Jews backing states 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. 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.

Ed Rosenthal consults a medical marijuana grower.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, and is now legal 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.

And a lot of Jews are throwing their weight behind it.

“This has been a long time coming,” said the Bronx-born Rosenthal, 66, a marijuana activist, former Yippie, columnist for High Times magazine and the author of books on everything from growing the herb to avoiding jail time.

Rosenthal is sitting in his office, a small, cluttered room in the Oakland home he shares with his wife, Jane Klein. An ashtray filled with roaches is on the desk, and a lifetime achievement award for his drug policy reform work hangs on the 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. He 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. “A higher percentage use it than the general population. 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.

“A lot of my parents’ friends in Boca Raton use it,” chimed in Klein, who is 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 is true today in states like California where marijuana is legal for medical use.

In 2002, Rosenthal was arrested by federal agents in Oakland despite the fact that he had been deputized by the city government to grow marijuana for medical use. He was convicted in 2003 by jurors who were not told of his connection to the city, causing many of them to denounce their own verdicts. A sympathetic judge sentenced him to one day in prison, time already served.

That February, a group of supporters from Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills 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  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 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 level. The Reform movement thus became the first religious body to call for such legalization, followed soon by the Presbyterians.

To date no other Jewish denomination has come out publicly for or against marijuana’s legalization.

But individual Jews have been vocal in their support of Prop. 19, 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 and free up the jails and court system.

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 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 said. “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 this past week, stumping at San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Sherith Israel on behalf of Prop. 19, and 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 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 pointed out, and drug policy reform “is the cutting-edge social justice issue of the day.”

Even so, he added, whereas Jews constituted the bulk of his staff and supporters a decade ago, more and more black, Latino and LGBT activists now fill those ranks.

“To a certain extent, gays are the new Jews in drug policy reform,” he 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.

Even if Prop. 19 does not pass, Nadelmann, Marcus and Rosenthal believe its impact has already been felt.

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

And what will Rosenthal do then?

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

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].