“You know, it’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?”
That was President Richard Nixon speaking to his top aide, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, during a recorded White House meeting back in 1971.
Fast-forwarding some four decades, a new nonprofit in Oregon is hoping to prove Nixon right. Le’Or, founded about a year ago with seed funding from a soap manufacturer that uses hemp oil in all of its products, wants to convince American Jews that ending marijuana prohibition belongs on the progressive Jewish communal agenda alongside marriage equality and immigration reform.
“Our goal is to erode the stigma, so that the Jewish community at large can see that supporting marijuana legalization is not just the right thing to do, it’s the Jewish thing to do,” said Roy Kaufmann, who founded Portland-based Le’Or with his wife, Claire.
Mikki Norris, a longtime marijuana activist who lives in El Sobrante, agrees, and she points to her Jewish upbringing for inspiring her dedicated work on drug policy reform. “It was the consciousness around how wrong it is to persecute and scapegoat other people for society’s problems,” said Norris, who published “Shattered Lives: Portraits from America’s Drug War” in 1998 and started a pot-advocacy newspaper in recent years that evolved into an online news service, TheLeafOnline.com.
Jane Klein, publisher of her husband Ed Rosenthal’s books on marijuana — including the classic “Marijuana Grower’s Handbook” and his most recent tome, “Beyond Buds,” which parses oils and edibles — said she can’t believe how long it’s taken for drug law reform to be enacted.
“In 1968 if you had told me that in 2015 we’d still be debating marijuana legalization, I would have said you were crazy,” said Klein, a Piedmont resident. “I’m shocked that it took 50 years, but it’s happening.”
But despite changing attitudes, national Jewish advocacy groups have largely hung back on issues of marijuana legalization and drug policy reform. Those contacted for this story — including Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and the American Jewish Committee, which lobbies Congress on behalf of issues such as immigration reform and marriage equality — declined to comment.
“The lack of engagement on this issue by the organized Jewish community is not because it’s a taboo issue, it’s because we have to set priorities,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “And this issue has not emerged as a priority.”
Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the umbrella body of local community relations councils — agreed with Kahn’s assessment, but added that as the marijuana legalization issue becomes more prevalent, the local councils will have to take a closer look.
“I’m not aware of a lot of communities that have delved deeply at this point,” Felson said. “But it’s likely that over the next few years that will change.”
There has been some action within the Reform movement. In 1999, Women of Reform Judaism passed a resolution in support of medical marijuana that four years later was adopted by the full Union for Reform Judaism.
The resolution was crafted by Jane Marcus, a Menlo Park resident and former co-chair of the WRJ’s resolutions committee, who in 2007 succeeded in passing a more radical WRJ resolution that calls for moving drug policy out of the criminal justice system. “Jews have always been activists, so once you get it, you’ve got to fight for it,” Marcus said.
More recently, the Reform movement’s public affairs arm, the Religious Action Center, has lobbied Congress on behalf of legislation reforming prison sentencing. “The core priority for us has been addressing the sentencing disparity between white Americans and black Americans who are convicted for drug-related offenses,” said Barbara Weinstein, the RAC’s associate director.
America’s war on drugs — launched by Nixon in the 1970s and expanded during the Reagan era — has resulted in an unprecedented number of U.S. citizens, and a disproportionate number of African American males, being sent to prison for drug-related offenses.
Part of the answer, legalization advocates say, is to make marijuana a controlled substance on par with alcohol and cigarettes. In November, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational cannabis use. The four states will tax and regulate sales of the plant, while D.C.’s law, which sanctioned possession only, has yet to take effect following a congressional move to block its implementation.
Meanwhile, medical marijuana is now legal in 23 U.S. states.
Le’Or’s Kaufmann has long been a staunch opponent of America’s decades-long war on drugs. By day the speechwriter for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, the Israeli-born 36-year-old got the idea for Le’Or — “to illuminate” in Hebrew — when he and his wife began to lament the lack of Jewish communal involvement in pushing for marijuana legalization.
“There’s a disconnect between the civil rights issue and the number of Jewish people who, let’s be honest, enjoy the cannabis plant,” said Claire Kaufmann, now a marketing and branding consultant for the burgeoning cannabis industry. “It seems to me to be a contradiction.”
Specifically, it outraged the couple that while white Americans — themselves included — could casually smoke marijuana and get away with it, their black counterparts were far too often arrested and incarcerated for the same low-level crime.
“My real passion is the racial and economic injustices,” said Claire, who blogs about the industry at Rebrandingcannabis.com. “I see marijuana legalization as the gateway issue to a much larger and more uncomfortable issue around prison sentencing reform.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, black Americans use drugs at about the same rates as whites but are three to five times more likely to be arrested as a result.
In 2012, Roy Kaufmann led the first campaign to legalize marijuana in Oregon. He was struck by how few rabbis and Jewish communal leaders jumped on board. After the failed bid, he turned to Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company to back his idea for a Jewish pro-cannabis group.
Dr. Bronner’s has played a leading role in hemp and marijuana legalization efforts since 2001, when David Bronner, the company’s president and grandson of the spiritually minded German Jewish soap maker, launched a successful lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Agency to allow hemp imports into the United States. The San Diego County–based company uses non-psychoactive hemp oil imported from Canada in its all-natural line of soaps.
“The major drug reform groups in the country are already led by Jews, and they’re doing it out of a deep-seated commitment to social justice,” Bronner said. “Furthermore, Israel has been a real pioneer in cannabis.”
Bronner notes that the leaders of many of America’s major drug policy reform groups are Jewish. Among the organizations they helm are the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit that studies the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and marijuana and was founded by Jewish Chicago native Rick Doblin. There’s also the Drug Policy Alliance, whose founder and executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, is the son of a prominent Reconstructionist rabbi and links his policy work to “the broader Jewish tradition of fighting for social justice.”
In 1996, DPA opened its first branch office in San Francisco, with the goal of making the city a model for drug policy. For 12 years, the office was led by San Francisco resident Marsha Rosenbaum, who specializes in drug education for youth and believes that legalization for adults will turn out to be a positive for kids and teenagers.
“Right now people think of marijuana as a controlled substance, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Rosenbaum, who currently serves on Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Blue Ribbon Commission to study statewide legalization in 2016. “With legalization comes regulation and control, and if the medical marijuana dispensaries are any indication, kids are not going to be able to get into them.”
Another Bay Area Jewish cannabis activist is William Panzer, an Oakland-based criminal defense attorney who has become one of the country’s leading marijuana lawyers. Panzer, 59, cut his teeth on high-profile drug law cases in the late 1980s and helped draft Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California. “People should not go to jail for growing a plant that’s incredibly helpful and non-toxic,” said Panzer.
Some Jews, however, are actively working to block marijuana legalization.
In Florida, where a November bid to legalize medical marijuana lost by 3 percentage points, Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson pumped $5 million into the campaign to defeat its passage. The casino mogul’s Israeli-born wife, Miriam, is a drug addiction specialist who runs a rehabilitation center in Las Vegas and believes that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to harder, more dangerous substances — a belief that legalization advocates dispute, citing studies to the contrary.
But if Le’Or has its way, Florida could indeed legalize medical marijuana in the next election cycle – and California might well take the next step and allow recreational use.
“We’re talking about some of the biggest Jewish communities in the U.S.,” Roy Kaufmann said. “I look at 2016 and I think, ‘This is an opportunity to start building something now.’