Navigate to Community section

A New Leaf

Whether they care about social justice or spirituality or health concerns, Jewish groups are getting involved with cannabis

Madison Margolin
December 12, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

To Jews in the cannabis space, it’s an inside joke just how many of us are involved in weed: as activists, professionals, medical marijuana patients, or simply as stoners. But funny as it is, it’s not surprising. To outsiders, the link between Judaism and cannabis may seem arbitrary, but both the Jewish religion and culture substantiate what many of us see as a natural connection.

What’s new is the worldwide scope of the phenomenon. Israel has been leading the world in medical marijuana research since scientist Raphael Mechoulam discovered THC in 1964, but North American Jews at last are catching up, now that weed is legal in Canada and nine U.S. states (plus Washington, D.C.). Above-ground, loud and proud, more and more members of the Jewish community are embracing the cannabis cause.

From professional networking to Pot Shabbats, there are a number of ways Jews have become involved in cannabis—beyond simply consuming it, that is. In Boca Raton, Florida, there’s the International Jewish Cannabis Association, an educational nonprofit; in Portland, Oregon, Roy and Claire Kaufmann host the annual cannabis Seder, with a social justice-themed Haggada; in Philadelphia, Jewish Sauce Boss hosts educational events around medical cannabis; in Jerusalem, writer Yoseph Needelman, author of memoir Cannabis Chassidus, looks to a religious framework for guidance on getting high; and in Los Angeles, Cat Goldberg, CEO of Weed Bar LA, has organized a number of 420-friendly Havdala, Shabbat, and Hanukkah parties, equipped with live entertainment, informational panels, and infused treats. Also in L.A., edible providers like Mitzvah Herbal cater to observant Jews who are looking for medicated goodies using kosher ingredients or are seeking an alternative to smoking the herb on Shabbat.

And for secular and observant Jews, alike, menorah-shaped bongs and online communities like the Jewish Stoners Union, Jews for Sensible Drug Policy, and 420-Friendly Jewish Singles cater specifically to every flavor of high-flying Jew. The reasons for the Jewish cannabis affinity are varied, ranging from a simple appreciation for getting high to a foundation in tikkun olam.

“I grew up Jewish, but didn’t really get into it until I discovered cannabis,” said Goldberg, of Weed Bar LA, an event production company specializing in customized cannabis experiences. “Smoking before Shabbat became my ritual when I lived in New York for college. Cannabis allowed me to rest fully and quiet the critical voice in my head.” While so many social events are centered around alcohol, Goldberg says she wanted to foster a more relaxing, community environment.

Some joke that Jews smoke weed to cure our intrinsic anxiety. But while there may be some validity to that idea—Jews after all, do carry epigenetic trauma from generations of persecution, and research shows that cannabis effectively treats PTSD—the Jewish connection to cannabis runs deeper than shpilkes.

According to Needelman, the “persecution amidst redemptive activity” is present in both Jewish history and in the history of cannabis prohibition and consumption. Similarly, “the imperative to reflect, process, laugh at and with, and ultimately digest through making peace” is Jewish, and weed-ish. Like Torah, a “reed of wisdom,” cannabis offers a lens through which to see and experience life—and to draw connections to morality and history.

“From early lessons of my childhood growing up not long after WWII in a pro-civil rights family—as a result of our Jewish experience, I feel—we learned that scapegoating and persecution of minorities was wrong,” said Mikki Norris, who directs the Cannabis Consumers Campaign and is co-author of Shattered Lives: Portraits from America’s Drug War. “When I got involved with cannabis, I saw how many people were in prison [for marijuana], and to me, it started looking like pre-Nazi Germany, where they were identifying certain groups and blaming them for society’s problems. The same thing was happening with drug offenders.”

In the U.S., blacks are almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, despite comparable rates of use. Since Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs in 1971, nonviolent drug offenders, disproportionately people of color, have served the role of scapegoat. As Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman put it, years later, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

As for Nixon himself, he was among the first people to publicly call out the Jewish cannabis connection: “You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana are Jewish,” he told his chief of staff Bob Haldeman in May 1971. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them?”

In 2016, in Boca Raton, Ben Temer established the International Jewish Cannabis Association, an educational nonprofit to address the lack of information about cannabis within the Jewish community. “When Florida legalized medical marijuana, we saw a huge disconnect,” Temer said. “Especially in the Jewish community, those closest to us didn’t know that there were dispensaries open, didn’t know what the qualifying conditions [to get a medical marijuana recommendation] were, didn’t know there were [cannabis] companies you could invest in and buy their stock.” As Temer immersed himself in the cannabis space, he noticed many players were Jewish. “There was no unifying Jewish kind of voice or any group representing the Jewish interest in the cannabis industry,” he said, describing his motivation to found the IJCA.

Although the IJCA is still mostly a one-man show with a modest budget this year of $15,000 in donations, Temer projects a $1 million budget for 2019, and says he has plans to expand out to three chapters across Florida, California, and New York, and work up to a staff of three. Having built out the IJCA’s rabbinical, medical, and legal advisory boards, Temer aims to put on well-rounded events across the country. To address local need and meet his audience where they’re at, the IJCA hosts panels at synagogues or Jewish community centers.

In Midwood, a heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn, for example, the IJCA held an event that addressed topics like mentions of cannabis in Jewish text, an introduction to the endocannabinoid system, medical marijuana as holistic medicine, the legal accessibility of cannabis in New York, and the opioid epidemic.

“One of the biggest problems is death from opioids, and a lot of communities understand that this is at our doorsteps,” Temer said. “Sadly, they’re not prepared to talk about cannabis. It’s been vilified for 50, 60 years at this point, so we’re really creating a way to communicate to the people who need it most, who suffer from opioid addiction and pill addiction in general.” Cannabis has been called “our best hope to fight the opioid epidemic,” as states that have legalized medical marijuana have seen a 25-percent reduction in opioid overdose deaths.

For an October 2018 event in Florida, the IJCA partnered with Tikun Olam, Israel’s largest medical marijuana provider, to educate the community about the latest scientific advancements in cannabis medicine and some of the hurdles Israeli, American, and international scientists have had to overcome in pursuing research. More than 200 people were in attendance.

“As a doctor, I think [cannabis] is the future of medicine, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that,” said Yosef Glassman, a rabbi and physician from New Jersey. “And in terms of Judaism, per se, it’s certainly something that was commonly used in ancient Israel and had been a part of our traditional for many years. I feel that cannabis can be part of the renaissance of Judaism.”

Deep into Talmudic literature are instructions for how to grow cannabis, where you can grow it, and other uses for it, such as in clothing or candle wick, Glassman explained. “It doesn’t absorb spiritual impurity, so it can be mixed with any fiber,” he said. “It’s most prominent in clothing, and is considered to have a form of spiritual protection, so it was used very commonly in burying the dead in Israel. It’s believed that when there’s resurrection of the dead in the future, people will be wearing cannabis clothing.” It’s also believed that cannabis was a key ingredient in ritual incense ceremonies, which Bible scholar Chris Bennett has written about extensively, and, according to some Rastafarian belief, was found to have been growing on the grave of King Solomon.

“It’s important not to glamorize it,” said Glassman. “This is part of our religion. Just like we don’t glamorize alcohol, which is a vital part of our ceremony, as well. So there’s a fine line.” As for questions around kashrut, he explains that any medicine is kosher, so long as it saves a life (and doesn’t have any bugs nestled within the bud). “Spirituality and medicine are not something you can separate. You have to know about spirituality in order to treat people medically, to get to the spiritual sources of their malady,” he said. “And [cannabis] not only affects the body, but the spirituality of a person … It’s certainly not a replacement for the daily work in Judaism, per se, but it can enhance it.”

The spiritual potential of cannabis is relevant to both the religious and secular. For Norris, a culturally Jewish agnostic, cannabis offers a sense of spirituality she found missing in organized religion. “Taking it sacramentally has compelled me to do good in the world, to pursue social justice, take care of the environment, and things like that,” she said. “I feel like cannabis has its own spirit that channels through you and compelled me to be an activist. My Jewish experience made me feel compelled to do something to stand up against injustice and so does cannabis.”

Craig Frank, CEO of Florida-based cannabis company Kaya Holdings, says being Jewish wasn’t the impetus for getting involved in the industry, but that once in it, he found a way to align his career path with his Jewish values, within his comfort zone—“and my comfort zone is very Jewish,” he said.

In the cannabis world, the Jews keep coming. Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance is a member of the tribe, as is Jack Herer, hemp activist and namesake of a popular strain of weed. “My first reaction was surprise,” Frank said, of meeting so many other Jews, “but my second reaction was, of course. It really combines two things embedded in us: entrepreneurship and social justice.”

As for breaking the stigma, the reefer-madness mentality, found in more conservative communities, Frank suggests education, plus some cannabis rebranding: “We don’t want to deny the Jewish community the opportunity to address ailments and opioid addiction just because we don’t want to talk about it—that’s silly,” he said. By expanding beyond Cheech & Chong stereotypes, educators can soften the resistance and explain the benefits, Frank added. “The more, for lack of a better term, nice Jewish boys [and girls] get involved in this, the more the stigma goes away.”

Madison Margolin is a journalist living in New York. She specializes in writing about Jewish culture and drug policy.