Did you know that the prince of pie makers is a New York Jew named Ron Silver? If not, you probably didn’t know that Silver is also a longtime pothead who is making waves in the world of cannabis, which recently became legal for adults in the Empire State. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has had more than his share of troubles lately, signed the popular legislation at the end of March, in time for April 20, or “420,” the day when potheads celebrate their drug of choice, which often triggers a craving for sweets. Pie and pot and pot and pie are made for one another, a fact stoners have long known, and a market Silver is cornering.
New Mexico has also just legalized cannabis, which is good news for Silver and his business partner Kim Sanchez Rael, who hails from the Land of Enchantment and boasts degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Rael and Silver own and operate Azuca, a company that infuses cannabis into edible treats, which are more popular these days than joints and bongs. Eat it and smoke doesn’t get in your eyes or your lungs. Rael provides the savory in the partnership. Silver provides the sweet.
Rael told me, “I spent time in Silicon Valley and wanted to get out of tech and into the wellness sector. I was in a focus group where we tasted cannabis-infused sugar. I was a skeptic, but I became an instant convert.” Rael adds corporate savvy and an instinct for knowing how to navigate the political world. Silver adds an understanding of cannabis biology and chemistry.
After seven years of experimenting in his mini-lab in Manhattan, Silver figured out how to isolate cannabinoid molecules and produce edibles that make it easy for the body to absorb tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). These edibles are also fast-acting and go down easily, just like Silver’s legendary pies from Bubby’s, the Tribeca restaurant he founded over 30 years ago with just $10,000 in cash. Bubby’s has grown from a beloved Hudson Street pie shop to an international culinary landmark, with six locations in Tokyo, where locals and tourists can enjoy American comfort food.
The menu of the mothership Bubby’s in Manhattan offers apple pie, cherry pie, and something called banoffee, made with bananas, dulce de leche, espresso, whipped cream, and a graham cracker crust. Silver’s popular 2007 book, Bubby’s Homemade Pies, offers dozens of recipes for all kinds of desserts, including pecan pie, gooseberry crumble pie, plus 17 different kinds of ice cream.
In the introduction to the book, for which he conducted research at the New York Public Library, Silver writes, “My hope is that this book will soon be punctuated with fruit stains, the pages slightly tattered and that you can hand it down in that shape to your nieces, nephews, great-grandchildren.”
It all sounds very grandmotherly, but Silver has been smoking marijuana since he was a teenager, which was long before it was legal to use in any state, including California. In 1996, the Golden State was the first to legalize medical cannabis. Twenty years later, voters approved the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Proposition 64) to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Now it’s taxed and regulated, though the black market remains strong.
Silver spent a summer with a relative in a part of Northern California known as the Emerald Triangle—marijuana’s counterpart to the Golden Triangle, the area bordering Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar famous for its opium production. Silver experienced the mind-altering, body-liberating aspects of the counterculture on legendary Spy Rock Road in Mendocino County, where outlaws and cops did an elaborate dance around one another for decades, and where Silver had the opportunity to see how cannabis was cultivated, harvested, and cured.
“I pitched a tent and lived like Tom Sawyer,” Silver told me. “It was wonderful.” “Once on a flight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City,” he added, “I checked a bag with pounds of marijuana. When we were in the air the whole plane stank. After we landed, I grabbed my luggage, took off and didn’t look back.” Yes, Silver has traveled with his own pot, but he’s never been a smuggler.
Jews have had a long history with weed that goes back to biblical times, and they, like some other religious communities, are trying to make it mainstream by coming out of the cannabis closet. Humanistic Judaism Magazine recently called for the immediate repeal of all laws that make “the production, sale, trade, possession, and use of cannabis a criminal offense.” In the same issue, Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick of Birmingham Temple in Detroit wrote, “When we understand marijuana prohibition as part of that not-so-great American tradition, when we see how racism and xenophobia fuel exceedingly overinflated warnings of its danger, and when we remove our veils of ignorance, I believe that the argument for legalization is very clear.”
As for me, I have smoked marijuana recreationally and medicinally for much of my adult life. I have found that it often helps me focus and get creative. I don’t think I’m psychologically addicted. I go for weeks at a time without using it. The first person to turn me on, in 1967, was a Brooklyn Jew and a student at the Columbia University Law School. His name was Gustin Reichbach and he became a notorious lawyer and judge because he gave condoms to hookers in his courtroom. He eventually died of pancreatic cancer. Cannabis helped ease the pain he experienced at the end of his life.
In an op-ed published in The New York Times in 2012, he came out of the closet: “Given my position as a sitting judge still hearing cases, well-meaning friends question the wisdom of my coming out on this issue. But I recognize that fellow cancer sufferers may be unable, for a host of reasons, to give voice to our plight. It is another heartbreaking aporia in the world of cancer that the one drug that gives relief without deleterious side effects remains classified as a narcotic with no medicinal value.”
Self-identified Jews like Reichbach and Silver and rabbis like Jeffrey L. Falick have helped move the conversation about cannabis out of the dark days of Reefer Madness, which helped no one except gung-ho cops and the prison system. Now that cannabis is legal in some form or another in more than half the United States, perhaps the federal government will do the right thing and end the 84-year prohibition of a plant that, as Silver reminded me, “grows wild in many parts of Asia and Africa and has been used by humans for thousands of years.”
Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.