Medical Marijuana and Me
by Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn
Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn served as a congregational rabbi for thirty years before opening Takoma Wellness Center, a medical marijuana dispensary in Washington, DC, with his wife Stephanie this past August. They enjoy living down the street from their grandsons, Julian and Miles, and sleeping in on Saturdays and Sundays.
Along with Rabbi Barr and several of my other closest friends, I was ordained a rabbi at Hebrew Union College the first weekend in June of 1981. Little did I then know that on the very day I became a rabbi, the first case of AIDS was documented. AIDS entered our lives in June, 1981. And, very quickly, the devastation of AIDS began to shape the early years of my rabbinate.
In those days conservative clergy unanimously proclaimed AIDS a punishment from God. So, it became incumbent on liberal clergy to visit the sick, bury the dead, and comfort the bereaved. Like most liberal rabbis, I spent a lot of time with people living and dying with AIDS… and those who loved them.
One day, in the early 90s, I received a phone call from someone who had a problem he needed to talk about and he thought he might be able to talk about it with me. I was happy to meet with him and lend him an ear.
It turned out the man’s brother, Steve, was very sick with AIDS. The doctors said he would probably live just a few more weeks. Steve’s parents had disowned him as a teenager when they had found out he was gay and he was pretty much alone now, except for daily visits from his brother, who helped him with his personal hygiene, meds and food. Lately, Steve was in a lot of pain, was constantly nauseous, and could hardly eat.
The other day, the man told me, he found Steve sitting on the couch, just staring into space. Steve and the place were pretty much of a mess. As his brother sat down next to him, he noticed Steve whimpering in pain. “And rabbi,” he said, “I felt I had to do something and I didn’t know what I could do… I had tried everything already… I knew it was wrong, Rabbi. I knew it was a sin. But, there was only one thing I could think of… so I lit up a joint and I blew all the smoke in his face.
“At first, nothing happened. But after about 30 long seconds, I noticed he had stopped whimpering. Instead, I noticed a slight smile. Then, all of a sudden, in a loud, strong voice, he said “Hi, Joe. Thanks for stopping by.” And, then we got into a conversation… the first one we had in months. We spoke about a great summer we had when were kids on a family vacation out west. He was smiling… even laughing. And then, before we knew it, it happened. The dreaded Domino Effect set in.”
The Domino Effect. That’s when Steve turned to Joe and asked, “Wanna order a pizza?” And they did. Steve wanted an extra large, with everything on it, and while they waited the pleasant conversation continued. When the pizza arrived, Steve scarfed down the first piece and about half-way through his second slice, he nodded off to sleep. And he slept peacefully for four hours.
“Rabbi,” Joe said, “it was a great conversation. Steve hadn’t done more than grunt at me in weeks. We talked about old times. He even spoke lovingly about our parents. Lately, he usually just complains about how bad he feels – physically and emotionally. But, this time he nearly ate two slices of pizza… and it was his idea to order it. I haven’t gotten him to eat anything in so long… he lost forty pounds the past two months. And, Rabbi, he slept like a baby for four hours. It’s been months since he’s slept more than 20 minutes at a time.” Then, Joe turned to me with the question behind this encounter. “Rabbi,” he asked, “is what I did wrong?”
Fascinating question: Was what he did wrong? But, for a moment, I could only think of another question. “Why was he asking me?”
He might have asked a physician. Because although Joe thought Steve had simply gotten high, gotten motor-mouth, gotten the munchies, and passed out, there is real medical science behind the fact that Steve was able to transcend his pain; that his short-term memory receded in favor of older memories that he gladly shared; that his appetite was stimulated so sharply that he became ravenous; and that he fell so fast asleep. But I’m not a physician, so he didn’t come to ask me about the medical science.
Or, Joe might have asked an attorney. Because what Joe and Steve did was illegal – on federal, state, local, and every level imaginable. In those days, if you didn’t “just say no” you faced a ruthless War on Drugs, stiff sentences, and mandatory minimums – a situation which continues to be the case to this very day. Between 1940 and 1980 the federal prison population remained stagnant – exactly the same. Since 1980 the prison population has quadrupled… the majority drug related offenses. Today, 58% of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. Then, it was almost 18%. Today, 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington State have legalized marijuana. Back then, in Texas, possession could bring a decades long sentence. But I’m not an attorney, so he didn’t come to ask me about the law.
No, Joe had sought out a rabbi to ask. And, I could tell Joe this profound Jewish teaching: suffering is not a mitzvah. Rather, it is the relief of suffering that God commands us to do. And, laws that interfere with healing and cause suffering are laws that are meant to be broken. That’s why we all almost instinctively know that health always outweighs fasting for Yom Kippur. “Go ahead and smoke pot with your brother, Joe. But, if you get caught, please don’t tell the cops that Rabbi Kahn of Temple Beth-El told you to do it.”
Steve lived another few months, rather than a few weeks. And, they were good months. He died surrounded by family and friends… with an empty Dominos box on the nightstand.
I never saw Joe again. But, medical marijuana? Well, there is a lot more to that story… a whole lot more. No longer a congregational rabbi, today my family and I own and operate Takoma Wellness Center, a Washington, DC medical marijuana dispensary. As such, I get to spend my days engaging in acts of loving-kindness and civil disobedience. What could be better than that?