The changing conversation around marijuana, the drug war, and Jewish imperatives to enact social change
Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal November 2015 issue
By Natalie Jacobs
So far in the lead-up to the November 2016 elections, there are two proposed marijuana legalization initiatives working their way toward California’s ballot. It is expected that Nevada, Maryland, Maine, Florida, Michigan and Missouri will also have legalization initiatives on their state ballots next year. To date, 25 states (counting the District of Columbia and Guam) have legalized medical marijuana. Of those, five states have legalized, decriminalized and regulated the use of marijuana outright.
Roy Kaufmann, a San Diego native now residing in Portland, Ore., considers this progress.
“The reality is that marijuana prohibition fuels the drug war, it pays for the drug war,” Kaufmann said during his presentation at this year’s Yom Limmud back in August. “It makes it possible for all the sides that are benefitting from the drug war to keep fighting.”
And yet, he continues, marijuana is the third most-used substance in the United States, behind alcohol and tobacco.
“It’s probably on par with caffeine at this point,” he said.
In 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 19.8 million people aged 12 and older had used marijuana in the month before the survey was conducted. That number marked a 2.7 percent increase in marijuana usage from the last survey conducted in 2007.
Kaufmann is a political scientist turned public relations professional. When he started studying marijuana in 2009 he couldn’t help but be lured in by the history of the public policy and the so-called drug war.
The term “war on drugs” was first used by President Richard Nixon on June 17, 1971. In 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency to consolidate all previously disparate government groups into one “super agency” to cover all aspects of “an all-out global war on the drug menace.”
Come 1977, President Jimmy Carter was elected on a platform that included marijuana decriminalization. A measure that would have turned that election platform into law once worked its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee but never moved to a full Congressional vote. By the 1980s, cocaine had entered into the United States from Colombia and marijuana legalization initiatives were all but forgotten while the “war on drugs” escalated.
On Oct. 27, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. This came about in response to the crack cocaine epidemic and has been widely criticized for “promoting racial disparities” and targeting lower class minorities disproportionate to middle and upper-class white drug users.
Under President George W. Bush in 2002, the administration worked with a goal of reducing all illegal drug use by 25 percent. TIME Magazine found that this initiative led to “unprecedented numbers of marijuana-related arrests” while pot use “only declined six percent (and the use of other drugs actually increased).”
In a one-on-one interview after his presentation at the JCC, Kaufmann tells me the drug war is “profoundly unfair and completely unsuccessful as a policy initiative.”
“It has failed on every stated objective that it had,” he says.
What heightened Kaufmann’s involvement wasn’t just the hypocrisy of the policy, but the inability to open the Jewish community up to the conversation.
“We couldn’t even get a Federation or a rabbi or anybody to say ‘this is something we should have a position on,’ or ‘let’s open up the doors and talk about it.’”
Now, Kaufmann runs a nonprofit, part-time passion project called LeOr. The group’s goal is to engage the Jewish community around marijuana advocacy, like the community, particularly the Reform movement, once rallied around Civil Rights and Women’s Rights in the 1960s.
“At a minimum, we shouldn’t be treating drugs through a criminal lens,” he says of LeOr’s stance on marijuana policy. “We should be treating drugs through a public health lens. Then you are asking better questions about individual health, population health, addiction, treatment of addiction, substitution.”
What has never been included in the “war on drugs” are prescription pain pills known as opioid analgesics (drugs derived from opium, like heroin), with brand names such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and Dilaudid. Research into the usage trends of those drugs, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January, 2015, found that there were 47 million prescriptions written and fulfilled per quarter in the United States in 2006. In the fourth quarter of 2012, “volume peaked” at 62 million prescriptions. The study notes a slight downward trend through 2013, leveling out at 60 million prescriptions per calendar quarter. Even at their lowest rate, 188 million prescriptions were written for opioid analgesics in the 2006 calendar year.
In their National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 6.9 percent of people used an opioid analgesic in 2011-2012 “in the past 30 days.” This marked an increase from 5 percent in 1999-2002.
The NEJM study notes that deaths caused by prescription opioids rose to 16,651 in 2010 after 11 straight years of increases.
In October, 2014, the journal JAMA Internal Medicine published a study that found states with medical marijuana laws had lower rates of opioid analgesic overdoses, by 24.8 percent between the years 1999-2010. The study also found that the overdose mortality rate continued to decrease over time in medical marijuana states.
Kaufmann’s personal connection to the legalization fight ramped up when he himself became a medical marijuana patient. He doesn’t want to talk about the details of any medical conditions he uses marijuana to cope with, noting that it’s not customary to ask about the diagnosis of someone who says he’s taking anti-depressants or prescription pain pills. But he does say that the medical marijuana has helped him.
“I became a medical patient and I learned – you have to be your own best advocate as a patient anyway in healthcare these days – but when you’re talking about a structure of medicine that is not as well studied or regulated or understood, you really have to be your own advocate and you really have to understand it,” he explains. “So I started to study it and very quickly…you don’t have to dig very deep to see how profoundly unjust and irrational the prohibition approach is.
“You can use or abuse anything for any reason,” he adds. “You can over eat. You can over drink. You can over shop. You can be a sex addict. You can be addicted to anger. You can also use any of those things in pro-social ways. It’s just a question of an individual’s ability to regulate their own behavior.”
Once marijuana is legalized, as states like Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska and the District of Columbia have experienced, state governments develop regulation standards for everything from tax collection and age-level requirements to limits and tests for intoxicated driving.
At that point, for Kaufmann, it becomes a question of capitalism taking over where the DEA has left off. He says LeOr and the greater Jewish community can be involved on that level too.
“How do we go about creating a modern cannabis marketplace that is based on good menchie values and not based on the worst profit-seeking overconsumption models?” Kaufmann wonders.
In a speech to Congress on Sept. 29, Senator, Jew, and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said, “The United States is the only major country on earth that does not, in one form or another, regulate prescription drug prices. What that means is, you could walk into a drug store tomorrow and find that the drug you’ve been using for many years has doubled, tripled, or gone up 10 times. The United States Congress has chosen to be the only major country on earth that does not address this issue.”
“Whatever this industry looks like,” Kaufmann says of marijuana legalization, “it needs to be an industry that is based on educated consumers and sustainable values, fair labor values and all these things. It doesn’t need to be another industry that makes a few people very wealthy and most people, not.”
With legalization momentum building in individual states across the country, the financial sector is starting to dip its toes into the burgeoning industry. In January, PayPal founder Peter Thiel announced that his venture capital firm Founders Fund would invest millions into a specific marijuana investment company called Privateer Holdings, who’s first investment was in the Bob Marley pot brand Marley Natural. It was noted that Privateer had rasied $82 million in two rounds of funding, in 2011 and 2014.
Speaking with HuffPost after the investment announcement, Founders Fund co-founder Geoff Lewis said the investment in Privateer “will help end marijuana prohibition” which they at the Fund believe “will be a social good.”
A newer kid on the venture capital investment block is Justin Hartfield, whose Emeral Ocean Capital group launched in 2013 to “professionalize and legitimize the marijuana business sector through the power of private enterprise.” Emerald Ocean sees the marijuana business as a $100 billion opportunity.
During his Yom Limmud presentation, Kaufmann cited a long list of outspoken and influential Jewish marijuana supporters. From Israel, Jewish people have led the way on marijuana research because the United States’ classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic makes it nearly impossible for academics to conduct research here.
Israel’s prominence in the field of cannabis research started in 1963 with Raphael Mechoulam. A biochemist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, he was the first to discover and isolate tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active ingredient in cannabis.
“He is the G-dfather of cannabis [research] the world over,” Kaufmann said in his presentation at Yom Limmud. “PTSD, cancer, Parkinson’s, MS, osteoporosis, bone cancer. Israel is cutting edge thanks to him.”
While recreational marijuana is farther from legalization in Israel than it is in the United States, medical marijuana has made more progress there. Kaufmann notes that patients using chemotherapy drugs are given marijuana to consume in the hospital. Seniors in assisted living facilities who have Alzheimer’s, PTSD, or whom are Holocaust survivors, are allowed to consume cannabis inside their residencies.
“It already is a Jewish issue,” Kaufmann says. “I just have to remind people you shouldn’t be afraid of talking about it.”
Roy Kaufmann will be back in San Diego on Dec. 6 to speak with a group at the JCC as part of the Center for Jewish Culture’s young adult “In the Mix” programming. Details are forthcoming. Contact Ilene Tatro for information – email@example.com
Keep up with Kaufmann’s nonprofit advocacy group LeOr at illuminating.us.