A former New Jersey rabbi is out “to save lives,” and he hopes to do so by selling marijuana.
But legally. And only to sick people.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, 58, has embarked on a quest to establish what would become the first medical marijuana dispensary for the chronically ill in the District of Columbia.
Kahn, who stepped down as the religious leader of Temple Har Shalom in Warren in 2007 to move to Israel, returned to the United States about a year ago to take a top post at the DC-based Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative.
The advocacy group campaigns for more “compassionate” drug laws, like a DC bill that allows for the creation of at least five medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. Kahn has taken the initial steps to set up his own medicinal pot shop in the famously laid-back Takoma Park neighborhood not far from his home.
The law permits city-sanctioned dealers to distribute up to two ounces of the controversial —and in most states, highly illegal — substance to individuals who suffer from a narrow set of major illnesses, including HIV, glaucoma, cancer, or other “debilitating” and “chronic” conditions.
Assuming that the District’s bureaucracy cooperates, Kahn expects to be opening the doors to the Takoma Wellness Center in November.
The Reform-ordained Kahn said that after working from the bima for about 26 years at various synagogues, he and his wife, Stephanie, are entering the medicinal marijuana trade to help severely ill patients who have needlessly suffered for too long at the hands of what he calls a biased health system.
“There are sick people for whom this can really make a real difference,” said Kahn.
He invokes Jewish tradition based on Torah, such as Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds.”
Cannabis — as Kahn refers to it, claiming the word “marijuana” is a pejorative term that promotes negative stereotypes about the plant — is a legitimate healing tool, he said.
“What do you do when something’s against the law, but your doctor says it will provide you relief?” he asked.
‘I felt bad’
After six years at Har Shalom, Kahn and his wife, Stephanie, moved to Israel in 2007, buying an apartment in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.
“When I retired from my [last] congregation, it was the furthest thing in my mind that I would end up in DC selling marijuana — you just never know,” he chuckled.
Helplessly witnessing the painful deaths of Stephanie’s mother and father dramatically influenced the Kahns’ thinking on the drug.
Her father, Jules Reifkind, who suffered for years from the degenerative nerve disorder multiple sclerosis, died first, in 2005.
For years, the Kahns watched as he physically deteriorated, becoming completely bedridden, the couple recalled. Early on, however, a doctor hinted that marijuana could be the key to alleviating Reifkind’s muscle spasms and recurring bouts of pain.
But in the 1970s, when the doctor first recommended the plant, Reifkind was dubious, Stephanie, 55, recalled.
“My father [was] a straight-laced businessman and was horrified” by the recommendation, she said.
Marijuana has long been the benchmark of lowbrow comedy and countless anti-drug campaigns, but the Kahns soon took note of its remedial qualities.
On the rare instances when Reifkind was able to obtain the drug illicitly, “it made such a difference, but it totally freaked him out, just the idea,” Stephanie said.
Her mother, Libby, was diagnosed with lung cancer in June 2009 and died two months later. She likely would have benefited greatly from smoking marijuana, which is known to increase the user’s appetite, but she never was able to procure the substance, recalled Stephanie, a nurse who’s worked for nearly 25 years in hospital administration.
“She was just wasting away” from numerous sessions of chemotherapy, which had completely destroyed her appetite, Kahn recalled. But the family “couldn’t get [marijuana] for her, and she really wanted it. I felt bad.”
When the DC City Council took the first steps toward legalizing the substance for medical purposes, the Kahns held a family meeting.
“We sat down and said, ‘This is something we can do and do well to really save lives and make a contribution,’” said Jeffrey.
The Kahns’ son, James, a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at the University of Maryland Hillel, said he’s not surprised by his parents’ new enterprise.
“The hope of this dispensary is a hope born out of suffering and the desire to help in any way possible,” said James, via e-mail. “Their desire to open a medical marijuana dispensary in their neighborhood is just another example” of their urge to positively serve the community.
Into the fray
However, it’s still unclear if DC’s medical marijuana law will remain on the books. Congress has until the end of the month to veto the measure. At least two House members are balking at the city’s efforts, and one has threatened to pull DC’s federal funding if the law isn’t altered.
In a mid-July interview, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said that while he sympathizes with the Kahns’ urge to help the ill, he believes the DC legalization bill is fundamentally flawed.
“I saw the devastation of cancer [on his mother], but there were other ways to monitor her pain and what she was going through outside of smoking marijuana,” Chaffetz said, explaining that THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the cannabis plant’s primary psychoactive element, could be dispensed more safely in pill form.
The political fray aside, the Kahns say they’re keeping their heads down, continuing to lay the groundwork necessary to finalize the Takoma Wellness Center. It would offer a range of diverse marijuana strains, as well as holistic services, such as aromatherapy and reflexology, according to the shop’s website.
The center already has the widespread backing of many community members — a central requirement of the DC law.
“I think [the Kahns] are sincere and my impression is that they’re very well capable” of competently running a dispensary, said Faith Wheeler, vice chair of the local community board. “I think it would fit well” in the area.
The Kahns are optimistic about their admittedly unexpected venture.
“It just feels like we’re here at the right time,” said Stephanie Kahn. This is something she can do, she said, in her parents’ memory, “and they would love it. I know it.”