Up in a puff of smoke?

Pot rabbi
Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn poses for a snapshot outside his Takoma Wellness Center where D.C. residents, with a note from their doctor, can purchase marijuana for medical use. Photo by David Stuck

Voters in Washington, D.C., Alaska and Oregon approved ballot measures on Nov. 4 to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, following successful legalization efforts last year in Washington state and Colorado. Nearly 70 percent of D.C. voters supported Initiative 71 that would allow adults to possess, cultivate and transfer small amounts of cannabis.

Because D.C. law prevented the initiative from creating a pot market, the City Council was moving forward with a bill to tax and regulate sales, knowing that there was always a chance that, as all legislation must go to the Hill for a 30-day passive review, Congress could nix the law.

Congress decided to block implementation of the law even before the review period.  Republicans, led by Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland’s first congressional district, attached a rider onto the recently passed $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that is intended to block D.C. from using funds to implement the law.

“Numerous studies show the negative impact regular recreational marijuana use has on the developing brain and on future economic opportunities for those who use this illegal drug. I am glad Congress is going to, in a bipartisan way, uphold federal law to protect our youth by preventing legalization in Washington, D.C.,” said Harris in a statement.


In a phone interview, incoming Ward 1 Councilmember-elect Brianne Nadeau responded to Harris’ statement by saying that “an overwhelming majority of D.C. voters believe that this is the right thing for the District, and I don’t really care what Andy Harris thinks. Andy Harris has his own work to do in the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in the Congress. It’s not his job to be meddling in our business. And so I completely reject the premise of his statement.

“I completely reject what he claims is his intent. And I think frankly he should go back to Maryland and leave us alone.”

Newly elected at-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said she sees the congressional ban as an opportunity to advocate for statehood so Congress can’t claim constitutionally mandated oversight of the federal district and overturn something that a majority of D.C. voters approved.

“There’s no better example than this. Voters have said overwhelmingly that they support the legalization of marijuana, and I believe that Congress should stay out of the way and should not meddle in issues where voters of the District have clearly stated their desires and voters have clearly stated that they want marijuana to be legalized,” said Silverman.

Some D.C. residents are finding creative ways to vent their frustration. A “Blacklist Andy Harris” Tumblr page is urging D.C. businesses to refuse service to the congressman. At least one D.C. business heeded the call – Capitol Hill Bikes on Barracks Row posted a sign with a picture of Harris and the words: “Not Welcome.”

Marijuana remains a controlled Scheduled I drug, meaning that the federal government considers it a dangerous drug without any accepted medical use. Therefore, the drug cannot legally be prescribed under federal law. However, four states have so far legalized its use. Twenty three states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana to be used for medical reasons.

The Takoma Wellness Center, run by Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn and his wife, Stephanie, is one of the places D.C. residents, equipped with a note from their doctor, can purchase marijuana for medical use.

The way the rabbi sees it, if marijuana can ease suffering, reduce nausea and stir up an appetite, it must be made available to those in pain.

“There is no mitzvah to suffering,” said Kahn, a congregational rabbi for 27 years and the former executive director of Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative.

In an earlier interview, Kahn said he believes Jewish law approves the use of medical marijuana. “Certainly for me, and I think most Jews, there is almost an immediate reaction that health comes first,” he said. He believes marijuana falls into the same category of allowable medicine as nonkosher pills or medicine that must be taken during Yom Kippur.

He pointed to a passage in Leviticus that instructs a person not to stand idly by the blood of one’s neighbor, suggesting if someone can help, then they should.

When D.C. first allowed marijuana for medical use, it was only permitted for patients suffering from five diseases, including AIDS, HIV, cancer, glaucoma and such muscular conditions as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. But this summer, the D.C. council expanded that to allow anyone with a proper doctor’s note to obtain the drug. Now, people recovering from car accidents and shootings are among the wellness center’s customers, Kahn said.

When asked about the District’s current attempts to legalize marijuana and receive revenue from sales, Kahn said it was hard to say, because “we really don’t know how it all is going to play out.”
Marijuana is a green, brown or gray mix of dried, crumbled leaves from the marijuana plant. THC – tetrahydrocannabinol – is the active ingredient that reacts differently, whether the drug is inhaled or ingested.

If smoked, THC goes right from the lungs into the bloodstream, which then carries the chemical to the brain and other organs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

When ingested in food or drink, THC is absorbed more slowly and acts on specific molecular targets on brain cells, which are called cannabinoid receptors, according to the NIDA. The highest density of cannabinoid receptors is found in the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, sensory and time perception, as well as coordinated movement. That is why marijuana is known to alter perceptions and mood, impair coordination and disrupt thinking, problem solving and memory.

According to the NIDA, marijuana can affect brain development when used heavily by young people. Effects on thinking and memory can be long lasting. Another effect, similar to tobacco smoking, is irritation to the lungs and possible respiratory diseases.

If marijuana use increases in the District following the drug’s decriminalization or legalization, some people have expressed concern that it will lead to more car accidents by impaired drivers. According to the NIDA, after alcohol, THC is the substance most commonly found in the blood of impaired drivers, fatally injured drivers and motor-vehicle crash victims.

Studies have been conducted concerning driving accidents in states that have legalized marijuana, but since legalization is still relatively new, those studies are not yet definitive.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” said J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer at MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “There is a real lack of data on marijuana and driving. There have been studies, [but] some of the studies have been conflicting.”

However, he said, “We do know that marijuana creates impairment so from that standpoint, we are absolutely concerned about it.”

In Oregon, where marijuana will be legal in July of 2015, Josh Marquis, district attorney for Clatsop County, is very concerned. In an interview last week, he pointed to one study on vehicle accidents in Colorado that showed that fatal crashes in which the driver had THC in his or her blood have risen 100 percent in the past seven years. The number of fatal accidents has dropped in those same seven years, something that had started happening prior to the legalization of marijuana, he said.

He doesn’t expect an increase in street crime and says people who are drunk or on stronger drugs tend to be more combative than those on marijuana. But marijuana continues to be more and more potent and is “literally 50 times as potent” as it was when it first became popular among college students, he said.

It’s more than car crashes that concerns Marquis. He worries that marijuana use among young people will rise, noting that long-term use can lead to “cognitive deficits. It is a drug that affects the brain.”

As a district attorney and member of the board of directors for the National District Attorneys Association, Marquis – who said his opinions do not represent those of the diverse national attorneys association – is aware of problems that are created when marijuana is legalized.

For instance, he said, the United States has signed treaties with other countries, agreeing to return someone to a country where they are accused of a crime, including drug crimes. What if a state that has legalized marijuana refuses to release the accused person, saying drugs aren’t illegal in that state? Marquis wondered. States are not allowed to abrogate federal treaties, but this could become a problem, he said.

“The law is changing across the United States, and so have the public attitude toward marijuana, but Republicans in Congress are disregarding these trends and choosing instead to interfere,” Phil Mendelson, chairman of the city council, said in a statement. “This is especially troubling since this interference may leave the District’s criminal law unclear. That’s problematic when we’re dealing with individual liberty and public safety.”

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