On the Third Day, God Created Weed
For 30 years, I was a congregational rabbi. Today, my family and I own and operate Washington, D.C.’s largest medical marijuana dispensary, where we see hundreds of people each week.
What a long, strange trip it has been.
I was ordained as a rabbi in June of 1981, the same week the first cases of AIDS were reported by the CDC. The beginning of my career coincided with the first evidence of the heavy toll AIDS would take on humanity.
AIDS became a religious issue when Reverend Jerry Falwell infamously called the disease “the gay plague” and challenged President Ronald Reagan to make policy changes that would protect the “innocent American public” from “those people.” He spoke of quarantine and internment camps. In the face of a growing epidemic and at the height of his national appeal, Rev. Falwell used the disease to place himself at the forefront of a war on gay America. AIDS, he told us, was God’s punishment meted out to sinful people who engaged in abominable activity. It was a nasty disease, but people get what they deserve, he was sure.
As a young rabbi, my days were filled with hospital visits, funeral officiations, and meetings where I spoke openly about AIDS. As an extremely liberal rabbi in a conservative town, I was one of just a few clergy who didn’t agree with Reverend Falwell.
One day, I received a phone call from Bob, a young man who had heard me speak at a support group meeting and was reaching out because of his concern for his brother, Steve, who was quite sick. According to Bob, Steve’s doctors predicted he would live just a few weeks more. Steve’s parents had disowned him as a teenager when he’d come out as gay and, except for Bob’s daily visits, he was virtually alone now – in pain, nauseous, and unable to eat.
On a recent visit, Bob told me, he’d found Steve on the couch – his apartment a total mess – just staring off into space. Sitting next to him, Bob noticed Steve whimpering in pain.
“Rabbi,” he said, “I had to do something, but I didn’t know what. I had already tried everything. I knew it was wrong, Rabbi. I knew it was a sin. But, there was only one thing I could think to do. I lit up a joint and I blew all the smoke into Steve’s face.”
“At first, nothing happened,” he continued. “But after nearly a minute, I noticed Steve had stopped whimpering and was actually smiling.”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“All of a sudden, in a loud, strong voice, he said ‘Hi, Bob. Thanks for stopping by.’”
Bob told me that he and Steve went on to have a conversation – their first in months – and reminisced about a long-ago family vacation. Steve was smiling and laughing… until the “Domino Effect” set in.
That’s when he asked, “Wanna order a pizza?”
And they did.
While they waited for the delivery, Bob told me, the pleasant conversation continued, and Steve even spoke lovingly about their parents. When the extra-large pie with the works arrived, Steve scarfed down nearly two full slices before he nodded off to sleep, dozing peacefully for four hours – much longer than the 20-minute naps he’d been taking for months.
“Rabbi,” Bob asked, “is what I did wrong?”
Although some might make a case that God uses illness to punish the wicked for their sins, Jewish tradition acknowledges illness as part of life, a time we turn to God – and others – for support and comfort.
With confidence, I told Bob this: “God isn’t punishing Steve for anything he’s done wrong. God doesn’t operate that way. By relieving Steve’s suffering, you’re partnering with God to enhance the quality of your brother’s life – creating a path to wholeness that hadn’t existed before. Marijuana is helping you do the Lord’s work.”
Suffering is no mitzvah (good deed). Promoting the relief of suffering is what God commands us to do as part of tikkun olam, repair of the world.
“Go ahead,” I continued, “smoke marijuana with your brother, Bob. But, if you get caught, please don’t tell the cops the rabbi told you to do it.”
Steve lived another few months – and they were good months. When he died, it was with family and friends around him, and an empty Dominos pizza box on the nightstand.
AIDS is no longer the out-of-control epidemic it was back in the 1980s. But, like so many of its symptoms, there are countless conditions – seizures, PTSD, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, chemotherapy side effects, and more – that marijuana can ameliorate. Many find it more effective and less dangerous than the pharmaceuticals their doctors prescribe. And, in states where medical marijuana is legal, overdose deaths are down by 25%.
To my way of thinking, God created marijuana on the third day so it could bloom and grow before God created humanity.