Honoring Initiators Who Lead Social Change

The post-holiday cleanup is over. Denver and Seattle are back to normal after the rare confluence of Easter Sunday and 4/20, the day that has become the celebration of cannabis culture. In those cities, residents and visitors gathered to celebrate the states' historic votes to legalize and regulate recreational use of marijuana.

In Jewish homes, special dishes and ritual objects from Passover seders are back in their places. The fact that this year April 20 also fell within the eight day period of Passover made me even more inspired to write about a little known but important character in the Passover story whose legacy as an initiator has been repeated in our liberation from marijuana prohibition.

Nahshon ben Aminidav was the first Israelite to step into the Red Sea before the waters had completely receded. Nahshon was Aaron's brother-in-in-law. Aaron was Moses' brother whose descendants became the Kohanim, the priestly caste that served in the Temple in Jerusalem.

According to rabbinic teaching, Nahshon initiated the parting of the sea by his faith and by walking head deep into the waters until the sea split. There is a popular Yiddish saying that to be a Nahshon means to be an "initiator."

The Nahshon of marijuana reform is Richard Lee, innovative founder of
Oaksterdam University. Lee, who lost the use if his legs in an accident, uses cannabis medicinally to deal with pain and leg spasms. In 2010 Lee was the principal backer of California's Proposition 19 that called for regulation, control, and taxation of cannabis.

Prior to mounting his campaign, veteran drug policy reformers advised Lee to wait until 2012 when younger, more liberal voters would come out to support President Obama's re-election. Instead Lee chose to move forward only to see Proposition 19 lose 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent. Despite the loss, however, the "yes" vote was actually higher than the 40.9 percent received by Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for California governor, suggesting significant bipartisan/Libertarian support for reform.

Post 2010 election stories reported that Prop. 19 had failed. What those unfamiliar with how the West Coast works is that failure is the secret sauce of successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,

Other West Coast activists recognized that even with little money and no significant editorial endorsements, Prop 19 had almost won. They were encouraged and emboldened to move forward themselves on legislation in their own states.

In Colorado, new legislation was carefully crafted to address the operational defects of the California proposition. Those who predicted that the "marijuana vote" would propel Obama to victory in the election proved to be right with the Colorado vote providing the electoral college leverage the President needed to win.

In Washington, with backing of the ACLU's state chapter, New Approach Washington announced Initiative 502, to legalize up to an ounce of marijuana and to create a system of state-licensed growers, processors, and retail stores. The winning Initiative was tailored to gain the mainstream support critical to diffusing the adoption of social change.

Few recognize that it was Richard Lee's brave move forward in 2010, financed with his own personal fortune, that led the way for Colorado and Washington. But lack of recognition is a minor consequence compared to what happened to him a few months after the 2010 vote. That's when the Federal government raided Lee's dispensary and medical marijuana trade school, forcing him to relinquish control of the operation and essentially putting him out of business.

Four years later back here in California, where Prop. 215, the nation's first -- and admittedly flawed -- medical marijuana legislation was passed in 1996, reformers are looking toward 2016 for a recreational usage measure. Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom is leading a blue ribbon panel to plan for the future. The goal is to build on what's being learned in Colorado and Washington so that the most populous and potentially most influential state can do it right and become a model for others.

There are significant financial and social contingencies for policy makers to consider. Reductions in cost will come through lessening the role of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Financial benefits are expected from tax revenue. Social beneits include crafting regulation to make it harder for those under age 21 to have access and reducing the involvement of drug draffickers in the marijuana trade.

I anticipate we'll know more about where legalization efforts are heading here and across the country by the time we start thinking about next year's seders. But, since I like to plan ahead, I'm already wondering how we might include more visible recognition of both Nahshon and Richard Lee at future seders.

One option is to introduce a new ritual object in our Passover observance. It has become an American Reform Jewish practice to do so. New additions include Miriam's Cup recognizing Moses' sister's role in the story of Moses adoption by Pharoah's sister and by her ability to find water on the journey to the promised land. The cup also represents our matriarchs and contributions of contemporary women as well. Another new symbol is an orange placed on the seder plate calling attention to the need for inclusion of members of the LGBT community among our clergy.

I'm thinking that an appropriate symbol for both Nahshon and Richard Lee might be a small wheel representing one that would be seen on an Egyptian chariot or a high-tech wheelchair. The stories we'll recount on future Passovers will remind us how Nahshon purposefully waded into the still deep waters of the Red Sea that would miraculously reveal a path to the promised land before crashing down on the chariots of the pursuing army.

The wheel will also remind us how Richard Lee, with great determination, wheeled his chair into the still opposing tide of public opinion regarding marijuana. That tide, according to a Pew research study, is finally changing direction with 54 percent of Americans saying that marijuana should be legalized.

With the numbers that high, it's obvious that the new majority is made up of Christians who are honestly examining previous held beliefs about marijuana. I'd like to encourage Christian readers to share with others the story of Richard Lee's compassion, charity and devotion to this cause.

They should also know that Lee is strongly supported in this work by his parents, devoutly observant Christians who still live in their home state of Texas. For them it may not be surprising to note that Nahshon is mentioned in the Greek New Testament in the genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 1:4 and Luke 3:32-33) and that both he and Jesus are descendants of King David.

In researching this post I found a fascinating reference linking Nahshon and 4/20. According to Israeli historians, Operation Nahshon was a Jewish military operation during the 1948 war to establish the State of Israel. The operation's objective was to break the Siege of Jerusalem by opening the Tel-Aviv/Jerusalem road blockaded by Palestinian Arabs and to supply food and weapons to the isolated Jewish community of Jerusalem.

This is ironic on many levels since Operation Nahschon is reported to have ended on April 20, 1948 exactly six months to the day before I was born. I don't know whether it was a coincidence or a sign over 65 years ago in the young state of Israel that I would become a passionate fighter for marijuana policy reform. I also don't know what it means that the remarkable "blood moon" eclipse fell on the first night of Passover this year and that Easter Sunday and 4/20 shared the day.

There are things beyond our knowing, but one thing is certain. Our more than 40 years of wandering in the drug policy desert are over. Those who still have the "slave to drug war policy" mentality are either changing their minds or dying off, and younger, more enlightened voters who have the sense to question our failed social policy are making their voices heard -- thank God!