Medical Marijuana Policy and My Seder Table

I was setting my seder table, polishing Miriam's cup, a new addition to the ritual objects we Jews include in the telling of the story of the Exodus. Miriam's cup is a symbol of Miriam's gift of finding water on the journey out of Egypt as well as an acknowledgement of the role of women in our history and the present.

At Passover, I think a lot about my friend Susan Gaskill. Passover was her favorite holiday. She wrote the hagadah we use, the booklet that is the "telling" of the story. She loved to dance like Miriam with her timbrels at the shore of the Red Sea, and she especially loved being Jewish once she found her heritage after having missed out on it as a child.

Susan's big impact on me and on Beth Am Women, the sisterhood of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills California, was how she confronted death with courage and dignity and inspired us to take action in support of the medical use of marijuana.

You can see and hear Susan tell her story on YouTube in a video
we recorded in 1998 when we first began to learn how marijuana helped her fight the AIDS virus that she had contracted through a blood transfusion.

Because of Susan, in the late 90s, Beth Am Women wrote a resolution in support of the medical use of marijuana that was first passed by the Pacific District of Women of Reform Judaism, the larger organization to which we belong. That policy stance was crafted into a resolution that was later passed by the national WRJ membership at its biennial Assembly in Orlando in 1999.

The entire Congregation Beth Am brought forth a similar resolution that was passed at the Union of Reform Judaism's Minneapolis Biennial convention in 2003. Both resolutions call for making marijuana accessible to doctors and other scientists wanting to do research on the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine.

It's been 15 years since the WRJ resolution and, unfortunately, it is still illegal for doctors and other scientists to do that important research. The difficulty for doctors wanting to treat patients and do research on the palliative and medicinal affects of marijuana was described in Reform Jewish magazine by Dr. Donald Abrams. He is the pioneering researcher at the University of California who first studied the use of marijuana to treat wasting syndrome among AIDS patients.

Much has happened with regard to marijuana policy since WRJ first articulated a policy stance on this issue. Medical professionals and members of Congress
are now calling for change in federal drug policy that reflects the unrecognized potential of the cannabis plant as a medicine and allows legal access to cannabis for research.

The current legal status is that marijuana policy falls under the Controlled Substances Act supported by Richard Nixon and passed by Congress in 1970. It establishes three significant categories for drugs that are called "schedules" determined by a drug's potential for abuse, accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and accepted safety levels for the drug.

Schedule I drugs are deemed the most dangerous with a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use in treatment and a lack of accepted safety practice under medical supervision. No prescriptions may be written for schedule I substances and such substances are subject to production quotas by the DEA. Drugs in this category include heroin, LSD, ecstasy and -- hard to believe -- marijuana.

This classification means that those who want to study marijuana must apply to the government to obtain the drug for experimentation. It also means that others who provide marijuana to the sick or grow it for their own medical use are subject to disciplinary action (e.g. raids!) by the DEA.

Schedule II substances are deemed somewhat less dangerous and have currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, or currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions. Abuse of the drug or other substances in this category may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. Drugs in this schedule require a prescription and include cocaine used as a topical anesthetic, various methamphetamines such as Ritalin, Concerta and Adderal used to treat ADHA, as well as opium, methadone, ocycodone and morphine.

Schedule III substances have a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in schedules I and II and have a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. Abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.

The most relevant drug in this schedule is Marinol, synthetically prepared THC which is the active, "mind-altering" ingredient in marijuana. Marinol has been promoted as the "legal" alternative to marijuana for treating AIDS-related appetite loss and other diseases and conditions that anecdotal evidence indicates can be helped by smoking or ingesting cannabis.

Today most of those researching the use of marijuana to treat a variety of illnesses believe that it is the whole cannabis plant and not just the THC that is responsible for the plant's healing properties. But, it's just this kind of research that is stymied by marijuana's classification as a schedule I substance.

We the is circulating a petition asking DEA to reschedule marijuana to a lower level to benefit greater access for research purposes. And, though technically it's not the DEA's call on what the scheduling should be, getting 100,000 signatures on the petition would send the request to the White House to let the administration know that many of us would like to make it possible to do modern research on this ancient medicine.

Time is short! The deadline is April 19 and many more signatures are needed. As we bid farewell to the annual 4/20 celebration, it would help to get the numbers up by getting the word out about the petition through popular social networks.

I encourage you sign the petition and spread the word. But, don't dismay if you miss the deadline. A more direct and effective action would be to call your congressional representative to tell him or her your thoughts on this issue. Calling is much more powerful than email and phone numbers can be found here..

Tell the person who answers the phone that you support the efforts of Congressman Blumenauer and his colleagues to work with Attorney General Holder on changing the classification of marijuana. The Attorney General has said he is receptive to working with Congress on this issue so the ball is in their court.

Every year at the close of our seders we typically say "Next year in Jerusalem." This year, as I thought about Susan, whom we lost 15 years ago, I added to that prayer, "Next year schedule II at least!"