Oaklands Jewish ganja guru vows to fight conviction

Ed Rosenthal has long been a well-known name among devotees of hydroponics and/or Bob Marley. Now, his name might become well known among legal scholars as well.

The self-acclaimed Jewish "guru of ganja" was convicted Jan. 31 of felony conspiracy and cultivation charges stemming from a raid on his Oakland marijuana greenhouse, a significant victory for the federal government over states with medical marijuana programs.

Rosenthal was a deputized officer in the city of Oakland's medical marijuana program, authorized to grow and distribute marijuana to those with a prescription.

Yet, in a controversial move, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco did not allow any mention of Rosenthal's official position, as the federal government does not recognize the existence of "medical" marijuana. Challenging the verdict at a press conference held Tuesday, four of the 12 jurors called for a new trial, objecting to the fact that they had not been told that Rosenthal had been deputized to grow marijuana for medical patients.

Rosenthal faces a possible lifetime in prison and millions of dollars in fines at his June 4 sentencing, but he said he doesn't regret growing and distributing hundreds if not thousands of marijuana plants to the sick. To not do so, he added, would have violated his Jewish ethics.

"You know, the situation I'm in is very similar to the situation that people have had to face throughout Jewish history. If you have a special means of helping somebody and don't help them, you are guilty of a sin, a sin of omission," said Rosenthal, perhaps the world's foremost expert on marijuana cultivation and the author of half a dozen books on marijuana and how to home-grow it.

"When I was asked by the city of Oakland to become an officer to the city, I felt it was my duty, not just a civil duty but a biblical duty. Not doing it would have been a sin of omission. I don't have any regret about doing it. I know I made many people's lives better, helped people live longer lives and be more comfortable. I'm gratified with myself. I don't think I've done anything wrong."

Breyer, the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, ruled Tuesday that the 58-year-old Oakland resident could remain free on $200,000 bond until his sentencing hearing. The prosecution had requested Rosenthal be incarcerated until then.

With Rosenthal's deputization by the city of Oakland kept off the record, he was, in the eyes of the court, no different from any large-scale marijuana grower and dealer, an extremely frustrating point for the activist and his lawyers.

Rosenthal, for example, was unable to inform the jury that he had been assured by Oakland's city attorney that he was legally immune.

"Eventually this elephant in the living room that is medical marijuana is going to have to get recognized for what it is, a movement that has broad-based public support, and not only in California," said Bob Eye, one of Rosenthal's lawyers.

"At the same time, this does raise some difficult and challenging constitutional questions. How can you reconcile competing federal and state governments?"

Rosenthal and his lawyers believe Breyer's approach to the above query was exceedingly heavy-handed, and they are seeking a new trial based on "judicial error." If that is denied, Eye said he will take the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Women of Reform Judaism passed a plank in 1999 supporting the use of medical marijuana. Jane Marcus, the social action chair of Congregation Beth Am Sisterhood in Los Altos Hills, said her group plans to distribute pro-Rosenthal fliers and buttons at this weekend's Reform movement biennial in Santa Clara.

"What we need to do is get a political debate going in this country on how this law can be changed," she said.

"I think the Jewish community is a good place to start because Ed is one of our own and, in our moral code, helping the sick is what you do."

Rosenthal and his wife are members of Oakland's Reform Temple Sinai.

In 1996, the East Bay Council of Rabbis unanimously supported a petition Rosenthal presented them in favor of Proposition 215, which enabled the cultivation of medical marijuana.

Rabbi Harry Manhoff, the council's current president, said he believes the government's treatment of Rosenthal is draconian.

"In terms of Mr. Rosenthal, I don't know him personally and I don't know what his motivations are," said Manhoff, the rabbi at San Leandro's Conservative Temple Beth Sholom.

"But having had to deal with people I know who, in many different circumstances, have benefited from medical marijuana, I find it very harsh that the federal government would spend money prosecuting and persecuting people in this way."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.