COVER STORY: Marijuana: Just what the doctor ordered

Irvin Rosenfeld smokes marijuana. A lot of it. Every day.

He also buys and sells stocks. A lot of them. Every day.

And he’s very up-front about this with everyone, most of all his 500 clients.

“I handle millions and millions of dollars on a daily basis, and all of my clients know I use marijuana. I don’t want them to see me on TV and say, ‘Hey, that’s my stockbroker!'” says the Jewish activist with a laugh.

You probably haven’t heard of Rosenfeld, and, for that, the federal government is no doubt thankful.

For the past 23 years, he has received a parcel from the government every month containing 11 ounces of marijuana packed into 300 cigarettes — marijuana grown by the federal government on a farm run by the University of Mississippi and given to Rosenfeld free of charge. Rosenfeld is enrolled in an extremely limited federal marijuana program, which will be phased out once the last participant dies.

Considering the government’s draconian stance on marijuana (medical and otherwise), this isn’t a program it trumpets too often.

But Rosenfeld does.

“I’ve been smoking marijuana for 33 years. [The government thinks] I should be lethargic. My lungs should be destroyed,” he says in his machine-gun Virginia-accented pitter-patter from his Florida office.

Rosenfeld suffers from a condition in which his bones are infested with tumors — he’s had more than 30 surgically removed, and there are more than 200 remaining within his body. After the serious onset of the malady just after his bar mitzvah, doctors told him he’d be lucky to see his 20th birthday. But the 52-year-old proudly told j. he went 3-for-5 a few Sundays ago in his weekly softball game. He even had a pair of two-out RBIs.

“I’m everything the government says I should not be,” he says, just before taking his umpteenth business call in a typical morning on the job and shouting into his cell: “You got some good news for me? Yes!”

A disproportionate number of the movers and shakers behind the medical marijuana movement are Jews — sometimes it’s half the room at a seminar or conference, says Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance.

And while Rosenfeld travels the country and does scores of radio interviews bolstering medical marijuana, many of the most successful advocates — Jewish and otherwise — live in the Bay Area.

And make no mistake, it’s not just long-haired hippies calling for medical pot. The Reform movement officially called for its legalization years ago, spurred on by enthusiastic support by local members of the Women of Reform Judaism. In 1996, the East Bay Council of Rabbis unanimously supported a petition in favor of Proposition 215, which legalized the cultivation of medical marijuana.

Jews, notes Rosenbaum, have always been at the forefront of civil rights issues.

There are a wealth of reasons why this is a strongly Jewish movement, but no one sums it up more succinctly than Oakland attorney Bill Panzer. “Doctors, lawyers and injustice. Where you find doctors, lawyers and injustice, you find Jews,” he says somewhat brusquely.

Rosenbaum adds that Jews are “more critical and less convinced of official or government rhetoric” than the population at large. And though she’s not speaking with Panzer in mind, she might as well be.

The plain-spoken Panzer describes himself as one of “eight-to-10 lawyers in the state who really knows what he’s doing” in marijuana cases, and it’s a job he was born to fill.

“In seventh or eighth grade, a cop came to our school to give us a talk. He told us that marijuana came to our country when we were building the railroads; it was brought along to plant along the side of the tracks because no living creature will go near marijuana. That’s how evil it is. And the thundering herds of bison would come across the great plains 5 million strong and stop dead in their tracks,” he said.

He pauses for effect.

“And even at that point, I knew this was bulls—t.”

The federal government isn’t pushing the buffalo story anymore. But its position on medical marijuana remains unequivocal.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 bans the manufacture and distribution of marijuana, and contains no exception for medical usage.

Statements from the Drug Enforcement Agency have referred to the benefits of medical marijuana as “a myth,” and make the government’s position on the drug crystal clear.

“[The] DEA is unequivocally opposed to the legalization of illicit drugs” reads a release made by the agency in response to state initiatives pushing for acceptance of medical marijuana. “Any proposal with the potential to do [this] is unacceptable. As public policy, it is fundamentally flawed.”

Testifying before the House Committee on Government Reform last year, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, warned that “marijuana has been and continues to be the number one illegal drug in this country … Marijuana is not a benign drug. It has many adverse health and social consequences.”

Oakland’s Robert Raich is one of the guys on Panzer’s short list of “eight to 10” marijuana lawyers. And Raich takes his work home with him, quite literally, every single day.

Raich’s wife, Angel, has an inoperable brain tumor. He goes on to list her myriad other conditions but opts to cut off the list after two solid minutes. He could have gone much, much longer.

Angel was confined to a wheelchair for four years, pumped with a wide variety of heavy narcotics and getting worse every day, when her nurse suggested smoking marijuana. And Angel was not amused.

“She’s a mother of two children from her first marriage and she believed, as many parents do, that marijuana is bad, drugs are bad,” said Robert Raich.

Angel, a non-Jew, now consumes eight pounds of marijuana a year. She smokes it, vaporizes it, mixes it into an oil that is blended into food or drink or applied topically. She must imbibe a stiff dose every two hours. It’s the last thing she’ll do before she goes to bed, and the first thing she does every morning. If, by chance, she wakes up in the middle of the night, she’ll probably have a little. She is no longer confined to a wheelchair and lives a relatively normal life, all things considered.

Raich this year took his wife’s case all the way to the Supreme Court. He argued that Angel’s marijuana consumption did not constitute interstate commerce; the crop is locally grown and donated free-of-charge by well-wishers, making it nether interstate nor commerce. Or so he thought.

To Raich’s chagrin, by an 8-3 vote, the court did not buy his argument, remanding the case back to San Francisco’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

He and other marijuana advocates stress that the decision was not the death knell many reported it to be. Instead, the status quo is merely sustained: Medical marijuana remains illegal federally but legal in California, with the whole issue officially muddled and Angel Raich still at risk of being busted at any time.

Robert Raich has more legal arguments to justify his wife’s case to the courts, but it was his understanding of Jewish law that justified it for himself.

“There are parallels to Jewish law. It’s OK to drive on Shabbos if you do it to drive someone to the emergency room. It’s OK to steal a boat and row it out to save a drowning person. And it’s OK to violate the federal prohibition against marijuana possession in order to save a life,” he said.

And to those who would question Raich’s understanding of Jewish law, he invites you to address your complaints to his father, Abe Raich, an Orthodox rabbi in Colorado. The elder Raich is an unabashed supporter of his son and daughter-in-law.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Brian Klein is the grandson of two Orthodox congregational presidents. They’re both long gone but he believes they would have supported his right to get the medicine he needs.

The 47-year-old was infected with both AIDS and Hepatitis C, and the drugs he was prescribed for nausea left him “zonked out” to the point that even getting out of a chair was a tenuous proposition.

Klein’s hepatologist worked for the Veteran’s Administration, a federal agency, and that precluded her from prescribing marijuana. But his AIDS doctor signed a prescription and Klein found himself, for the first time, in one of the city’s roughly 30 marijuana clubs. “There were all different kinds. It was like buying coffee!” he recalled.

Klein has since conquered his Hep C (“one down, one to go”), and he says he wouldn’t have been able to stomach his chemotherapy treatments without medical marijuana. Which, in the eyes of the federal government, makes him a criminal.

“It’s totally galling. It’s ridiculous. What’s crazy is making everything black and white,” he said. “Any medication can be misused. But what’s ridiculous is saying ‘this is all bad’ when, clearly there is a legitimate, useful purpose in this.”

Dr. Mike Alcalay might argue against that, however. He’s not sure how easy it is to misuse marijuana.

The Jewish Oakland pediatrician remembers memorizing the “therapeutic index” back in his days at UCLA medical school. While “therapeutic index” sounds reassuring, it’s actually much graver than that.

Quite simply, it’s the number of simultaneous doses it takes to cease treating and start killing a patient.

Alcalay pegs morphine as a 10, as 10 times the prescription will be a lethal dose. (Alcohol is also a 10, notes the doctor sternly.) He estimates Tylenol and ibuprofen drugs at around a 25 or 30. Penicillin is roughly 100. But what about cannabis?

Lab rats have been exposed to up to 40,000 times the standard dose of marijuana and “all they do is go in the corner and sleep it off,” Alcalay says.

While trained in pediatrics, Alcalay has shifted his focus to medical marijuana. As an AIDS patient since the 1980s, he counts himself among his 1,000-plus patients.

Most controversially, one of those patients was an 8-year-old. He came to Alcalay with diagnoses of obsessive-compulsive disorder and hyperactivity. He had been institutionalized for violent behavior, and was on “15 different medications, some of which were very harmful to him.”

Alcalay prescribed “a quarter of a brownie” a day. “And within half an hour, he loosens his grip on [his mother] and says, ‘You know what? I’m not angry anymore.'”

The doctor says the child even went back to public schools for two years, until the farm that provided his marijuana was shut down by federal authorities. He’s not sure what became of the boy.

For those readers whose heart rate leapt when considering the possibility of giving a child marijuana, Alcalay has little pity for you. He would have been easily within his rights and society’s norms if he’d prescribed hardcore narcotics such as OxyContin or even morphine to the boy. What makes marijuana worse, he asks?

Nothing, he answers. In fact, “half the medicines of the 19th century contained cannabis. Cough medicines, sleep medicine, whatever. Queen Victoria used it for menstrual cramps,” he says.

So why is marijuana still illegal when watered-down heroin is not? Ed Rosenthal has an answer for that.

You might remember Rosenthal’s name. He was the self-proclaimed “Jewish Ganja Guru” deputized by the city of Oakland to cultivate medical marijuana, busted by federal authorities, and tried as if he were a drug lord.

A jury found Rosenthal guilty of several charges in 2003 but flew into a rage when it was revealed to them — after handing down the verdict — that mention of Rosenthal’s accreditation by the city of Oakland had been deemed inadmissible in court.

In the end, the prosecutors — and, by proxy, the federal government — sustained a public-relations shellacking, and Rosenthal received a sentence of 24 hours, time served. Since he was actually detained for 36 hours, he figures that someone owes him 12 hours.

Rosenthal sits in the Oakland home he once lived in and now uses as a large office building. The décor is reminiscent of a college co-op, and homemade art abounds; more than 20 portraits or sculptures of faces hang on the turquoise walls of the room where Rosenthal gazes out at Lake Merritt in the distance. He calls it his “Head Room.”

Outside, a shoebox-sized cottage serves as Rosenthal’s “writing room,” housing back issues of High Times magazine dating to 1974 and a photo of Rosenthal with Willie Nelson.

When asked if he would have devoted his life to marijuana advocacy if he’d been, say, an Episcopalian, Rosenthal laughs good and hard.

“No, no, I’d be at the country club! Another round of drinks? Try the shrimp cocktail, it’s marrrrrrvelous!”

Unlike Christians, who often prize sacrifice and martyrdom, Jews are copasetic with “doing well by doing good,” Rosenthal indicates. It’s all right to make a decent living helping people get their medicine.

But you can’t if you’re incarcerated.

The Temple Sinai congregant has avoided prison thus far but, should he go, he’d be a far more productive worker than, say, a heroin addict. And that, he says, is at the root of why marijuana is illegal.

“There’s only one reason why. And that’s because it’s a job issue for the criminal justice system. All the opposition to marijuana comes from the criminal justice system. All of the prison industries are associated with that: commissary suppliers, uniform suppliers, prison industries where they have prisoners working civilian jobs at very low pay,” he charges.

Three-quarters of a million people were arrested in this county last year for marijuana-related crimes, he says. “That’s hundreds of thousands of jobs. And that’s what this is about.

“It’s not about whether marijuana is harmful or not. If you wanted to start with harmful substances, start with tobacco. Make that illegal. Alcohol, make that illegal. Make certain risky behaviors such as parachute jumping or skiing illegal. No, this is about jobs and money and spending $30 billion of taxpayers’ money on a totally useless special interest.”

But Rosenthal is optimistic about the future, and he sees his own trial as a watershed moment. Not for the American people — numerous polls have shown widespread support for medical marijuana for some time now — but for the media. That was Ed Rosenthal wearing a clinician’s white coat on the cover of the New York Times and profiled in several sympathetic articles (Rosenthal, incidentally, is neither a doctor nor a pharmacist, but that white coat did lend him a sense of gravitas).

“They used the term medical marijuana without quotes. This changed the way medical marijuana is reported by the press in the United States,” he says.

“It was no longer a joke. Taglines used to say ‘His dreams are going up in smoke’ or ‘maybe it was just a pipe dream.’ That’s over.”

There are other reasons to be optimistic about the future of medical marijuana. For one, there’s money in it. Alcalay reports that conventions and meetings that were once largely attended by empty folding chairs are now overflowing — with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, the giant corporation Bayer has even come up with a marijuana tincture that a patient can squirt into his mouth like a Binaca breath spray.

But a bright future cannot overshadow a difficult present.

Stephanie Landa has been using medical marijuana ever since she was struck by a car in Los Angeles and crashed through the windshield in 1999.

In 2002, she was invited by San Francisco police and political officials to grow medical marijuana here; various supervisors even described the city as a “haven.” Then-District Attorney Terrence Hallinan assured her, personally, that she was legally in the clear.

Of course that wasn’t so. Landa’s warehouse was raided, and her 800 plants destroyed. She and her two co-owners were tried on the federal level. On their lawyer’s advice, they kept out of the press, which was a questionable call considering one of her co-defendants, Kevin Gage, is a working Hollywood actor with some name recognition.

Gage and Thomas Kikuchi (who is Landa’s domestic partner) have just finished 41-month terms in federal prison. Landa, who had been caring for her elderly parents and son until Kikuchi’s release, is now due to report to prison. While Gage and Kikuchi were in a minimum-security facility, there are no minimum-security women’s prisons.

Her lawyers are fighting, but Landa doesn’t like her chances.

“I think I’m going to jail. I’m just prolonging it as much as I can. My parents are going to be devastated,” she says, matter-of-factly.

“I’m a nice Jewish girl with a 19-year-old kid. I don’t want to go.”

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.