For Berkeley Jews, medical cannabis is ethical imperative

If you want to traffic in stereotypes, Elie Green, Ramona Rubin and Daniel Kosmal — the founders of Doc Green’s, which makes healing cannabis ointments and lotions — look pretty much like what you might imagine when you hear, “Berkeley-based medical marijuana collective.”

That is, of course, until they open their mouths and tell you they’re observant Jews.

Elie Green (from left), Ramona Rubin and Daniel Kosmal show off Doc Green’s topical cannabis lotions. photo/cathleen maclearie

“It’s been interesting dealing with [appearances at] weekend festivals,” says Rubin, 36, over an almond milk latte at a Berkeley café. “Being shomer Shabbos, it means just working on Friday and Sunday … it’s a constant balance between serving our own religious needs, doing keruv [outreach], telling people about what we’re doing with cannabis and how it could help them.”

The company’s co-founders, who have been producing lotion made from marijuana plants grown in Northern California and selling the product online and through dispensaries for more than four years, say the average customer is an older person who suffers from chronic pain such as sciatica.

“Maybe [consumable] cannabis isn’t for everybody, because there are psychoactive effects that not everybody wants to experience,” says Kosmal, 40. “But topical cannabis really is for everybody. There are no psychoactive effects. It’s just for pain relief. And everybody gets bumps and sore muscles and aches and pains.”

“You don’t have to get high to be a cannabis user,” echoes Green.

Green, the company’s 35-year-old namesake, is the son of a retired Orthodox rabbi — Rabbi Simcha Green, who lives in Berkeley and has, alongside his wife, Margie, taken on the role of company spokesperson. The couple, who are in their 70s, help with presentations about Doc Green’s at conferences; earlier this year the rabbi spoke at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek at an event that also featured former state Assembly speaker Willie Brown. After that talk, the younger Green says he was “bombarded by grandmas basically throwing money at me, going ‘If this stuff works…’ ”

It might sound unorthodox, but the rabbi’s desire to spread the word about the medicinal benefits of cannabis is rooted in ancient Jewish text; he points to at least a dozen instances where the Bible mentions the healing properties of what he believes to be a marijuana plant.

“I grew up in a time when it was taboo,” says the rabbi. “But when you see how many seniors, how many people [medical marijuana] has helped … it’s so impressive. After our son introduced us to it, I went with him to a dispensary for the first time and I saw firsthand how clean it was, how well run, and I realized it was on the up-and-up.”

The catch, of course, is that it isn’t — at least, according to federal law. Though California voters approved the “compassionate use act” decriminalizing medical marijuana in 1996, it is not recognized by the federal government — a situation that has led to periodic raids on cannabis clubs and marijuana advocacy centers, such as Oakland’s Oaksterdam University.

But with Colorado and Washington state leading the way, the founders of Doc Green’s and other medical marijuana advocates say the tide is turning in their favor.

The strides that Israel has made toward recognizing marijuana’s healing properties give advocates further hope.

“Right now, Israel is quite a bit ahead of us as far as their legislation and having a central government that supports medical marijuana,” says Kosmal, who just returned from a two-week trip to Israel, where he met with advocates and growers in the country’s blooming medical marijuana industry. He says Doc Green’s is “in negotiations” with Tikun Olam, one of Israel’s biggest distributors, to collaborate on products (see main story).

“The doctors there don’t have any history of stigma,” he says. “They see something that helps their patients and they want to go forward with it. The whole community is looking at it with honest and fresh eyes.”

Evidence of medicinal cannabis use goes back thousands of years and spans cultures. On the Doc Green’s website, satisfied users have reported the lotion improves conditions ranging from eczema and other skin problems to repetitive stress injuries, migraines, fibromyalgia and more. Lavender, vanilla and unscented varieties are available for purchase at dispensaries throughout California; the company also ships directly to consumers who can provide proof of a prescription.

A quick scan of those leading the charge on medical marijuana — in California, Israel and elsewhere — begs the question: When did this become a Jewish cause? Ed Rosenthal, the go-to expert on growing and the history of the movement, is a Bay Area–based Jew. A bill now before the state Legislature that envisions a better-regulated prescription and distribution system was penned by Senate majority leader Darrell Steinberg and Sen. Marc Leno — both Jewish.

Elie Green just returned from a medical marijuana business conference in Seattle, where he reports that “half the place was Jewish.” Rubin, who holds a degree in public health, can name a number of dispensaries with mezuzahs in their doorways; one club run by Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles holds popular “pre-Shabbat” sales before closing their doors for the Sabbath.

In his view, says Kosmal, it’s pretty simple.

“In Jewish law, as I understand it, it’s a very simple question: Does the medicine have healing effects? And what are the risks of using the medicine?” he says. “If the healing effects outweigh the risk of using the medicine, use the medicine. Not only use the medicine, doctors are required to prescribe you the medicine. That’s our legal and ethical responsibility to each other, to Jews, to anybody in pain.”

“Of course, as Jews we are also required to follow the law of the land,” Green adds. “But the law of the land is changing.”


Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.