It’s Tuesday afternoon at the intersection of 23rd and Union in Seattle’s Central District. A bus pulls away, and a thrown-together group of riders waits for the light to change. There’s a big guy in a sports jersey and his girlfriend, holding hands. There’s a woman who could be in her 70s and a couple of standard-issue hipsters, some of them from out of town, did he say Cleveland? The older woman is giving the hand-holding couple some advice; it’s their first visit. This group didn’t plan to arrive together but they all have the same destination: the pot shop on the opposite corner.
A lot of businesses have occupied that spot — including a torched Mediterranean restaurant and a short-lived kosher bakery — and the corner has seen enough violence to raise the question: Is 23rd and Union cursed? Now the home of Uncle Ike’s, an upscale-looking, neon-adorned legal marijuana shop, the curse seems to have lifted. Some days there’s a line down the street of people waiting to get in, as if they’re waiting for tickets for a popular movie. A sign around the corner for people who’ve walked too far yells, “Hey stoner! Around the corner.”
Uncle Ike’s isn’t the only legal cannabis shop in the neighborhood — in fact, there’s another one right around the corner — but Uncle Ike’s overt advertising (“Our weed cures Ebola”) has made the shop a lightning rod for anger about the gentrification of the Central District. In early April, the owner, Ian Eisenberg, was the subject — not for the first time — of an anti-Semitic slur during a protest outside his shop. Maybe he hasn’t escaped the curse.
Legal, recreational marijuana is part of the Pacific Northwest landscape now. There’s a pot shop for every two Starbucks shops in Washington state, according to lemonhaze.com, a site that collects cannabis data. In March, King County collected more than $8 million in excise taxes alone. And Jews, whether they bring their identities into it or not, can be found actively working in all aspects of the state’s burgeoning industry.
“I never thought about being Jewish until the protests started,” Eisenberg says. Eisenberg, with salt-and-pepper hair and a bring-it-on attitude, sounds both amused and flustered. “I grew up totally not religious. I went to Catholic school. After all this stuff came out in the papers I had people inviting me to Shabbat dinners — and all this stuff I don’t know anything about.” For Eisenberg, neighborhood development can’t happen fast enough — and if anything, the shop is making the notorious intersection safer. “Jewish people have owned commercial property on this corner forever,” he says. “Most of them were smarter than me. They kept their heads down.”
The fact that Eisenberg has been accused of racism is an ironic twist on a more common argument: cannabis legalization is a path to racial justice. This is the cause taken up by Roy and Claire Kaufmann, founders of the Portland-based organization Le’Or, an organization designed to “spark up” conversation in the Jewish community about “taboo subjects like marijuana legalization and mass incarceration.” (“Le’Or” in Hebrew means “to light.”)
Kaufmann can’t separate his politics from his religion. He grew up in a traditionally observant family, and he says Jews have a responsibility to engage with the implications of drug policy, especially around race and incarceration. Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession or use. “Having grown up very Jewish and with a lot of Jewish friends — all of whom consume cannabis with no consequences because of being able to pass as white — it’s not just a paradox in terms of not showing up, it’s dereliction of duty.” Claire Kaufmann’s blog, rebrandingcannabis.com, points out some facts: Israel has been a leader in cannabis research (in fact, Hebrew University professor Raphael Mechoulam is the one who first isolated THC in 1964), and a “majority of prominent drug activists are Jewish,” like Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, Rick Doblin of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and Diane Goldstein of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. This is not to mention celebrities like Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman. Legalization, for Kaufmann, is an extension of progressive American Judaism’s civil rights commitment.
The fact that Jews are heavily involved with drug reform isn’t new. Richard Nixon noticed it, too. “You know it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” Nixon is recorded saying to Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman in 1971. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there’s so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish. By God we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss.” What does Kaufmann think of new attorney general Jeff Sessions, who has been outspoken against legalization and whose presence looms over the legal weed shops sprouting up around the Pacific Northwest? One word: "Oy."
Le’Or partners with David Bronner (the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and a notorious activist who was arrested in 2012 for locking himself inside a metal cage in front of the White House with hemp plants), and in April Le’Or hosted its second cannabis seder. The Kaufmanns gather activists of all faiths and lead them through their version of the Haggadah, a rewrite that’s high on the social justice aspects of Passover. “If we are required to remember what it’s like to be a free people and to ask questions — which is the greatest freedom of all,” Kaufmann says, “we should use that story to look at modern-day examples of slavery and bondage and oppression.”
Most Jews in the industry, though, are in it for the business. Alison Draisin, the founder of Seattle-based Ettalew’s Edibles, sees marijuana as a social justice issue, but never considered her involvement in it as such. She started baking edible marijuana products based on her Southern Jewish grandmother’s recipes. “When we were feeling down,” Draisin says, “my grandmother would feed us. We’re Jews, it’s what do, we like to feed people. Here’s a seven layer bar, here’s a piece of mandelbrot.” She laughs. “Not the best coping strategy.”
But Draisin sees the kindness in her grandmother’s approach. “It’s about compassion,” she says. “I never considered [marijuana] a social justice issue — but maybe there’s something in being raised Jewish that draws us to social justice issues?” Her parents, Draisin says, came around to accept her career path for two reasons: first, they saw marijuana as helpful to friends who were suffering. Secondly, Draisin was running a thriving business. What parent wouldn’t be proud?
While general (if quiet) consensus has formed around medical marijuana, rabbinic leadership has been pretty much silent over the issue of recreational. The Seattle Va’ad and the Rabbinical Council of America have had no comment. But Rabbi Elie Estrin, who heads the University of Washington chapter of Chabad and serves as an Air Force chaplain, is disappointed by the effect of legal weed on his students. “They’ll smoke weed alone instead of coming for Shabbat, for conversation over delicious food,” Estrin says. “That bugs me. Marijuana causes people to be more sunk into the couch, as opposed to out in society. We need people to do something; that’s what Judaism is all about.”
Estrin has no time for arguments that weed is equivalent to wine, ceremonially or otherwise. “Nowhere does it say that you can smoke instead of drinking for sanctification; it has to be a beverage,” he says. “It’s not that you’re meant to get to a higher level, therefore, do whatever gets you high. No. Judaism believes there are no shortcuts. You need to work on yourself. Using external stimuli is considered a falsity, as opposed to a true service of God. From the point of enlightenment, that’s a Buddhist approach — it’s not a Jewish approach.”
But Rabbi James Mirel, rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue, attempted to destigmatize the use of medical and recreational marijuana when he agreed to smoke a bong with an Episcopal priest and a gay conservative atheist for a video produced by cut.com. (They tried to get a Muslim cleric, but none would agree to it.) “We felt marijuana was something an adult could make an informed choice to use,” Mirel says about the video. “We have to make informed decisions. There’s a downside to anything you do, you can over-exercise, over-drink, overuse marijuana. Use responsibly — that was part of our message.”
Kaufmann resists over-secularizing the progressive movement. He hopes his cannabis seder will spread, and that Jews nationwide will embrace the spirit at the intersection of marijuana policy and social justice, even if they don’t adopt the weed itself.
“Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King as a rabbi, not as a random guy,” Kaufmann says. “He prayed with his feet. It’s important that we don’t lose that part of the work.”