Attitudes toward marijuana are going through a paradigm shift. Long treated as a scourge and labeled a “gateway drug,” people in the United States and Israel alike have been publically urging marijuana’s legalization. In the United States, an ever-increasing number of states are legalizing marijuana, and on January 1, Colorado became the first state to legalize the sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes. In Israel, the debate is raging, and was recently highlighted when 1,000 people from a wide variety of political persuasions rallied in Tel Aviv to call for the drug’s legalization. The rally was notable for its mix of young and old, right wing and left wing, religious and secular.
All of this talk of pot has led me to think back on my own younger days. Like many, I was, for a period, very into weed. I used to buy books and magazines about it, I bought beautiful hand-blown smoking pieces, I made pilgrimages to Amsterdam and found community among people of shared interest. I had a great time… until I didn’t. Eventually I spent a great deal of money I didn't really have, and devoted more and more of my energy to supporting my habit. I ended up staying home longer and longer, and eventually lost my connection to the community that had given my attachment to pot meaning. I had taken a culture to its extreme, become lost and alone.
And so I moved on. I found that if I wanted to fully enter a new stage of life, I would have to leave the marijuana world behind. I found a home in Torah, spiritually, communally and professionally. It feels so completely different. And yet, when I look at the way I engage in the world of Torah, I cannot help but see real similarities to how I engaged with the world of marijuana. Today I buy religious texts, and beautiful – often-expensive – Judaica. I take my family to pilgrimages in Jerusalem and find community in shul. And sometimes I get strict with my observance and alter my interactions with my community by turning inward and getting lost in the text. I - and I would venture to say this is also true for others - can lose myself in Torah, and forget the people.
I can see that in each of these two stages, I have searched for a different approach to finding meaning, and a different way of engaging with the world. And in each, when I overused the means, it had the opposite effect: pulling me away from the existence I sought to embrace.
Ultimately, I know that G-d gave us both Torah and plants. I wonder if this is the underlying meaning of the verse from Deuteronomy (11:26) “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” That each in its own way has been endowed with the potential to be a blessing or a curse, or even both at the same time. I think ultimately both are a means to an end, placed here by our creator to assist us as we search for meaning in life. As I experienced, each has the power to deliver meaning, but both can take over lives and blind us. So what do I think Judaism has to say? From my experience it speaks the same about pot as about itself, don't take it too far and lose sight of what really matters.
And so I understand those who seek to legalize pot; it contains extraordinary healing qualities, provides pain relief and decreases nausea associated with chemotherapy. Israeli research has shown a role for marijuana in helping those afflicted with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Marijuana, like so many herbs has medicinal qualities that are very real and very powerful. Still, I see the perspective of those who seek to keep it illegal; pot represents a lack of control, both on the part of the user and society at large. Despite the growing change in public perception, many people still dismiss the movement to legalize marijuana. The U.S. government has shown no signs of changing any federal laws regarding pot, and the majority of states remain committed to the “war on drugs” as it has been fought for decades. Indeed, billions of dollars have been spent, endless hours invested, and countless speeches delivered, with an eye to demonizing marijuana. To turn back on this effort is a frightening prospect. To admit either failure (“we lost the war”) or error (“we were wrong”) is daunting.
And yet, the choice to legalize marijuana appears to be ultimately necessary. Like so many things we encounter, it has the power to heal as well as the ability to destroy. As with food, alcohol, exercise or faith, we are responsible for the manner in which we chose to incorporate something into our lives. The line between blessing and curse is thin; our task is to stay on the side of blessing.
Follow Rabbi Jonah Geffen on Twitter @JonahGeffen.