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Drug Policy: Tipping Into Tikkun

05/08/2013 05:10 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013
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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus who lived in the 6th Century BCE around the same time the Israelites returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian captivity, famously said, "The only constant is change." He saw the world as an ongoing process governed by a law of change and unified in a system of balanced exchanges.

The notion of balance and the image of tipping over at the point of equilibrium is a key concept in understanding the dynamics of social change. The flow of history from biblical time to the present is made up of tipping point moments, some more dramatic than others, that push us to change both as individuals and as societies.

The best-selling book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell offers an accessible look at the social science behind the tipping point phenomenon. This work, developed in the body of communication theory known as "diffusion of innovations," is firmly grounded in social psychology and provides a powerful framework for both understanding and influencing the direction and speed of social change.

The popular press has widely employed "tipping point" references and concepts in its coverage of growing public and legislative support for changing our country's drug policy. With the Passover holiday still fresh in our minds, it is useful to look at the change in attitude toward cannabis (aka marijuana) through the lessons and imagery of another great tipping point narrative, the story of the Exodus.

An inescapable analogy is that of 40 years of wandering in the desert. This was God's strategy for letting the older generation, who still bore the slave mentality, to die off, leaving a new generation who could imagine themselves as a free people.

It has been 40 years since the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, also known as the Shafer Commission, recommended that marijuana be decriminalized. Richard Nixon, who had formed and tasked the commission, rejected its findings. Since then we have been wandering in the wilderness, enslaved to a failed and destructive drug policy.

Just as the years of wandering produced a new generation who didn't inherit the reluctance and fear of their parents, we too are experiencing a similar demographic shift. millennials, with their progressive political leanings, are voting alongside baby boomers, whose past experiences are leading them to question whether we should be following a different path with regard to marijuana.

Boomers, raised on Cecil B. DeMille's spectacle, The Ten Commandments, can easily call to mind the scene where provocatively dressed dancers caress the golden calf in licentious abandon. Though God did not specifically say that those involved in that episode of idol worship were to be excluded from the group who would enter the Promised Land, that is, basically what happened.

Interestingly, the Torah portion that tells the story of the golden calf also spells out the recipe for the holy oil with which the priests anointed themselves. Some have proposed that an ingredient in the holy oil, transliterated as "kana bosem" is, in fact, cannabis.

Each individual has their own tipping point for when an opinion about a particular issue changes. For Pharaoh, this personal tipping point came with the final plague, the killing of the first born. Only then did it become personal for him, and he was moved to change his ways.

For many, the issue of how to view marijuana use changes when it becomes personal for them. This often happens when they or a loved one can benefit from marijuana as a medicine.

The government's hypocritical approach to the medical use of marijuana dates back to 1975 when a glaucoma patient successfully employed a "medical necessity" defense and was provided marijuana by the government as part of the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program. The program was closed to new applicants by the first Bush administration in 1991 at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, rejecting hundreds of already filed applications. It currently supplies medical marijuana to only four surviving patients.

In the Jewish world, medical marijuana enjoys wide support across a spectrum of observance and politics. In 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution in support of medical marijuana. More recently, the movement has begun to address the medical ethics of the issue.

Israel is way ahead of the US in terms of both medical research and use. Israeli scientists are even developing strains that will not produce the "high" that prevents medical users from working and driving while receiving the palliative benefits that the plant offers.

The 1970 Controlled Substances Act defines marijuana as a Schedule I drug with a high potential for abuse and no current accepted medical use in the United States. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, oxycodone, morphine and LSD. Cocaine is classified as Schedule II. The Controlled Substances act can only be changed by Congress or by executive order of the President.

This acknowledged misclassification, left uncorrected all these years, has allowed the Angel of Death to cast its shadow unmercifully across the globe

Misinformation about marijuana has led to wide adoption of the "gateway" theory, warning that one toke of the evil weed will lead to a lifetime of drug addiction. Young people learned that this wasn't true from personal experience and then assumed, often tragically, that the purported dangers of harder drugs had been over-exaggerated as well.

The actual "gateway" to harm lies in marijuana's illegality. Kids who want to "cop some weed" must do so on the illicit market, increasing their exposure to more addictive and expensive highs. Many in law enforcement have observed that it's easier for kids to get grass than it is for them to get beer, for which they must show proof of age.

Our almost religious adherence to policies aligned with Nancy Reagan's "just say no" approach makes it difficult for parents - many of whom have experimented with pot themselves -- to be honest about responsible drug use.

Unintended consequences of saying "no" to this versatile gift from Mother Nature include a market that has come up with a new and dangerous alternative, synthetic marijuana, and the outlawing of industrial hemp, which should be part of our industrial and agricultural vision as we move toward a sustainable new world.

The Angel of Death also stalks those who get caught in the violence of drug trafficking. Leaders of our Latin American neighbors are calling for change in the hemisphere and in their own countries. More than 60,000 people have died in Mexico in prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched his war against drug trafficking in 2006.

One of the massive social costs is the psychological/spiritual death of those who are imprisoned for simple drug possession. Also to be considered is the impact of incarceration on families, and the financial burden we all assume in populating the prison industrial complex.

Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year for a drug law violation. Especially troubling is the disproportionate number of minorities who are jailed for drug crimes. African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users, but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. This has moved some leaders in the African American community to reconsider their own positions on drug policy.

The overarching theme of Passover is liberation, and the Seder ritual reminds us that freedom is an ongoing journey. True freedom can only be enjoyed when all our sisters and brothers are freed from the many burdens that would deny their inherent dignity.

At Passover we retell the story of our people's Exodus and consider how it applies to our lives today, but the message is for all to hear and share. It was part of Pope Francis' first Easter speech reflecting his push for social justice.

Addressing the faithful and all the world, the Pope wished that a "Happy Easter" greeting could reach "every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons." He also wished for an end to violence linked to drug trafficking and the dangers stemming from the reckless exploitation of natural resources.

For today's Jews, the Passover holiday is a somewhat more intimate celebration of family, freedom, and new beginnings. As we look ahead to celebrating "next year in Jerusalem," let us prepare for our own leaps of faith onto the uncharted path toward a more just, compassionate, and hope-filled promised land, free of slavish bonds to a failed drug policy.