Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn spent 27 years teaching the Torah in shuls from central New Jersey to southern Australia. Lately, he’s been talking a lot about a passage from Leviticus, the part about not standing idle while your neighbor bleeds.
“This really is an important religious issue,” says the silver-haired 58-year-old, his wide smile punctuated by crescent-shaped dimples. “Especially because of how people have been suffering and the ways that drug laws have been used against Americans and especially against minorities...I think scripture is very clear that when we have the opportunity to help people, we must do it.”
Not to mention that bit about seed-bearing plants that God declared good and gave to all humanity.
The rabbi and his wife, Stephanie Kahn , 55, are competing to establish the District’s first city-sanctioned medical-marijuana operation. Call it Kosher Kush. It’s the culmination of a sort of mid-life crisis for the couple: After packing up their prior lives and making a pilgrimage to Israel, the store represents their unlikely next step—a mom ‘n’ pop pot shop. “We wanted to do something different,” says Stephanie Kahn, a nurse who made her career in hospital administration, “but still within the framework of trying to help people.”
Last month, the District officially joined 14 U.S. states in decriminalizing marijuana for people with certain qualifying conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS and other illnesses. D.C. voters OK’d medical marijuana by more than 69 percent back in a 1998 referendum. But, for 12 years, Congress blocked the ballot initiative’s implementation. The ban was finally lifted last December. Since then, city officials have been busily working on a set of rules to regulate sales of what remains a federally classified Schedule I narcotic.
Under the regs, D.C. will license up to five medical-marijuana dispensaries and 10 cultivation centers citywide. Though D.C.’s rules are probably stricter than anywhere else on the decriminalized-pot map, they nonetheless will open the nation’s capital to an industry that has ballooned into a billion-dollar business out in California. In fact, some well-established West Coast operators have proven eager to move into markets far from home. One of the Golden State’s largest purveyors, Berkeley Patients Group, recently spun off a Northeast affiliate that has snatched up half of the dispensary licenses in Maine.
So far, the Kahns are the first and only ones to go public with any specific D.C. plans. And if their idea is already a divisive topic in the city’s leafy Takoma neighborhood, it’s also a subject of great interest farther afield, where marijuana advocates and potential competitors see the couple as the proverbial canary in the coal mine—if that coal mine were outfitted with grow lights, hydroponics and a security apparatus to rival that of a Swiss bank.
“There’s always a first one,” says Allen St. Pierre , executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “More often than not in business, and in medical cannabis, they play the role of sacrificial lamb. They put the city council, the [advisory neighborhood commission], the regulators, through the rigors. As often is the case, they don’t come to it well capitalized, or with the kind of best-practices information they need from other places. And, if they lack those things, then it’s very hard from the time they begin the process, to the point of actually opening a dispensary, to it being a functional dispensary. That’s a very long path, generally speaking.”
Kahn, though, might be the best guinea pig local reformers could want. Until recently, he served as executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative. He enters the business almost as well versed on the issue of medical marijuana as he is on scripture.
“Jeffrey is blessed in the sense that he comes out of drug-policy reform,” says St. Pierre, who spotted the rabbi “near the front row, vigorously taking notes,” at a seminar on how to set up a dispensary during last year’s NORML conference. “And, at the same time, coming to this as a rabbi and invoking this sort of profound humanistic tone.”
The humanism might have helped more a few years back, before medical marijuana became a lucrative enterprise. These days, people would rather talk about money. “Even if they can call them nonprofits, the individuals, if these things are done correctly, will be paid pretty well,” notes St. Pierre. “In many cases, we’ve seen people make small fortunes. So, there’s that balance between what is altruism on one level and a standard money-making model on the other. In some ways, who could be better to straddle that line than a man of the clergy?”