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May 24, 2007

Burglary, raid, mezuzah underscore pot law issue

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/burglary_raid_mezuzah_underscore_pot_law_issue_20070525

A mezuzah with the scroll removed and the plastic wrapper undone at the Karma Collective, a Van Nuys medical marijuana pharmacy. Karma operators claim police pulled the mezuzah off a doorpost and removed the scroll during a raid.  Photo courtesy the Karma Collective

A mezuzah with the scroll removed and the plastic wrapper undone at the Karma Collective, a Van Nuys medical marijuana pharmacy. Karma operators claim police pulled the mezuzah off a doorpost and removed the scroll during a raid. Photo courtesy the Karma Collective

Alex Grabiner was not a particularly religious Jew, but when he and a few friends opened a medical marijuana pharmacy last year in the San Fernando Valley, they invited an Orthodox rabbi to install three mezuzot in hopes that God would bless their business.

"We wanted to create a place where there was a drastically different energy inside than there was outside," said Grabiner, a 22-year-old Boston transplant.

"That is what the mezuzah symbolizes: That this is a house of people who believe."

But last month, the Karma Collective, as the pharmacy near Van Nuys Airport is known, was burglarized. The thieves didn't take much -- a few hundred dollars, no drugs -- but they cut through a steel security gate and knocked down the front door and another door that opened from the lobby to the cannabis shop.

The mezuzot were still hanging when the police arrived, Grabiner said. After the police were done, a mezuzah was on the ground, its sacred parchment removed from its plastic shell and from the safety wrapper.

Between those points in time, a burglary investigation turned into a narcotics raid, and Karma's Diana Hahn was placed in the back of a black-and-white over allegedly possessing illegal drugs. (The 23-year-old is now out on $100,000 bond; the district attorney was given an extension Tuesday to file charges by June 5.)

It's unclear what happened to the mezuzah. Grabiner and his colleagues -- they're hush-hush about titles and ownership of the pot pharmacy, which continues to operate -- claim Los Angeles police intentionally defiled the mezuzah. However, Capt. Jim Miller of LAPD's Van Nuys Division said, "To the best of my knowledge, whatever happened to that happened before our investigation."

"We don't just wantonly go through places and destroy property, and there is no reason we would have for destroying religious items," said Miller, who joined his officers at the Karma Collective investigation April 26. "If we had information that we believed narcotics was stored within an object and it was necessary for us to damage that object to recover the product, that would be fully documented -- and that didn't happen."

Whatever the case, Karma's tale underscores the broader reality that 11 years after California voters passed Proposition 215, implementation of the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized marijuana for medical purposes, remains mired in confusion.

Most cities and counties have done nothing to regulate cannabis clubs, which in Los Angeles have multiplied more than fourfold in the past year. While police are not proactively investigating the pharmacies, Miller said, they wouldn't overlook illegal activity of which they are made aware. In the case of Karma, he said, that was the sale of marijuana baked into edible cookies and chocolates, which Miller said are not protected by state law. The pharmacy contends that baked goods are protected by state law and continues to sell them, as do most clubs.

Additionally, the federal government does not recognize Proposition 215 or subsequent state legislation protecting medical marijuana and in January federal agents raided 11 L.A. cannabis clubs. Because of marijuana's purported lack of medicinal value -- last year, the Food and Drug Administration stated "no scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana," the Drug Enforcement Administration considers marijuana a Schedule I narcotic, as dangerous as heroin. Cocaine is a Schedule II.

But a 1999 review by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found marijuana helpful in easing symptoms for certain cancer and AIDS patients, particularly those having problems eating.

Other studies have found cannabis eases chronic pain, relaxes muscle spasms, calms chemotherapy-induced nausea and promotes hunger in AIDS patients who are physically wasting away.

"Whether it is addictive, whether it has a negative effect on the mind -- all those things are irrelevant if you are talking about someone who is dying. What you are trying to do is alleviate pain," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and co-chairman of its bioethics department. "So the question about medical marijuana from a Jewish perspective is a slam dunk."

That might explain why Jews have been at the forefront of advocating the overhaul of marijuana laws. Many of Los Angeles' so-called "pot docs" are Jewish; so, too, is the local head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. And one of the most prominent proponents of medical marijuana has been the Bay Area's self-styled "ganja guru," Ed Rosenthal.

A secular Jew who has spent the past four years fighting federal felony charges for running an Oakland pot club, Rosenthal's been convicted, seen his case overturned and is now being re-tried. Though authorities have agreed Rosenthal won't serve prison time if convicted, he at one point faced a possible lifetime prison sentence and millions of dollars in fines. All the while he has maintained not just his innocence but his moral obligation.

"When I was asked by the city of Oakland to become an officer to the city, I felt it was my duty, not just a civil duty but a biblical duty," he told the San Francisco Jewish newsweekly j. in 2003; he repeated the comment in a phone interview last week. "Not doing it would have been a sin of omission."

Laura McGee believes that. Growing up, the Santa Clarita Jewish girl was plagued by panic attacks so accute, she said that at times she was hospitalized almost monthly. Doctors tried Prozac and Celexa and Klonopin and more drugs than she can remember. Some helped, but not without inducing unbearable mood swings.

When she graduated last year from New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and moved from her family home, the walls closed in. Her mother tried what she considered her last resort and took McGee to a pot doc. It seemed to work. On a recent visit to the Karma Collective, McGee, who now works there and lives in Karma's Woodland Hills commune, was calm and articulate and yet indignant about the difficulty of legal access.

"Life and saving your own life and saving another life is the most important thing in Judaism. So I don't understand how this could be wrong," said McGee, 18. "It allowed me to live a normal life. To be happy. I never thought I would reach this point."





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