Who ever imagined that the campaign to legalize marijuana would become a deciding issue in an election to determine who will be the next Prime Minister of the Jewish State? The demand to legalize marijuana is a central banner of the Zehut Party platform, and it may attract enough supporters to put the party, and its leader, Moshe Feiglin, into the Knesset, giving him a key say in the choice of Prime Minister and the composition of the next government coalition.
Two years ago, I wrote an Op-Ed about the dangers of marijuana use, especially amongst young people. The article prompted a tsunami of reactions, the majority virulently opposed to my opinions, to the point of abrasive written attacks. “Idiot,” I was labeled, and far worse. “Ignoramus – you don’t know a thing!” many commenters responded. This is like saying that the Chief Rabbi of Israel doesn’t know how to read Rashi. After all, in my bohemian and hippie years, I had been a daily marijuana smoker for over a decade. Today, in Jerusalem, what seems like a thousand years later, first thing in the morning, I walk to shul and put on tefillin. Back then in Hollywood, after waking up in the morning, I would roll a joint with the same care and precision that I now wrap my tefillin strap around my arm. Like everyone in California in those days, and probably also today, I always had a stash of cannabis on hand. It was easy to get and not very expensive. The joint paper comes in a pocket-size package on sale at any drugstore, just like in every grocery store in Israel today. I became so used to getting stoned, I could drive stoned, walk stoned, talk stoned, in a completely normal manner, so that no one would ever suspect I was flying inside. The truth is, everyone else was stoned too, the movie executives, the secretaries, the health freaks working out at the gym, the Blacks working in the gas station with their rose-colored shades so you couldn’t see the red blood vessels glowing in their eyes. That’s Hollywood. And New York, Paris, Bangkok, Berlin, and, unfortunately, there are places in Israel today that are not far behind.
The “Grass Can Kill” article went viral, and, to my surprise, I discovered that many of the staunch defenders of marijuana usage identified with the “dati-light” side of the Religious Zionist community. I realized that there are many people, dati and secular alike, in their twenties, thirties, and forties, a vocal community, many without teenage children of their own to educate, who enjoyed coming home from work and lighting up a joint to relax. Unfortunately, in seeking to totally legalize marijuana, they are thinking of themselves, not on the very negative consequences that cannabis can have on young people.
After my article was published, I received a phone call from a protégé of Moshe Feiglin, saying that Moshe wanted to debate the issue with me at a public forum in Tel Aviv. I declined, replying that I was not against the legalization of marijuana, if it was accompanied by an educational program for young people regarding its dangers, a prohibition against driving while stoned, and some system of legal control that would make its use among teenagers a punishable misdemeanor. Regarding the use of marijuana for medical purposes, that deserves a “green” light and has my full blessing.
In the article, I wrote about three personal acquaintances who died in tragic accidents while under the influence of cannabis. Recently, an old college buddy of my brother was killed while skiing in the Andes. Daniel was a very wealthy lawyer and businessman who enjoyed adventure and sports. As was his custom in his leisure hours, before venturing out to the snowy slopes, he got stoned on marijuana.
Speeding down the mountain, either he didn’t notice the tree, or saw it too late, or, perhaps, in a spaced-out hallucination, he mistook its branches for the outreaching arms of his father, ready to welcome him in Heaven with a warm embrace. Whatever the case, he died immediately on impact with the trunk of the tree.
I knew Daniel well. In fact, the first time I smoked marijuana, almost 50 years ago, was with my brother and Daniel, in the dormitory room which they shared at Brandeis University. I was 18 years old at the time, a senior at Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, a prestigious private school, a half-hour drive from my brother’s university in Waltham. Even then, Daniel was wont to drive around stoned in his fancy sports car. He isn’t smoking anymore.
My friend, Sammy, was the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman on the island of St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, where my family lived for 28 years. One summer, parachuting was the cool thing to do. Sammy was high on grass when he jumped out of the small airplane. In the “high” of the free fall, either he opened his chute too late or he got himself tangled in its strings. After a two-day search, his shark-eaten body was found floating in the Caribbean Sea.
Another one of my Jewish friends on the island, Jerry, had a powerful motorcycle. One night, he was stoned like everyone else at a party I attended. On his way home along a winding mountain path, he took a long corner too wide and found himself facing the grill of a truck that was speeding around the corner from the other direction. As he swerved to avoid the collision, his motorcycle flew off a roadside cliff, down into a steep mountain valley. Both he and the motorcycled were totaled.
It is known that the chemical agent contained in the marijuana plant, known as THC, affects various centers of the brain, producing a lack of physical coordination and a slowdown in reaction time. The THC can also awaken suppressed and unresolved fears, traumas, and insecurities from a person’s past, triggering attacks of paranoia and anxiety, the after-effects of which can haunt a person throughout his life. A smoker can also have unpleasant experiences (known as downers or bummers in the day) while he is stoned. If the cannabis user drinks alcohol either before, during, or after he or she smoked, negative reactions can be exacerbated. And there is always a danger that some foreign and mind-warping chemical has been surreptitiously added to marijuana to make it seem stronger. These can produce a fun high and hysterically comic hallucinations, but they can also lead to tragically deluded behavior.
In addition, marijuana use often leads to hash, and hash leads to cocaine, and cocaine to leads to speed, mescaline, LSD, heroin, opium, and assortment of new drugs I have never heard of, including deadly combinations of drugs and alcohol. While many marijuana users deny that a connection exists between grass and heavier drugs, I beg to differ. For over ten years, I was a more than frequent marijuana smoker, and I can testify from firsthand experience that the connection to other drugs is real. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” When you are hanging around with drug-users, in a culture steeped in drugs, like the sixties in America, the peer pressure is enormous to be as cool and hip as everyone else. Here’s a short list of some famous people who died from a drug overdose, and who most likely began with marijuana: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin, Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, John Belushi. And it may very well be that the famous country-western singer, John Denver, was stoned when he forgot to fill up his twin-engine airplane with gasoline – “Rocky Mountain High.” Believe it all starts with marijuana.
Putting these extreme and tragic cases aside, the frequent use of marijuana is known to reduce a teenage student’s level of motivation. It can cause a lack of concentration, lethargy and apathy. Teenagers who smoke grass on a regular basis have trouble with school demands and often drop out to continue their education on the street with their smoking buddies.
The truth is, and this also applies to teenagers in Israel, and in other Jewish communities around the world, the main reason I smoked marijuana wasn’t only to be cool and one-of-the-guys, but rather to silence the uncomfortable sense of uneasiness I felt in my body and brain. It was a feeling I lived with for years, ever since high school, and maybe before - an inner tension, a feeling of angst, what psychiatrists call “general anxiety,” bordering on depression - a feeling of constant inner pressure that getting stoned seemed to soothe, until the high wore off and you needed another joint, or beer, or tranquillizer, or “up” of some kind.
My habit was what the “Jefferson Airplane” band immortalized, singing, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.”
Back in those days, in Hollywood, I always felt that something was missing in my life. No matter whatever new attainments I had, whatever new successes I achieved, whether selling another screenplay, or buying a classier car, after the initial high wore off, I felt empty. At first I thought that if I sold a script for more money, or had a bigger write-up in the “Hollywood Reporter,” or rented a cooler, more expensive apartment on the beach, then I would finally be happy and the anxiety would go away. But it never did. With every conquest and success, I needed more and more successes – and more and more grass to quiet my nerves. I got stoned to alleviate the bummer of my life, and, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, in order to “feel groooooovy.”
Now I know what was missing. My holy Jewish soul wasn’t getting the spiritual nourishment it needed. Whatever worldly treasures I fed it, the pleasure didn’t mean a thing to my soul. Because, as the book, “The Path of the Just,” explains, the soul belongs to a totally different world. The holy Jewish soul doesn’t receive any pleasure from fancy sports cars, fame, discotheques, or drugs. The Jewish soul needs Torah.
But, of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time. I had no inclination that the source of my inner malaise was spiritual. If someone had told me then, I wouldn’t have had any idea what the hell he was talking about. I would have thought he was crazy.
That brings us back to today. It is no secret that a great many young people in Israel, in both secular and religious communities, have become regular users of marijuana. Some, who became dealers, are in jail, others in public rehab programs, while the majority fool themselves into thinking that the police won’t one day knock on their doors and present their parents with a search warrant signed by a judge. It is true that a blanket legalization of marijuana would free the police and court system to focus on other matters, but what will be with our teenagers?
I haven’t smoked marijuana for the past 35 years. When I became a baal tshuva and discovered the joy of Torah, I didn’t need grass anymore. I discovered that the greatest high in the world is being high on Hashem. The young generation, the generation of Redemption, has been blessed with high-powered souls. Young people today are searching for the brilliant light and soaring high that are destined to appear as the Shechinah returns to Zion with the continued building of our Nation and Land. In the meantime, they grab at whatever substitute thrill that they can in order to experience the serene high they yearn for, including the feeling of sublime oneness which comes through cleaving to G-d. In the meantime, getting down on our searching teenage children doesn’t help them. We have to guide them by example, by radiating the joy which comes through living a true life of Torah. Our sons and daughters are wonderful and talented kids, but they should know that there is a much greater high than getting stoned on grass.