Ruth Damsker still remembers how her husband, Jeffrey, a physician, was terminally ill with an aggressive form of brain cancer.
He tried several therapies to find relief — all without success.
Finally, his physician suggested an alternative treatment: marijuana.
“He thought it would be helpful, but obviously my husband was uncomfortable experimenting with it because he knew it was illegal,” Damsker recalled. “It really saddened me that he was unable to have an alternative therapy that would at least make him feel more comfortable.”
That was in 2001 — the year her husband died — but Damsker retold that story last week to the state House of Representatives Health and Human Services Committee, which is considering a bill that would legalize marijuana for medical use only.
Damsker, a board member of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network in Philadelphia, testified in favor of House Bill 1393. Rabbi Eric Cytrin of Temple Beth El in Harrisburg, a Conservative congregation, also testified that medical marijuana was consistent with Jewish values.
In fact, medical marijuana enjoys significant support in the Jewish world. In addition to JSPAN, which has a chapter in Pittsburgh, the Union for Reform Judaism adopted a resolution at its 67th General Assembly supporting its use.
The Conservative movement, has yet to endorse medical marijuana but Rabbi Elliot Dorf, one of the movement’s leading scholars has come out in favor, as have several Orthodox rabbis.
“In terms of Judaism, we would see this as part of our charge by God to be compassionate and merciful and respond to our neighbors’ distress,” Cytrin said. “That’s where we’re coming from ultimately.
“There’s no indication in scripture whether this (marijuana) should be legalized or not, but when we think of the commandments to treat our neighbors with kindness, love and compassion, this is one way to do it.”
In supporting medical marijuana, the Reform movement cited several talmudic sources for its stance including this commentary by Maimonides: “God created drugs and compounds and gave us the intelligence necessary to discover their medicinal properties; we must use them in warding off illness and disease. (Mishneh P’sachim 4:9).
In Israel, people with cancer, multiple sclerosis or certain other conditions can apply for a license to receive a free supply of medical marijuana. It is provided by a charitable organization, Tikkun Olam, which supplies it to some 700 patients.
Sponsored by state Rep. Mark Cohen, H.B. 1393 would permit the use of medical marijuana through so-called “compassion centers” where the narcotic may be dispensed.
Under the bill, patients could legally use marijuana with a doctor’s written recommendation, said Cohen’s spokesman, Leon Czikowsky. The patient would obtain a photo ID from the Health Department then take it to a compassion center to purchase marijuana for use on the premises or at home.
Compassion centers would either be private non-profit operations or run by the Health Department, according to the bill.
Patients could use the marijuana through vaper machines at the compassion centers, as cigarettes, or other ways.
“Depending on the medical condition, some people may find it easier to put in food,” Czikowsky said.
Cancer, ALS, wasting disease, Crohn’s disease and glaucoma, are among the conditions for which marijuana could be legally dispensed.
The Health Department, and State Police would regulate compassion centers, Czikowksy said.
Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington already permit marijuana for medical purposes, and in Arizona, doctors are permitted to prescribe it.
JSPAN President Brian Gralnick said his organization’s support applies to medical use only and not total legalization.
“It hasn’t come up,” he said. “We’re just focused on this bill before us.”
Gralnick expects further committee hearings in January and February with a possible committee vote by spring.
Damsker said the Pennsylvania bill is quite different from the controversial California law, which blurs the distinction between medical and recreational use.
“This is a very well crafted bill that protects the users and assures the compassionate centers have to be licensed,” she said.
She is cautiously optimistic that the bill can pass.
In fact, a 2006 poll conducted by Franklin & Marshall College found that 76 percent of Pennsylvanians support marijuana use if a physician recommends it.
“Many people in Pennsylvania, which is a very conservative state, are not opposed to the medical use of marijuana,” Damsker said. “It really does help the chronically ill individual, and people should have the choice.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)