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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?”
You won’t find strains of marijuana with currently popular names like “Greencrack” or “AK-47” at the Kahns’ shop. That’s not just because the rabbi is a man of letters. Rather, it’s carefully planned as a marketing strategy: D.C.’s would-be first pot shop is going to position itself to look more like a health spa than a head shop. They’re calling it the Takoma Wellness Center. Stephanie Kahn describes the aesthetic as “kind of zen-like but simple and classy.”
“Our ward has the highest cancer rate in D.C.,” says Rabbi Kahn, citing figures from a Georgetown University survey. “We’ve got the highest percentage of elderly people…There’s a need for our dispensary here.”
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They’ve already settled on a location: a small, roughly 1,500-square-foot abandoned law office at 6925 Blair Road NW, conveniently located about half a block from their home and, more importantly, the legally mandated 300 feet from the nearest school. They have a security plan, complete with surveillance cameras and an off-duty D.C. cop monitoring the premises. “We were looking at paying four times what a security guard would cost,” he says, “because we believe it’s the right thing to do.”
But the Kahns are especially clear about what they don’t want. “No Cheech and Chong,” Stephanie Kahn says. And no pot leaf logo, either: They’ve instead opted for the palm-shaped hamsa, an amulet meant to bring good luck and ward off evil, according to some traditions in the Middle East.
“We’ve certainly looked at a lot of dispensaries in other places where we didn’t like what they do,” says Rabbi Kahn. “We don’t understand why people have competitions of what’s the best medicine or clearance sales of medicine—things like that just don’t make sense in a medical context.” Like many advocates, the Kahns are loath to even utter the word “marijuana.” They prefer the scientific term cannabis.
The marketing plan also comes with a touching back story about how Stephanie’s father reluctantly turned to pot to get relief from the symptoms of his multiple sclerosis. “He had terrible spasms and he was in pain all the time,” she says. But the notion of smoking dope “horrified” him. “He was such a straight-laced, very suburban, businessman. Hippies, drugs—bad things. He didn’t want anything to do it with it. But more and more doctors kept suggesting it. He finally tried it and he was amazed.” Her mother wasn’t so lucky. Though a doctor recommended cannabis to help counter the nausea brought on by cancer treatments, she was unable to obtain it. The Kahns say they’ll dedicate their dispensary to the memory of Stephanie’s mother.
And if they do, it’ll likely look different from one possible competitor: the nonprofit District of Columbia Patients Cooperative, organized last January. The co-op’s directors include Adam Eidinger and Alan Amsterdam , co-owners of the Capitol Hemp boutiques in Adams Morgan and Chinatown. Amsterdam, 43, says he previously operated a coffee shop in the Netherlands, where such establishments can sell marijuana. “I ran a coffee shop,” he says. “I grow. I’ve had extensive experience in every aspect of the cannabis industry.”
Amsterdam’s group has also scouted locations, primarily in the Adams Morgan area, but was waiting on the regulations before signing a lease. He envisions a facility with a sort of showroom feel, so visitors get a sense of the actual living plant. “It’s really important to show people that, you know, it’s just a plant,” he says. “It’s not out to attack you like society says.”
Another possible competitor: Stephen DeAngelo , executive director of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, one of California’s largest retailers. A D.C. native who cites the congressional mothballing of the 1998 referendum as “one of the most crushing experiences” of his life and a big reason he left for the Golden State, DeAngelo is often mentioned as a player in the D.C. dispensary sweepstakes. His national consulting firm, CannBe, is already active on the East Coast, partnering with Rhode Island investors on a proposed 75,000-square-foot operation in downtown Providence. At one time, his firm and Amsterdam’s group had been in talks on a possible D.C. partnership; they ultimately deciding to go their separate ways.
“We’ve been in conversations with a few people in D.C.,” DeAngelo says. “But nothing has firmed up at this point.”
Conceptualizing your very own marijuana store is one thing. The logistics of actually setting it up is quite another. The regulations proposed by Mayor Adrian Fenty ’s office last week—which would impose strict limits on location, staffing, and inventory—call into question the very feasibility of maintaining such a facility.
For one thing, the system seems designed to exclude anyone with much prior experience in marijuana salesmanship. Even a misdemeanor citation for possession is grounds for disqualification from working in the newly legalized industry.
That’s not a problem for the Kahns. But they’re more confused by the pesky question of where their merchandise is supposed to come from. One key question: Whether dispensaries will have to grow their own. “We’re waiting to see if the District is going to be making provisions even for how the cannabis is going to get here in the first place,” the rabbi says. “You can’t plant tomatoes and say ‘Abracadabra’ and it comes up marijuana.”
If it comes to self-cultivation, Stephanie Kahn says, they’ll probably hire someone who knows what they’re doing. “When we first got married, my husband said, ‘I hope you do better with your patients than you do with all of our plants,’ because they did not live,” she says.
And the possibility of having to rely on the Kahns’ conspicuously non-green thumbs is only one of the cultivation challenges buried in the regulatory language. The rules currently limit legal grow operations to possessing only 95 plants at a time. The cap is intended to help protect cultivators from facing stiff federal penalties. But by limiting supply, it’s also likely to mean high consumer prices.
“Every cultivation center will have its product sold before it even hits the shelf,” says Amsterdam. “That’s going to be troubling when you run out and you’ve got to wait three weeks for product. You’re just sitting there, twiddling your thumbs, paying taxes. But you don’t have anything to sell.” He says that in New Mexico, a similar rule has led to shortages. (The proposed rules already prohibit one piece of Amsterdam’s ideal business model: Cultivation centers—the spots where he could display growing plants—would have to be closed to the public.)
“A 95-plant garden is not going to be very feasible from an economic point of view,” DeAngelo says. “The cost of that medicine is going to be extremely high.” He notes that 62 cents of every dollar earned at his Oakland dispensary goes to pay for the product itself—and that’s in a state with a vast cultivation system.
Even if there is enough of the basic stuff to go around, adequate variety is another potential snafu. “No one kind of cannabis works best for all patients,” says DeAngelo. “Patients, universally, find different strains that work best for them and tend to stick with those strains and request those strains.” The vast cultivation network in California provides for various forms of herbal relief beyond the inhalable kind—tinctures, capsules, edibles. “I have questions about whether that would be possible under the D.C. model,” DeAngelo says.
Before you sell cannabis to the ailing, you have to sell your storefront to the neighbors. Even before the new law officially took effect last month, the Kahns had already pitched their dispensary plan community groups like the Old Takoma Business Association, Neighbors, Inc., and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B.
Rabbi Kahn says the efforts to preempt the NIMBYs reflects lessons he’s picked up about problems in other newly legalized pot markets, where critics complained about insufficient public notification. “They just awarded the dispensary locations in Maine, and once that came out in the paper, that’s when neighbors first found out that there was going to be a dispensary in their neighborhood,” he says. “That seems like a crazy way to do it.”
Of course, telling the neighbors about your pot business plan isn’t just optional in D.C. The regulations Fenty proposed last week delegate licensing authority to the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) and Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board—and not the Department of Health, as in other states. (The health department will still register qualified patients and doctors authorized to prescribe pot.)
Marijuana advocates have denounced ABRA’s involvement as a misguided blurring of the line between the medicinal and recreational uses of the drug. But from a practical standpoint, it makes some sense: Liquor regulators are the most experienced in vetting venues that dispense a controlled substance—not to mention balancing the concerns of consumers, businesses, and neighbors.
In awarding the licenses to grow or sell marijuana, the liquor board has been instructed to give “great weight” to the recommendations of local advisory neighborhood commissions. The regulations specifically call on the ANCs to address “the potential adverse impact of the proposed location to the neighborhood.” As any experienced D.C. nightclub operator can tell you, wrangling with the local advisory boards can be a dicey proposition, to say the least.
Which means that, efforts to cast his store as a health-care facility notwithstanding, Rabbi Kahn may be in for a tough fight. “The only opposition we hear is, ‘OK, fine, but please not near me,’” he says. Trouble is, that sentiment has a substantial echo in ANC4B.
The rabbi shows up at the group’s July 26 meeting at their local police station clad in a conservative navy blue Ralph Lauren button-down, gray slacks and black shoes. His wife wears a floral jacket and black pants with a red handbag and matching ladybug bracelet. There’s not a single strand of industrial hemp between them. “We are very straight-laced people,” she says.
But as the evening wears on, it’s clear that their neighbors—or at least this panel of their elected representatives—aren’t so convinced.
It’s about the kids! ANC Commissioner Judi Jones , who criticizes the Kahns’ concept as a “a ready-made market for illicit drug sales,” points to the presence of “young people” at a previous discussion of the dispensary plan back the week earlier. “I found that most interesting,” she says, noting that one of youths had openly stated that “he knows some of his friends can’t wait for that clinic to open.”
Nonsense, the Kahns say. Teens seeking access to the Wellness Center will have to contend with a security plan that will keep unwanted stoners out—and a municipal record-keeping requirement that will ensure that no stray herb ever escapes. “It’s going to be monitored,” Stephanie Kahn notes. “Every quarter of a half of a gram. Every little speck. Dust!”
There’s an easier place for teenagers to score: “They can probably get all they want at Coolidge [Senior High School],” she says. “I mean, please.”
The rabbi seems almost as ruffled by another commissioner’s comment about possible profiteering. “We alerted you to the issue, and we enjoy having this conversation with you,” he shoots back. “But don’t accuse me of retail or profit or anything you don’t know about.”
Neighborhood e-mail discussions about the proposed dispensary have been generally more supportive and on point. “On Listservs, we’ve had people who come out and say lots of nice things,” notes Stephanie Kahn. “They don’t necessarily come out to these meetings.” No kidding: “I think this is our ninth community meeting and I’m already trying to get beyond trying to correct them with proper information, because they just come back the next week and say the same thing,” the rabbi says.
Things don’t get any easier outside. In the hallway, ANC Commissioner Sara Green sidles up to suggest the couple look for alternative locations across the state line in famously liberal Takoma Park, Md. “I can tell you right now that when you just go on the other side of that Metro station, you’re in another community, you’re in Granola Park,” Green says. “You may have a lot more acceptance if this were in Maryland.”
“It’s illegal in Maryland,” Kahn points out. “What we have in our community here in the District of Columbia is approval. In Maryland, it lost.”
Green says that’s not the point. “Very many of these people in my community do not want this…Given the tenor, the tone of the conversation we’ve had, because I know these people very well, I can tell you, you may be facing a vote of opposition.”
Stephanie Kahn asks whether Green has any suggestions to improve relations with the ANC. “I don’t,” she says.
Amsterdam, for his part, expects a better reception in Adams Morgan, where the local ANC1C passed a resolution in support of medical marijuana last February. It already has a neon hemp leaf highlighting one of its storefronts: his. “This neighborhood is a little more laid back,” he says.
Rabbi Kahn, meanwhile, seems to be having second thoughts about bringing the issue to the ANC’s attention in the first place.
“You know, we approached them a long time ago with the idea that we could kind of have nice conversations over a period of months and kind of form a partnership with them and see how this could be done so it really benefits the community,” the rabbi says.
“I’ve been to other meetings where the conversation is very different,” he adds. “There have been people who are upset because the D.C. law is so restrictive, that there are people with illnesses whose needs are not going to be met, that the sickest people probably need more marijuana per month than what it is that our law [is] going to offer, so the sickest people aren’t even going to be helped by our law.”
At least one person at the Takoma ANC meeting seems positive about the Kahns. Of course, her argument—that what the wellness center would sell is better than junk food or malt liquor—isn’t exactly the marketing message the rabbi has in mind. “Listen, y’all can put it in my basement,” says Wanda Oates , who approaches the couple after the meeting. “My goodness! You know, we’ve got liquor stores, we’ve got candy stores, we’ve got all this stuff that’s more detrimental to your health than marijuana ever could be.”
A week after the ANC meeting, the mayor’s office releases its long awaited regulations on the new medical-marijuana program.
For the Kahns, the timeline represents something of a let-down. The couple had been hoping to open their dispensary in the fall. But under the new rules, regulators aren’t authorized to judge the applications until Jan. 1. Even if the first cultivation center were to be authorized on New Year’s Day, it would still take several more months for the first legal batch of the stuff to mature. That means spring at the earliest.
The rules also say that officials will consider applications on a “first-come, first-served” basis, making the Kahns wonder whether all of their advance maneuvering was worth it. “Am I going to have to stand outside ABRA for three days as if I was waiting for the first iPhone?” the rabbi asks.
“We’re just a little disappointed that it looks like it’s going to drag out so long,” he says. “Not so much personally disappointed, but disappointed for the patients who’ve been waiting for so long, and a little concerned that delay leads to delay, and now we’re going to an election.”
The rabbi is all too aware that the shifting political scene could stop the program dead in its tracks. Republicans could potentially regain control of Congress and overturn the will of the voters yet again. “It seems a shame that after waiting 13 years, it can’t be done quicker,” he says.