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How South Florida’s Alter Kockers Helped Legalize Medical Marijuana

Like many South Florida Jewish seniors, 92-year-old Ricki Marks didn’t need any persuading to support legalizing medical marijuana.

Marks, a resident of a Palm Beach Gardens assisted living facility who brags that “I still have all my marbles,” voted for legalization twice, once in 2014 when it narrowly lost in a statewide referendum, and again in 2016, when it won, approved by 71.3% of voters.

Legalization meant that she no longer had to rely on her shady connections – her grandson in Colorado and a brother in Oregon, where it was already legal – to smuggle the topical marijuana she uses to treat painful arthritis, spinal spinal stenosis and aching knees and hips. Now she gets it from a local dispensary.

“I am thrilled with it,” she said. As a result, her use of the opiate Vicodin has dropped from three or four times a day to two or three times a week.

For many South Florida Jewish seniors, the most potent prescription for tikkun olam – healing the world – is legalized medical marijuana.

This cohort played a key role in the legalization, according to state agricultural commissioner Nikki Fried, who before her election in 2018 was the chief lobbyist in Tallahassee for legalization.

“All throughout our state, we saw seniors step up as advocates for this important medicine — and Florida’s Jewish seniors were no exception,” said Fried, who is Jewish. “They were vital in efforts to get the [legalization] amendment passed. Florida’s Jewish community is largely made up of seniors who needed access to medical marijuana, people like my grandmother’s partner who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.”

In the 2016 election, Florida voters – frustrated by opposition by the state’s Republican governor and legislators – overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana. Two years earlier, a similar proposal fell just short of the required 60 percent.

Ben Pollara, a political consultant involved in the legalization drive, agreed that the support of South Florida Jewish seniors was crucial to the victory.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of these folks to the movement to legalize medical marijuana,” he said. “Their commitment and activism over decades effectively paved the way for the reforms that have taken place in the state.”

Like Marks, Jewish seniors gave the legalization effort their instinctive support.

Even among those who are not cannabis users, like Annette Kay, 93, the feeling is the same. “I absolutely support it,” she said. “It’s a very important issue.”

While Kay does not use medicinal marijuana herself, she is gratified that her physician son, Dr. Clifford Selsky, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist in Orlando who is also certified in hospice and palliative care, is now able to prescribe cannabis.

Selsky, 71, lobbied in Tallahassee for legalization, served on an advisory panel for the campaign, and voted for it twice, after seeing medical literature citing its potential value in reducing the use of narcotics. After legalization, he was certified to prescribe it, which he has done for children with brain diseases in his daytime pediatric practice and for adults during evening hours.

“A lot of the kids have shown good response” after taking CBD (cannabidiol) orally or under the tongue, he said. His adult patients, some of them military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or other life traumas, take it through vaping.

“You can improve their quality of life, with decreased anxiety and increased social interaction,” he said.

One woman he treated, who was nearly immobile with a painful growth along one side of her body, returned to Selsky’s office without her cane. Although the growth remains, she did a dance in the exam room to demonstrate her improvement.

Medical marijuana “is a very Jewish thing to utilize,” he says, “and the fact that is helping all these people is a way of repairing the world.”

Post-legalization, interest remains high about medicinal weed among Jewish seniors. More than 280 people, many of them Jews, showed up in early March at the Lakes of Delray, an over-55 condo community in Delray Beach, for a presentation called “The Silver Tour: Educating Seniors About Medical Cannabis.” The event was sponsored by Trulieve, the state’s largest medical marijuana grower, which also operates 24 licensed dispensaries.

Jewish activists spoke to the group, who sat at rows of tables facing the stage in padded chairs, bringing their personal stories of pain relief through weed, punctuated by short videos.

Some of those who packed the clubhouse probably came for the free buffet following the presentation, donated by the local Panera – this is, after all, South Florida. And Trulieve, with a vested interest, distributed goodies – neon tote bags with pins, neon green pens and discount cards for weed at their treatment centers.

But many seemed genuinely curious about the therapeutic possibilities. At the close of the meeting, after the buffet ran out, the speakers sat at separate tables, speaking with individual attendees.

Ben Temer, founder and chairman of the Boca Raton-based International Jewish Cannabis Association, sat at one of the information tables after the Delray presentation. He estimates the 85% of South Florida supporters of legalized medical marijuana are Jewish, and that a significant percentage of them are seniors.

“Jewish seniors have been particularly instrumental in the efforts getting access to medical marijuana because they recognize the benefits, and have been very vocal in voting for it,” said Temer, 34, whose wife is a physician approved to prescribe marijuana. “We know that because most of our outreach efforts are focused the senior communities,” as well as area synagogues.

The Silver Tour was founded by Bob Platshorn, 78, who knows what he is talking about: He served nearly 30 years in federal prison for his role in the notorious Black Tuna Gang marijuana smuggling ring, the longest sentence in U.S. history for non-violent weed trafficking. When he was released in 2008 he turned his cannabis smuggling experiences into a memoir, “Black Tuna Diaries.”

In the early 2000s, Platshorn took up the cause of mobilizing fellow seniors in support of legalizing medical marijuana. A 2012 “Daily Show” segment on him was titled, “Old Tokes Home.”

But when Platshorn, a regular toker since the age of 19, first tried to take his nonprofit Silver Tour advocacy presentations to what he thought was a natural constituency – South Florida condos for seniors – he was turned away. Managers told him, “Our people aren’t interested in marijuana.”

So in 2011, he contacted the New York headquarters of the Reform movement and made his pitch, aiming, he said, for one of his target markets: machatunim (in-laws). Within an hour, he said, he had calls from eight or nine Reform congregations in South Florida, some large ones. They invited him to make his presentation, teaching seniors about the benefits of medical marijuana.

“When we began The Silver Tour in Florida synagogues we had audiences of one to two hundred, mostly seniors,” he recalled. “At the early shows, although many seniors said they came for the free food or that their grandkids sent them, the reception was wonderfully welcoming. They were interested in learning. Most came as skeptics and left the show as advocates. Hundreds called their legislators demanding ‘safe legal access’ to this important medicine for seniors.”

In the run-up to the two legalization drives, Platshorn made a 30-minute television infomercial (“Should Grandma Smoke Pot?”), a segment of which he showed at the Lakes of Delray, and paid for 8,000 radio spots. These days, he uses an oversized bus to travel to South Florida condos, senior centers, synagogues and Jewish community centers. He has also used the bus to carry Florida seniors to Washington to lobby on Capitol Hill.

Medical marijuana advocate Bob Platshorn

Medical marijuana advocate Bob Platshorn Image by Courtesy

While some Jewish marijuana backers, like Trulieve, have a commercial interest in legalization, the vast majority are volunteers.

Karen Goldstein, 72, went to college in the mid-1960s and, she says, “That’s all you need to know” about her lifelong commitment to legalizing marijuana.

A retired junior high school teacher and hairdresser, Goldstein is executive director of NORML of Florida, and vice chair of Regulate Florida, the effort to regulate marijuana like alcohol in the Sunshine State. Both are voluntary positions.

“As Jewish person I grew up learning that you do the right thing,” she said by phone, while setting up for a monthly marijuana party at her home. “I think it’s my duty as a Jewish woman to do this for other people. In a sense it’s a mitzvah, because I do it with no expectation of reward or compensation.”

In 1971, when he was ten years old, Irvin Rosenfeld was diagnosed by his doctor with Hereditary Multiple Exostosis, an incurable, debilitating bone disease characterized by numerous tumors and painful joint inflammation. His parents were told he could expect a short, painful life that might not last beyond his teens. But, thanks to many surgeries and powerful narcotics, Rosenfeld survived to attend the University of Miami in 1971.

There, Rosenfeld – who had been strongly anti-drugs – succumbed to peer pressure and tried marijuana. He never got high, but he found that that weed relieved his pain and inflammation, and increased his mobility. Within three weeks, he was able to reduce his reliance on narcotic painkillers by more than 50%. In addition to the pain relief, Rosenfeld’s exostosis tumors stopped growing.

“A as far as I’m concerned, marijuana has been a miracle,” he said.

As a result, Rosenfeld began a lifelong crusade for legal, medical marijuana, using himself as a one-man, ten-year, medically-supervised clinical trial. In 1982, he convinced the Food and Drug Administration to make him only the second patient in the country’s history to receive government-grown cannabis cigarettes for the rest of his life.

Since then, he and his doctors decided to “teach the world about the medical benefits of marijuana. We felt it was an obligation.”

In the 2000s, he naturally joined the Florida efforts to legalize medical marijuana, giving hundreds of talks and interviews about his personal experience, and participating in strategy meetings. “All we were trying to do is give patients in Florida the same rights that the federal government has given Irvin Rosenfeld,” he said.

The son of a synagogue president, Rosenfeld, 66, said his lifelong involvement in the legalization drive was “completely” a function of his Judaism. “My faith has been very important to me,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my Jewish background I wouldn’t have known how to do what I did. It was a Jewish sechel [intelligence] that gave me the impetus to do what I did.”

Rosenfeld observed that he wasn’t alone among his co-religionists. “It’s amazing how many of the leaders that pioneered medical marijuana are Jewish,” he said. “We understand.”

The 2016 legalization vote notwithstanding, the battle for medical marijuana in Florida is not over. State legislators and some cities have been dragging their feet in implementing the vote. They have variously tried to restrict who can grow weed and where it can be sold. In mid-March, under pressure from Governor Ron DeSantis, the legislature finally approved prescribing smokeable marijuana.

But many nursing homes and assisted living facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid will not allow patients to receive medical marijuana – even those certified by their physicians – for fear of losing federal funding. So supporters have remained actively involved, taking to the courts, and may have to return to the polls.

In late February, two legislators, one Democrat and one Republican, introduced a bill legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

“I have no problem with that,” says Ricki Marks, with a laugh. “You can get drunk or you can get stoned, whatever you want to do.”

But it wouldn’t be for her – she’ll content herself with the topical variety.

Once, at her daughter’s suggestion, she took THC in pill form and, without thinking, later took a Vicodin and even later had a glass of wine with dinner. The results were predictable, and not one she will repeat.

“I was stoned, I guess you would say,” she recalls. “I have enough trouble keeping my mind straight. I’m not going to take any of those mind bending things.”

Mark I. Pinsky, 72, an Orlando-based journalist and writer, is author of “A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.”

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