Rabbi James Kahn has stepped into the family business — literally and spiritually.
Kahn, 38, is the director for Liberty, a medical cannabis dispensary with plans to open in early March in Rockville, Md. He is also the son of Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, co-owner of Takoma Wellness, a medical cannabis dispensary in the District of Columbia.
“Our goal — and it’s in the name — is to liberate the cannabis experience,” Kahn said. “Cannabis has been helping people for a long time, but the process of acquiring it has been difficult, shady and with a lack of choices and information. And we’re seeking to change that.”
Liberty was designed to make people feel comfortable. Patients entering the store will be greeted by a security guard who will check their medical cannabis card. Once in the main area, Liberty is like a hybrid of a wellness center and a drugstore, with its chic design and pharmacy-like setup.
A “wellness concierge” at the front desk will ask the patients for a few details about what they’re seeking before directing them to a staff member — most of whom have social work backgrounds, Kahn said — who can help them find the right strain and application method.
Medical cannabis is legal in 29 states plus the District of Columbia, which legalized it in 1998. Maryland followed suit in 2014. In Maryland, medical cannabis is allowed for many severe conditions in which other treatments have not worked, along with symptoms such as loss of appetite, chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures and muscle spasms; it includes post-traumatic stress disorder.
Liberty will be the storefront of Holistic Industries, a medical cannabis company among the first licensed by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to both grow the plant and sell medical cannabis products. Although the Rockville dispensary won’t open for a month, Holistic’s Liberty brand products are on the market elsewhere and include numerous application methods such as creams, vaping, sublingual strips and tinctures.
Holistic Industries’ founder, president and CEO is Josh Genderson, who is also the fourth-generation co-owner of the liquor store Schneider’s of Capitol Hill. Kahn and Genderson met through Kahn’s work with Takoma Wellness. The Kahns were looking for a grower and manufacturer who would work with them on creating a medical cannabis product to treat severe pediatric epilepsy. They turned to Genderson and Holistic Industries to cultivate what they needed.
The medical cannabis strain they developed, Jackson’s Courage cannabidiol oil, is named for the first pediatric patient in Washington’s medical cannabis program, Jackson Leyden, they said.
Kahn and Genderson are true believers. They say they have seen the benefits of medical cannabis. Genderson said he believes medical cannabis has the potential to combat opioid addiction. Patients had told him about weaning themselves off of opioids after gaining access to medical cannabis, Genderson said. And a recent study from JAMA Internal Medicine showed a 25 percent decrease in opioid overdose deaths in states with medical cannabis versus those without.
“It’s amazing, absolutely amazing,” Genderson said.
Kahn said his work with medical cannabis is related to his former job as head of chaplaincy with the Jewish Social Service Agency of Greater Washington. At JSSA, he came into people’s lives in a time of crisis, he said. At his dispensary, he hopes he will help ease, or prevent, a crisis.
“My power as a rabbi — what my kids call my rabbi superpower — is the ability to normalize and sanctify a potentially uncomfortable, challenging moment,” he said. “Suffering is not a mitzvah.”
Kahn’s father, Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, said he is not surprised by his son’s foray into medical cannabis because, in some ways, it mirrors his own. The elder Kahn, 65, joined the rabbinate as the AIDS crisis was underway. In the community he was serving, he sometimes found that one of the few things that helped those suffering was cannabis. After working as congregational rabbi for many years, he and his wife, Stephanie Reifkind Kahn, a former hospital administrator, opened Takoma Wellness five years ago.
“We just thought we were people who could do it,” he said. “Seeing that there is something that can help people with an illness — that is a mitzvah.”
Until Maryland legalized medical cannabis, having to turn away Maryland residents was “a heartbreaking situation,” he added. Now, he is glad his son will be there to take up the mantle in Rockville. For his part, the younger Kahn wants to live up to his parents’ example and “take what they’ve done and bring it here,” he said.
Both Kahns pointed to Stephanie Reifkind Kahn’s father, who had multiple sclerosis and would have benefited greatly from access to medical cannabis to ease his muscle spasms. Instead, they both said, they had to watch him endure pain.
“Once it becomes your mom or your dad or someone close to you, it becomes the real deal,” said James Kahn. “You fight for it.”
And that fight could come. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is cracking down on the existing federal ban on cannabis in an effort to halt the legalization wave, although politicians on both sides are pushing back.
Genderson said they’re going to let the politics play out but added that the cannabis industry has more clout than it used to, including around 200,000 jobs at stake.
“This industry has a voice now.”