Physician explores the physical and metaphysical benefits of cannabis

Rabbi Yosef Glassman, M.D., presents a compelling case for reviving the ancient medicine to treat a wide range of modern maladies.

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Dr. Yosef Glassman, hospitalist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

“Cannabis and kabbalah are two hot topics; I thought it would draw a good crowd,” Dr. Yosef Glassman, hospitalist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, said to a room full of attendees at his presentation of “The Kabbalah of Cannabis” at the Vineyard Haven library Tuesday night. Only a few in the audience appeared to be under 60 years old.

“Practically speaking, kabbalah is actively connecting the physical and spiritual world,” he said. “It’s a mystical tradition, but it’s also very practical.”

Dr. Glassman discussed the past, present, and possible future of cannabis, which he divided into three groups — medical cannabis, personal cannabis, and “entheogenic cannabis,” which he defines as “cannabis that may or may not allow one to understand a higher power.”

His lecture was grounded in a wide range of science, from the physics of the Big Bang to human endocrinology. “I’m a scientist; forget I’m a rabbi,” he said. “I don’t want any doubters.”

In his hospitalist practice, Dr. Glassman prescribes medical cannabis for a wide range of maladies, including chronic pain, chronic debilitating arthritis, tremors and neuropathy from multiple sclerosis, agitated dementia, and cancer cachexia.

“I have had incredible feedback on these diagnoses,” he said in an email to The Times on Wednesday.

Prior to coming to the Vineyard three years ago, Dr. Glassman, 46, held academic appointments at Tufts University and Harvard Medical School. He served as an infantry physician in the Israeli Defense Force, and he was ordained a rabbi in July 2016.

Dr. Glassman covered the history of cannabis, which has been used for millennia by different cultures for a wide range of maladies. It was used 4,000 years ago by the Chinese, who considered it one of the 50 fundamental herbs in medicine. The ancient Egyptians used it for hemorrhoids and eye pain, ancient Greeks used it for ear pain and obstructions, and it was used to treat the pain of childbirth by the ancient Israelis.

A 12th century painting in a Sicilian basilica shows a cannabis leaf prominently featured.

Cannabis also has roots in religion. Dr. Glassman cited numerous cannabis-related citations in the Bible.

“Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Jesus studied Moses’ laws of cannabis cultivation and use,” Rabbi Glassman said.

His PowerPoint presentation showed a slide of a 12th century painting in a basilica in Sicily, depicting an assemblage of holy men with a cannabis leaf above, so large it almost looks like a parody.

It wasn’t until the 1930s in the U.S., when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established, that cannabis came under a dark cloud. After the agency criminalized cannabis, it created a heavily racist propaganda campaign that stated cannabis is “the Devil’s harvest, the smoke of hell, which causes white women to seek sexual relations with negroes, entertainers, and any others, and also leads them to satanic jazz music.”

Today, 62 percent of Americans live where medical cannabis is legal. Underscoring the federal government’s slow adjustment to the turning tide, cannabis is still classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule 1 drug, considered as dangerous and addictive as heroin. Dr. Glassman said there has been a $162 million drop in Medicare D prescription medication spending in states that have legalized medical cannabis, in part because the prescription drugs aren’t needed as much and in part because people are paying for medical cannabis out of their pocket.

As a side note, Dr. Glassman said that the manufacturers of fentanyl, the drug that is responsible for an increasing number of overdose deaths, donated the single largest payment to anticannabis legalization efforts in the U.S.

President Nixon thought the popularity of marijuana in the 1960s was part of a Jewish conspiracy. Dr. Glassman noted that Woodstock was organized by four Jews, the iconic poster designed by a Jew, and it was held on land owned by a Jewish farmer. “Then Bob Dylan, Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham, turned the Beatles on to marijuana, and we all know what happened from there,” he said.

Israel has been at the forefront of cannabis research for decades. THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, was discovered by Raphael Mechoulam in 1964.

Wired for cannabinoids

“There’s been no overdoses on cannabis, ever,” Dr. Glassman said. “That’s an amazing thing. You can overdose on a bottle of aspirin or Tylenol.”

More striking is the predilection the human body has for the active ingredients in cannabis. “The largest receptor system in the entire human body is the endocannabinoid system; this is profound,” he said. “This means nearly every cell in every part of the body is programmed to react to endocannabinoids for some reason. Whether it’s from evolution or creation, it doesn’t matter; there’s some reason that it’s there.”

The body creates a THC-like substance — anandamide — that reduces pressure in the eyes, reduces blood pressure, protects bones, strengthens the immune system, and acts as an anti-inflammatory.

“It’s only the tip of the iceberg of what they do,” he said. “It’s really the key in medicine, and I think, to unlocking the human condition, it’s that profound, the endocannabinoid system is that extensive. There’s a huge area to be unlocked.”

Recent research has shown cannabis-based treatments have reduced brain tumors, eased symptoms of Crohn’s disease, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and agitated Alzheimer’s disease, according to Dr. Glassman. “The communication with your mother before you are born is through cannabinoid receptors,” he said. “When you first attach to the uterus, you communicate with your mother through the endocannabinoid system.”

Dr. Glassman did not gloss over the potential negative side effects of cannabis use, which include driving impairment, excess fatigue, decline in athletic performance, and increased frequency of unsafe sex. While he didn’t advocate cannabis treatment for younger people, he said, research has debunked the notion that cannabis is a gateway drug. “Alcohol is far more implicated as a gateway to other drugs for young people,” he said, adding that nicotine has been shown to prime the brain with a greater affinity for cocaine.

Leap of faith

“Cannabis is the most easily recognized substance in the entire body; we’re created with the most receptors, ready for cannabinoids,” Dr. Glassman said. “It stimulates the first communications between child and mother. It’s the safest of all drugs, and it’s green: Green is the color in kabbalah of divine understanding. It’s the color of nature; the more we understand nature, the more we understand what the infinite creator is all about. It’s an integral part of the book that acknowledges the idea of universal oneness; the Bible is about people coming together. People don’t realize that it promotes a feeling of oneness with the rest of creation. You don’t see a lot of bar fights. While intoxication for its own sake is not advisable or encouraged, could it be the drug that helps people understand one another? In the infinite presence of the Creator, with a male and female presence, the female essence is what we’re missing today in the world. Is it the medical key? Is it the spiritual key? I don’t want to sound fluffy, but cannabis could, in the future, play a role in world unity.”

“Where can I get some?” an elderly woman asked.