Lighting up the elders
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Lighting up the elders

Teaneck gerontologist/rabbi prescribes cannabis for a variety of ills

On hadarta.org’s home page, a magen David is made of cannabis leaves.
On hadarta.org’s home page, a magen David is made of cannabis leaves.

Yosef Glassman of Teaneck is a rabbi, a doctor, and a reserve lieutenant in the Israel Defense Force. He is a certified mohel.

And he is authorized to prescribe cannabis as the cure for whatever ails you — if whatever ails you is one of several specific legally defined conditions.

He has a website, hadarta.org, with a backdrop of a Magen David made of cannabis leaves and a motto, “The Roots of Healing.” The site asserts that “Cannabis is re-emerging as world’s most universal medicine.” And it asks: “Are you 60 or older? Set up an appointment now.”

New Jersey legalized marijuana for medical uses in 2010. Governor Chris Christie, generous in some things, was stingy in the law’s implementation. The number of medical marijuana patients in New Jersey broke 10,000 for the first time in 2017.

Last month, Governor Phil Murphy, who has called for full legalization of marijuana, issued an executive order calling for a review of the state’s policies with an eye toward increasing access to medical cannabis.

A clue to Dr. Glassman’s interest in marijuana is in the name of his website. “Hadarta” is from the biblical command “vihadarta pnei zaken” — to glorify the status of the elderly. “I use that as the motto of my medical practice,” he said. “I’m a geriatrician by trade.”

Dr. Glassman, 47, who grew up in the Boston area, became interested in the field of cannabis medicine in 2012, when it was legalized in Massachusetts. After medical school at Tufts and an internship at Johns Hopkins, he made aliyah and served for a year and a half as a doctor in the medical division of the Golani Brigade.

“It was interesting experience for sure,” he said. “There was training for mass casualties. How to deal with chemical injuries, nuclear fallout, things of that nature. Baruch Hashem I didn’t have to deal with that in reality. It’s not stuff I learned in medical school for sure. It was definitely an eye-opener.”

Then he came back to America, where he studied gerontology at Harvard Medical School. He then opened up practices in Boston and Martha’s Vineyard. When cannabis was legalized for medical uses, he grew curious and began to investigate.

“The common perception is that it’s a recreational drug,” he said. “The more I looked into it, the more I realized it’s a very serious medicine. I find it an all-encompassing medicine that can replace many others.”

And, because he’s also a rabbi, there’s the Jewish angle. (Rabbi Glassman was ordained by Rabbi Dovid Shochet of Toronto’s Yeshivas Hilchos Olam in 2016. Almost 20 years before he had studied at Yeshivas Shalom Rav in Tzfat.)

“I became interested when I came across a reference to the cannabis plant in the code of Jewish law,” he said. (The Hebrew texts use the word cannabis — spelled kuf, nun, beit, samech — to refer not only to the flower but to the entire marijuana plant, and includes what English speakers generally call hemp.) “It referred to the idea of using cannabis to make wicks for Shabbat candles. The more I looked into the Jewish piece, I found it was common to grow cannabis fields in agrarian societies. The Mishna has rules about how you can grow a cannabis field here but not there, that you can’t mix it with grape vineyards. Maimonides talks about it in one of his medical works.”

“Cannabis oil provides benefit for cold, earaches, heals chronic illnesses and dissolve obstructions,” Maimonides wrote in his Medical Aphorisms.

And then there was David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, chief rabbi of Cairo in the 16th century, known as the Radbaz. “Leaves of cannabis make one happy,” he wrote in a commentary to Maimonides, “and one eats them raw.”

Dr. Yosef Glassman

This does not accord with federal law in the United States, which recognizes no therapeutic uses for cannabis.

Nonetheless, in Massachusetts Dr. Glassman took the required courses to allow him to prescribe marijuana. He began recommending it primarily to elderly patients, and to some younger cancer patients as well.

“Being a geriatrician, I find the applications for older people,” he said. “Chronic pain, spasticity, some applications with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, helping with nausea, and appetite after cancer chemotherapy.”

Massachusetts has a specific list of qualifying diagnoses, “but it gives a little more leeway for prescribing,” he said. Two years ago he moved with his family to Teaneck and found that New Jersey has a specific list of eligible diagnoses “and you cannot deviate from it.”

For the patient, the process starts with a consultation with a physician like Dr. Glassman, including a comprehensive medical history and a physical examination. Then he can offer a prescription.

“Then the patient has to do their part online and get their medical card,” he said. “At that point, they can go to a dispensary licensed to sell cannabis. In New Jersey there are far fewer than in Massachusetts. There are only five here — I think that will change with the new governor. The closest one I believe is in Montclair. The patient purchases their medical cannabis and I give them guidance in how to take it.”

Dr. Glassman said he’s seen “very good results in terms of pain relief. Cannabis has been found equally effective as opioids, and it doesn’t have the side effects. It doesn’t suppress breathing, and it’s not addictive. The other great result I’ve seen is with nausea, particularly with cancer.

“There’s a lot more research to be done. Israel leads the field in cannabis research. The government there funds cannabis research, unlike the United States. A lot of the more updated studies are coming from there.”

Dr. Glassman still is licensed to practice medicine in Israel. “I do a little back and forth,” he said. “I don’t prescribe cannabis there, but the IDF actually does.”

He maintains offices in Bnai Brak and in Martha’s Vineyard, as well as in Teaneck.

So who should think about consulting a physician about cannabis?

“Number one, people who have chronic pain that is either not responsive to conventional treatments like opioids and anti-inflammatories and the like,” he said. “Or people who are getting results but don’t want the side effects of the opioids. Even regular ibuprofen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can have an effect on kidneys, which cannabis does not have. It’s safer than aspirin. It’s safer than Tylenol.

“It has such a stigma that people tend to avoid it. The stigma is based on old science and old false perceptions about the drug. People still have the stigma that’s attached from the 1930s. The U.S. government has named it a Schedule One drug. That means it has no medical benefit at all. That’s been debunked entirely. People are opening their minds to it a little.”

And the recreational marijuana that was part of Governor Murphy’s platform? Now, state legislators are discussing whether and how to legalize it.

“I hate to use the term recreational,” Dr. Glassman said. “It really is a medicine in the end. It should not be taken lightly. I think there will still be a significant proportion of the population that will continue to approach it in a medical way, that will want the oversight and guidance of a physician.

“It’s good that Governor Murphy has a more open approach to it,” he added. “In the end of the day it’s safer than alcohol. People shouldn’t drive with it, but alcohol is certainly a hundred times more dangerous than cannabis is.”

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