By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Toward the end of a recent hearing in Brooklyn Supreme Court, Judge Plummer E. Lott asked Rabbi Yitzchak Fried, who like so many other drug defendants in New York was waiving his right to trial and pleading guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence, if he had any questions about the charges against him. The Brooklyn district attorney's office had charged Fried with selling a total of more than seven ounces of marijuana to a police informant on five occasions in Borough Park. Under the plea, Fried would not serve more than three years in prison.
Fried, a 52-year-old man with soft features, a dark beard, meditative eyes, and the thin white strings of a tallis hanging past the edge of his gray pinstripe suit, answered with tension in his voice, "I have many questions."
The judge asked if he had sold the marijuana.
Fried answered stonily, "I sold it. But not for profit."
"Well, you may be a bad businessman. . . . "
"I was not doing business," Fried said. "It was medical marijuana."
Instead of the usual catechism of condescending queries and meek yeses, this questioning faltered along in this halting way for several minutes. Finally, the judge was satisfied. He said he would hear community members speak on the rabbi's behalf on April 12, then consider mitigating the one-to-three years to a split sentence or even probation. Rabbi Fried and his lawyer, Harry Kresky, grabbed their coats and left the courtroom.
In the hall, they explained that Fried's terse answers came not from disrespect for the judge but from his belief that marijuana relieves the symptoms of a number of serious illnesses and can help heroin addicts get off junk. Distributing the herb, they say, should not be a crime. "We never were denying that Rabbi Fried gave this person marijuana and at least recouped something," Kresky says. "The matter here is not whether the rabbi sold marijuana to a police informant. The matter is why it is criminal at all, whether it benefits people in pain."
Fried's case came out of a police sting early last year, during a particularly frantic time in Borough Park. In mid December 1999, Orthodox 19-year-old Moshe Feiner overdosed on a cocktail of heroin and cocaine in an apartment there, and his death deeply shook the Orthodox community. That January a man called Fried, mentioning a friend of Moshe's and asking for marijuana. Fried, a well-known activist who had given marijuana to people with AIDS, MS, and cancer since the early 1990s, says the man described himself as "a sick person," suffering from AIDS, and said he was involved with a community of heroin addicts. For these reasons, Fried says, he began to sell small quantities of pot to the man, who appeared to be in his early thirtiesabout one or two ounces each time they met, along 46th, 47th, and 48th streets, around 14th and 15th avenues in Borough Park.
Working with junkies since the '60s, Fried learned that heroin addicts often use marijuana not as a gateway into heroin, but as a gateway out. He sees this as another medical use. "Some people can get off heroin using Ibogaine and medical marijuana and they won't go for the hard stuff," Fried says. "There are older people, ex-addicts, who succeeded in getting off. Some of these people used medical marijuana to offset their heroin habit and get off and it worked."
Fried says he never called the man or sought him out, but in the coming weeks, the man found him several times, always asking for marijuana, always secretly carrying a tape recorder and a video camera in his knapsack. "He said he was in a desperate situation, and after seeing what happened to Feiner, I made a mistake," Fried says. "I admit I made a mistake. I'm not trying to be a renegade here. I just see this as a problem that's mushroomed."
Finally, on February 15, around 12:30 p.m., police arrested Fried near the corner of 13th Avenue and 47th Street in Borough Park. When he was arrested, he says, he had just been counseling the police informant to go to Narcotics Anonymous. Then a "crew" of officers appearedthe D.A.'s office says it was fourand took him to a detention house in Brooklyn, where he was held for two-and-a-half days, he says, waiting to make a $5000 bail, without kosher meals or access to his tefillin. "There is supposed to be a Jewish liaison from the community, but since they had demonized me, no one even came to my aid," he says.
The D.A. indicted him on 10 counts of selling marijuana. If convicted, says Avery Mehlman, the lanky Orthodox prosecutor, Fried could have faced up to 20 years in an upstate prison.
A few days after Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced Fried's arrest in the community, Mothers Aligned Saving Kids (MASK), a group organized in 1997 to help Orthodox parents cope with issues facing their teenagers, held a symposium called "Parenting versus Panic," where Hynes received a community service award. "Why did they take a rabbi and set him up with a police informant all for one or two ounces of pot each?" Kresky asks. "Something's going on. That's not their m.o., unless someone asked them to do it, or unless they just happened on a sale.