From Reform to Orthodox, Jewish Opinions Abound on Medical Marijuana

By Beth Schwartzapfel

Published January 25, 2010, issue of February 05, 2010.
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From the time Lisa Siegel was a little girl, she had terrible nausea, mental fog that came and went, and tightness and cramping in her muscles so severe that it would wake her in the night. She was 47 before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but she remembers a childhood dominated by hospitalizations, doctors and pain. Nothing worked — not Advil, not Tylenol, not the other medications her doctors kept prescribing.

Healing Properties: A California vendor displaying his wares.
Healing Properties: A California vendor displaying his wares.

In her 20s, Siegel tried cannabis. “Immediately my muscles relaxed and that nauseous feeling disappeared,” she said. As she began to smoke marijuana regularly, “the spasms started going away and these bizarre symptoms that came and went—they just started to go away.”

But Siegel, now 60 and living in Deptford, N.J., traded one problem for another. “I’m blessed enough to find something that helped me, but on the other hand, it turned me into a criminal.”

The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act will change that. The bill, which passed on January 10 by wide margins in both the House and the Senate, makes New Jersey the 14th state to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Governor Jon Corzine signed the legislation on January 19, on his last day in office. The law is expected to take effect in six months.

A similar bill is under consideration in Harrisburg by Pennsylvania lawmakers. The Jewish Social Policy Action Network, a small Philadelphia-based group, was one of the first organizations invited to testify at Pennsylvania House committee hearings. The group is committed to“progressive principles drawn from Jewish teachings,” according to its mission statement.

“Jewish teachings tell us that we should alleviate pain and suffering in other human beings,” said JSPAN’s president, Brian Gralnick. “We thought it was consistent with Jewish traditions, teachings and values — speaking up on issues where others may be afraid or hesitant to.”

In fact, in the Jewish world, JSPAN is far from alone. Medical marijuana enjoys wide support across the spectrum of politics and observance.

In November, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva, or dean, at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and professor of Jewish medical ethics at the college, told the Yeshiva University student newspaper, The Observer, that Jewish law permits the use of medical marijuana in certain circumstances. Another prominent Orthodox rabbi, Sholom Kamenetsky of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, provided “halachic overview” to a paper posted on the Website that concluded that “there probably are select cases in which [Judaism] would permit the distribution of medical marijuana.”

Mainstream Reform Jewish groups are also supportive. In 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution in support of medical marijuana. The URJ-affiliated group Women of Reform Judaism has even published a “Medical Marijuana as Mitzvah” study guide.

Medical studies of marijuana have focused primarily on its analgesic, or pain-relieving, properties, its ability to suppress nausea and vomiting, and its properties as an appetite stimulant. “It’s useful for pain, and it’s particularly useful for pain in people who have nausea or have some sort of wasting illness, like AIDS, or patients with cancer, because it stimulates the appetite,” says Dr. Howard Fields, professor of neurology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. “It does have medical value, no question about it, and I think doctors should be free to prescribe it.”

Researchers have also seen marijuana relieve some symptoms of neurologic disorders like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Some studies have also found that marijuana relieves the eye pressure that is the main symptom of glaucoma.

In Israel, medical marijuana has been legal since 1999. But in November a Knesset panel asked the Ministry of Health to assemble more comprehensive regulations for its production and distribution. Under Israeli law, patients with certain medical conditions can apply to receive free marijuana from the government.

Halachic questions about medical marijuana usually hinge on the Jewish prohibition against self-harm, as well as on the commentator Rashbam’s instructions in the Talmud to avoid any medication “unless there is no alternative available.” In states where medical marijuana is illegal, there is also the principle of dina d’malkhuta dina, or “the law of the land is the law”: Jews living in the Diaspora must be good citizens of the country in which they live.

Still, most Jewish thinkers on the issue have concluded that all these concerns are trumped by the Jewish imperative toward compassion and the sanctity of life — which, they say, includes quality of life.

“Judaism, because of its monotheistic faith, does not like to have you subject to anything else,” Rabbi Tendler said. “Addiction [is] like you taking another God unto yourself.” On the other hand, Jews have a “God-obligated duty to heal anyone who is ill. You tell me there are people who are suffering pain, I have to do something to help them.

“Any evaluation of our literature would say relieving their pain would take precedence,” Tendler said. “Therefore, if indeed marijuana is the only solution to their problem, to relieve them of their pain, then it certainly would be permitted.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, executive director of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, a left-leaning policy and advocacy organization that calls for a more public-health, less criminal justice-centered approach to drug policy, agreed. “We as Jews must see that (sick people) have safe access to what’s bringing them comfort and relief,” Kahn said. “For the sake of mercy and compassion — important Jewish concepts — this is a Jewish issue.”

Contact Beth Schwartzapfel at

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