Kosher marijuana could soon be available to Orthodox Jews in New York State — but only on doctor’s orders.
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher certification agency, said he has held “preliminary discussions” with several companies interested in obtaining a kosher seal of approval for medical marijuana.
The move comes as legalization of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes spreads across the country, with many of the leading pro-legalization activists, philanthropists and entrepreneurs drawn from the Jewish community.
Medical marijuana is legal in about half of U.S. states today. A handful of states have legalized recreational marijuana use.
Although Orthodox rabbis appear to have accepted the medical benefits of cannabis, they remain much more cautious about recreational marijuana. Most Orthodox rabbis say it’s strictly prohibited.
Such a view marks a clear divide between Orthodox Jewry and progressive Jews who support across-the-board regulation of pot.
Ean Seeb, one of the owners of the oldest marijuana dispensaries in Denver, Colorado, where marijuana was legalized in 2012, compared Jewish marijuana activity today with Jewish involvement in the prohibition-era alcohol industry, gambling during the early years of Las Vegas and the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Seeb, a regional board member of the Anti-Defamation League and the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, said: “We have shown here in Colorado that you can effectuate social change without the world crashing down on you.”
Seeb was one of several Jews who led the charge for marijuana legalization in Colorado, including Steve Fox, a lawyer, and Mason Tvert, the executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation. Nationwide, Jewish philanthropists including Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer and billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis have funded legalization efforts.
Progressive Jews see legalization of marijuana as a social justice issue. They argue that U.S. drug policy criminalizes otherwise law-abiding citizens and disproportionately affects black and Latino people, who comprise most marijuana arrests even though white people are just as likely to smoke pot.
Claire Kaufmann, co-founder of a recently established Jewish drug policy reform group, Le’Or, based in Oregon, said: “It’s undeniable that the current system isn’t working. It isn’t protecting kids, it isn’t decreasing consumption levels and it’s perpetuating a black market which is dangerous and where the people running that market are incentivized to deal harder, more addictive drugs.”
Ethan Nadelmann, director of the reform group Drug Policy Alliance and the son of a leading Reconstructionist rabbi, said he believes pro-legalization efforts in America have hit a tipping point. “You now have a majority of Americans in favor of ending marijuana prohibition,” he said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Orthodox Rabbis remain unconvinced about recreational marijuana use. But they have fewer qualms about medical marijuana.
Cannabis has been shown to alleviate pain, anxiety, appetite loss and nausea in patients suffering from a range of diseases including HIV/AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. In Israel, which is a world leader in medical marijuana, with more than 11,000 people licensed to receive the medicinal form of the drug, patients can already buy kosher-certified products.
Because of marijuana’s clear medical benefits, the Orthodox Union, which has rejected kosher certification requests from cigarette and e-cigarette manufacturers on health grounds, “would not have a problem certifying” medical marijuana, Elefant said.
Marijuana is a plant and therefore kosher certification is not necessary for the cannabis itself. But in New York State, where companies are vying for up to five licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana, patients will not be allowed to smoke pot, so they will have to ingest it in other ways — such as capsules, food or drinks, which will require kosher certification for Orthodox patients.
Medical marijuana is expected to go on sale in New York in the next year.
Despite the O.U.’s willingness to certify medical marijuana products, other Orthodox groups, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and Agudath Israel of America, have not taken an official position on medicinal or recreational use of the drug.
Several Orthodox rabbis, some of whom declined to speak on the record because of the lack of an official position on the subject, said that recreational marijuana use is prohibited.
Rabbi J. David Bleich, an authority on medical ethics at Yeshiva University in New York, said that medical marijuana is “a perfectly acceptable use of a plant that grows in God’s garden.”
But Bleich said that recreational use of marijuana is “pleasure for pleasure’s sake,” and “certainly not that to which a Jew should aspire.”
However, Bleich added: “I can’t tell you the 614th mitzvah is thou shalt not smoke pot.”
Recreational cannabis use is a particularly hazy area because it requires explaining why cigarettes and alcohol are permissible according to Jewish law while marijuana is not.
In previous decades, when marijuana was seen as a highly addictive, illegal drug, it was easy to make the rabbinic argument against pot. One of the primary arguments was that it violated the Jewish law of dina d’malchuta dina — the law of the land is the law.
Many Orthodox rabbis opposed to recreational use of marijuana cite the responsum 40 years ago of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who argued that cannabis is forbidden on several grounds, including that it is bad for a person’s health and that getting high leads to a loss of mental, physical and spiritual self-control.
Privately, some rabbis concede that as scientific understanding of marijuana evolves, several of Feinstein’s health arguments against marijuana are beginning to look outdated. Researchers have found that cannabis is less addictive than alcohol and much less addictive than nicotine. They have also challenged anti-marijuana claims that cannabis is a “gateway drug” and that it leads to an increased sex drive or to brain damage.
Even so, even some of the more liberal Orthodox rabbis remain concerned that cannabis clouds a person’s judgment in a more intense way than moderate amounts of alcohol.
One of those rabbis, Dov Linzer, said he was also concerned that recreational use of marijuana introduces people to “pot culture,” which can lead “to values and behaviors that are antithetical to Halacha and to Jewish values.” But Linzer, the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York, did add that he could imagine individual cases “where an argument could be made to permit its use.”
Ethan Tucker, chair in Jewish Law and co-founder at Mechon Hadar, a nondenominational egalitarian institution of higher learning in New York, said that rabbis won’t be able to give clear advice on recreational marijuana use until researchers learn more about the effects it has on individuals and on society.
“It may be that Halacha will not be able to offer a fully informed opinion on this until more of the social experiment has been run,” Tucker said.
Arthur Kurzweil, a Jewish writer and educator, wondered about the marijuana question during the 1980s when he was a driver for his mentor, the renowned scholar and educator Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
In his book “On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz,” Kurzweil recounts that Steinsaltz said the main issue to consider with marijuana is “who is the master and who is the slave.”
“If you are the master, fine,” Steinsaltz said. “If you are the slave, then you are in trouble no matter what you’re the slave of, whether it be coffee, exercise or Torah study.”
Kurzweil interpreted Steinsaltz’s teaching to mean that marijuana is not, by definition, forbidden.
But a website run by the hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement published the same Steinsaltz anecdote to illustrate that drug-taking is forbidden.
The Forward wrote to Steinsaltz to seek clarification on this most important halachic matter. He had not yet responded by press time.