A higher authority: The rabbinical answer to medical marijuana

As the medical marijuana industry expands in Israel and the US, rabbinic authorities are weighing in.

Cannabis [Illustrative] (photo credit: INIMAGE)
Cannabis [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INIMAGE)
It was mid-2015, and the Orthodox Union was in a quandary. New York State was in the process of launching its medical marijuana program, and the OU, one of the world’s largest and most respected kosher certification agencies, had been approached by more than one company eager to get its certification. But could the organization’s rabbis give their stamp of approval to a drug illegal in much of the world?
“When this question of if we should certify began, I was having a meeting in my home with a prominent rabbi about a different topic altogether,” recounts Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the COO of the OU’s kashrut division. “This rabbi overheard me having a phone conversation about it and he tells me that his wife suffers from chronic back pain, and the only thing that keeps her from not suffering terrible, excruciating pain is the fact that she has marijuana.”
Elefant said while the question prompted much internal debate among the OU’s rabbinic leadership, the stories of “many people who unfortunately aren’t well and so much rely on medical marijuana” helped aid the decision.
And so, when medicinal cannabis became available for sale in January 2016 in New York, Vireo Health of New York – one of the five companies granted a license by the state – launched with the OU symbol on every one of its products.
The company manufactures oils, capsules and vapors for patients with a medical marijuana prescription; New York State law bans the sale of smokable or edible cannabis products. As of early October, according to the New York State Department of Health, 8,421 patients were certified to receive medical marijuana.
New York is one of 25 states in the US to legalize medical marijuana. In Colorado, Alaska, Washington state, Washington, DC, and Oregon marijuana is also legal for recreational use. Medicinal cannabis is also legal in Canada, Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Italy – and Israel.
AND AS its legal availability spreads, rabbinic authorities are being asked to give their stamp of approval on a drug that was illegal not too long ago. But, so far, mainstream kashrut agencies have proven open to – and even supportive of – the idea.
“As long as it’s a prescription, there’s no problem with it,” said Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, CEO and rabbinic administrator of the OK kosher certification agency.
“We have been all taking prescription drugs much heavier than marijuana until now... it’s a much milder drug than all the other drugs that have a hechsher on them.”
And as availability improves, particularly in New York, with its sizable Jewish population, companies are seeking out that approval. Elefant said several companies approached the OU during New York’s licensing process, but Vireo was the only one of those granted a license.
“There were two main reasons that we sought certification by the OU,” said Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health of New York. “One is that we operate in the largest Jewish community in the United States, and we want to make sure that we can serve the unique religious dietary needs of our patients.”
But, in addition to the straightforward approach, gaining kosher certification provides a more subtle approval, said Hoffnung.
“Unfortunately, there is still a stigma associated with cannabis – even with medical cannabis,” he said. “We wanted to send a message to New Yorkers of all faiths and backgrounds that using medical cannabis to alleviate pain and suffering is not something patients should feel guilty or ashamed about, particularly when the product is being recommended by their doctors.”
Many New Yorkers, who are likely familiar with the idea of kashrut, “when they hear that a prominent Orthodox Jewish organization is certifying their products, it doesn’t matter what their faith or what their ethnic background is, that is something that New Yorkers respect, and I think that is something that really helps combat the stigma that remains even in 2016.”
Despite the groundbreaking step forward, both parties said the certifying process was very routine.
“We really didn’t assume that we were going to find any significant problems, and we indeed did not find any significant problems,” said Elefant of the inspection at Vireo. “We reviewed every ingredient involved in the production of the product that we were certifying, we visit the facility where the product is manufactured on a regular basis – the supervision process is absolutely no different [from the process for other products].”
While Hoffnung said this was his first exposure to such a process, the Orthodox Union “certainly used standard operating procedure.”
“They had many questions and we had many fascinating conversations,” he added. “We found their staff to be extraordinarily talented and insightful....
The field representatives who visited our facilities spent time with our staff kind of understanding the whole supply chain and the whole process.”
Hoffnung said they were not required to make any changes to the growing or manufacturing process, “but we certainly needed to walk the OU through the process and agree that any changes that will be made on a going-forward basis – particularly pertaining to introducing new ingredients in our medication – would require their preapproval.
“I found them to be extraordinarily engaging and open-minded and really laser-focused on the science and on how these products will help alleviate pain and suffering.”
Levy said the OK had been approached by some companies, but none have completed the process and gained approval yet. Currently, he said, one company that manufactures a medical marijuana cookie is going through the procedures.
Earlier this year, Aram Hava and Ezra Malmuth, who are partners in the San Francisco-based Sababa Snacks, announced they were seeking kosher certification for their line of medical marijuana edibles. Sababa produces granola-like clusters in dark chocolate pecan and hazelnut; caramel cashew and apricot; and molé spice with cacao and pumpkin seeds varieties. Malmuth told the San Francisco Jewish newspaper j. in April that they were seeking certification from a local kashrut agency, after “a friend asked if our products were kosher.”
Sababa did not respond to repeated requests for comment by The Jerusalem Post. It did confirm via email, however, at the end of August, that “we have been working with a kosher certification agency in California, and are in the process of securing our certification.”
BUT WHILE many US rabbinic authorities seem to embrace the concept of medical marijuana, they certainly stop short when it comes to the idea of using it recreationally.
Elefant said currently Vireo Health of New York is the only marijuana-producing company the OU certifies – though it has had other requests.
“We have had inquiries from other companies around the country, but again it gets more complicated because in other parts of the country recreational marijuana is also legal,” he said. “And any company that’s involved in recreational marijuana is going to be a company that we’re going to avoid working with.”
Elefant said the “official Orthodox Union policy” is not to certify anything containing marijuana for recreational use, “unless everything changes” – “everything” meaning a significant revision in scientific studies of the drug, not in its legal status.
“For many years we’ve been approached at different times to certify cigarettes – even now that e-cigarettes have become so popular, we’ve been approached to certify them – and we’ve always declined certifying them,” he said. “The reason being is we won’t certify something which is obviously not healthy.”
Since cigarettes are legal, but the OU refuses to certify them, “I don’t think the only barometer would be the legality of the product – [it would as much] be the health risks involved.”
But there’s no shying away from the fact that every kosher certification agency provides its stamp of approval to alcohol – not just wine used for ritual purposes, but hard liquors as well, from whiskey to gin, tequila, vodka, rum and everything in between.
“It’s one of the questions that everybody asks – why are you condoning the use of alcohol and not drugs,” said Levy. “It’s just the way the US set up the rules... this is the way the world was set up for some reason. Alcohol has always been accepted – obviously it has to be controlled...
we find the Torah frowned on Noah getting drunk. But if you look at kiddush, you’re supposed to make kiddush on wine, on Passover we drink four cups of wine – alcohol has always been accepted, as long as it’s within reason.”
And if marijuana were to become legalized and accepted nationwide, would the OK change its position? “Not when I’m at the head of the OK,” asserted Levy.
Earlier this year, renowned haredi rabbinic authority Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky gave his blessing to cannabis for use on Passover – implying a stamp of approval for the rest of the year as well. Kanievsky said that while marijuana is a member of the kitniyot family – permitted for Sephardi Jews but forbidden to Ashkenazim over the holiday – anyone who needed it as medication would be permitted to smoke it.
IN ISRAEL, medical cannabis has been legal in some form for more than two decades, though it started with very limited availability.
Today, according to the latest Health Ministry figures, close to 25,000 people hold licenses for medical marijuana – and that number is likely to grow.
In June, the government approved a proposal to ease access by expanding the number of doctors authorized to prescribe cannabis to patients. The reform was spearheaded by Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party.
But in Israel, kashrut is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which sees no reason to step in on the issue anytime soon.
“The Chief Rabbinate has no policy on the issue,” said Daniel Bar, spokesman for the Religious Services Ministry and acting spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate. “No one has ever come to us to ask, so we don’t need a policy.”
Bar continued to note that “someone who uses this product, he needs it for health reasons, and therefore it does not need kashrut.” He said even pills that contain nonkosher ingredients, such as animal blood, are permitted, if the patient’s health demands it.
The rabbinate provides supervision only when a company or food outlet approaches it for certification, and, said Bar, that is not the case here.
“It’s like asking what is the policy of the Chief Rabbinate on gas stations.”
Ma’ayan Weisberg, a representative of Tikun Olam, Israel’s largest medical marijuana provider, echoed Bar’s comments.
“Because it’s considered as a treatment, it doesn’t really need to be certified,” she said. Weisberg said that, today, Tikun Olam produces only marijuana cigarettes, oils and capsules, though it used to make cookies before the government asked it to stop.
She said when it did produce edibles, the company considered seeking out certification, but the idea never came to fruition.
Moshe Ichiya, the owner of the Cannabliss medical marijuana company, said when he was starting out, he spoke with many prominent rabbis, who all assured him he did not require kosher certification.
“We’re based in Jerusalem, and we have a lot of religious customers, so we spoke to many influential rabbis,” said Ichiya. “They all assured me that because it’s a medication, it doesn’t require certification.”
Cannabliss, however, which has a distribution center in the Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, is believed to be the only medical marijuana company in Israel still selling cannabis cookies.
It, too, was asked recently to stop by the Health Ministry, but was allowed to continue providing them – to children only. Israel is one of the few countries in the world conducting research on medical marijuana for children. The ministry does not have figures for how many children hold a license for medical marijuana, but it is estimated to be very small.
Ichiya maintains that all of his company’s products – the cookies as well as oils and capsules (Cannabliss does not sell cigarettes) – are produced in a strictly kosher environment.
“The ingredients are kosher, all the kitchen tools are kosher, we do hafrashat halla and we sift the flour,” he said. In fact, when the company was allowed to sell cookies to a broader audience, it even produced them for Passover. Now, he said, with the limited distribution, there isn’t a need.
SO WHY are some US rabbis willing and able to provide a kosher stamp on something that may not need it after all? “Medicine is sort of immune in a certain way to requiring kosher certification,” admitted Elefant. “However, at the same time – and this is a question that I as a rabbi probably get every day – if you have a product that is available with kosher certification, and you have the same product available without kosher certification, all things being equal, you ought to take the product with kosher certification.”
So, Elefant noted, “if somebody needs medical marijuana and there is no medical marijuana available with kosher supervision, they may be able to take it without kosher certification.” He said that while there are many nuances in the law, and Judaism puts a high premium on health and wellness, “a lot of people are going to want, with all things being equal, to get a kosher product. That’s why in this case people prefer the kosher product.”
Levy echoed Elefant’s remarks on the issue.
“There’s a big business in America with vitamins and all sorts of medicines that have a hechsher,” whether or not they may strictly need one, he said. “We don’t go around looking for that, but if somebody approaches us and says they want a hechsher on it, and it’s a prescription drug, I have no problem giving it because the doctor says you need it.”
When Vireo’s kosher certification hit the news last December, the headlines were plastered across New York media outlets as well as national publications, Jewish newspapers and marijuana-focused websites. But how did the average Orthodox Union consumer react to the news? “Certainly I don’t have to tell you, rabbis are not immune to criticism,” Elefant said.
“We’re quite accustomed to being criticized, so whatever we would have done we understand that there would have been people that questioned our decision.
“We try to do what’s right, but we’re very open to what people ask, and we want to hear what they have to say,” he continued.
“If we make a mistake, we even agree that we made a mistake, but we don’t think we made a mistake this time.”