It's time to reconsider halacha's stance on cannabis – opinion

Legal cannabis has now reached some of the world’s largest Jewish populations

CANTEK-brand medical cannabis in at their indoor growing facility in Mavki'im, in southern Israel. (photo credit: RAPHAEL KADISHZON)
CANTEK-brand medical cannabis in at their indoor growing facility in Mavki'im, in southern Israel.
(photo credit: RAPHAEL KADISHZON)
After a hotly contested history, cannabis is on the up and up. Late last week, Israel announced its intention to legalize recreational cannabis in just nine months’ time, this just days after New Jersey voters voted overwhelmingly to legalize the substance for recreational use. While Israel will be trailblazing in the Middle East, New Jersey will be joining the ranks of 14 other American states that have had legalized recreational cannabis for some time now.
With the addition of these jurisdictions, legal cannabis has now reached some of the world’s largest Jewish populations. This raises the question of its halachic status. The halachic principle of Dina D’malchuta Dina – the law of the land is the law – which may prevent the use of cannabis in areas where secular governments render it illegal, is now a non-issue in all of these jurisdictions.
Besides secular legality, halachic authorities have taken other issues with cannabis. The earliest and most cited positions on the subject – those of Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe – are from the late 20th century and largely argue against the use of cannabis. The silence on the subject was probably because the potential uses and psychoactive properties of cannabis  were largely unknown to the scholars of earlier generations. Later, when the medical uses of cannabis became more recognized by the scientific community, those uses were endorsed by halachic authorities, but any non-medical use of cannabis continued to be denounced by the rabbinate.
There are several halachic issues that have been raised as reasons to prohibit the use of cannabis: One of the major concerns is its potential negative health effects. Using substances that have a deleterious effect on physical or mental health would violate the biblical commandment V’nishmartem Mi’od L’Nafshotaichem (Dueteronomy 15:4), which requires one to preserve one’s body and health for the service of God.
By most recent accounts, however, cannabis does not need to be that unhealthy. For starters, cannabis is practically impossible to overdose on, and is rarely addicting. While smoking cannabis can have negative health effects, vaporizing it reduces that potential harm, and ingesting cannabis in an edible form can render it completely harmless to the body. As to its effects on the mind, executive functioning can often be inhibited by cannabis, and there are some concerns regarding the effect of cannabis on brain development during adolescence, but on a developed adult brain, the effects of cannabis wear off within hours, with no demonstrated long-term effects.
The other major charge leveled against cannabis is that using cannabis is irresponsible, or somehow hedonistic and indulgent. That perception though, is one that has been changing over time. Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Harvard Medical school, researched the effects of cannabis at Harvard, and during the course of his research, his own view of cannabis changed. In his article, “Marijuana Reconsidered” he pointed out that in addition to the “recreational use” of cannabis, there is also a less recognized, more targeted use of cannabis which he called “enhancement.”  He observed that cannabis enhances and increases awareness of sensations and perceptions, and so while some may use cannabis for nefarious purposes, the good or evil of cannabis should be evaluated within the context of the use to which it is put. When focused properly, cannabis’s enhancement capabilities can help one find deeper appreciation for, and increase creativity in, many areas, including music, art, philosophy and even Torah. Notably, the acclaimed physicist Carl Sagan and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman praised the value of cannabis in facilitating understanding of concepts in theoretical physics. Using cannabis in moderation, for enhancement purposes, could be able to completely avoid the charges of irresponsibility or hedonistic use.  
THE LAST major concern one could have in using cannabis is that doing so would involve participating in an activity which has been censured by the rabbinate up to this point with an almost unanimous voice. That may very well start to change, and it is also noteworthy that from a halachic perspective, the rabbinic majority’s prohibitive position does not necessarily constitute binding authority.
The most widely accepted posek, or halachic authority, to have discussed the issue was Rav Moshe Feinstein, in a response to a question posed to him. Although he felt that cannabis should be prohibited, he specifically wrote in the introduction to the collection of his responsa that he only felt comfortable publishing his opinions because he always gives his sources and the reasons for his opinion, and as a result, in his words, “I am merely like a teacher of the halacha so that the questioner may look into and check [the sources] and choose [for him- or herself].”
His empowerment of his readers to educate and choose for themselves is both honest and instructive: In the current period of Jewish exile, absent an authorized Sanhedrin, where there is no Talmudic precedent on an issue, decision-making authority is not vested within any human body – communal or individual. The opinions of individual later generational scholars, although of considerable weight and persuasion, do not constitute binding authority or create an absolute rule in halacha.
Those who suggest categorically prohibiting cannabis seek to avoid potential harms that could result from its use, but they also ignore the benefits cannabis can have. Generally, the approach to valuable and advantageous but potentially dangerous materials is to handle them responsibly and with caution: Such a policy would arguably better suit cannabis, which, when handled responsibly, could be of great value in furthering even religious objectives.
The intention of this article is not to advocate for the popularization of cannabis use in the Jewish community. Instead it is to defend the individual’s right to make his or her own informed decision on the matter and to suggest that using cannabis for positive purposes in a responsible and halachically compliant way can represent a valid path in Torah – even if it is one which many will decide is not for them.
This article contains excerpts and was adapted from The Path to the Tree: Prophecy and its Pursuit in the Jewish Tradition by Ben Adam.