The Orthodox Union, which bills itself as offering "the world's most recognized and trusted kosher certification," has decided after nearly a year of deliberation that pot is not only acceptable under Jewish law, but using it while sick is a mitzvah — the Jewish equivalent of a good deed. Because of the ruling, New York dispensaries will be able to stock the shelves with certified kosher kush when the state's medical marijuana program begins operating in 2016.
Last February, Jewish newspaper The Forward reported that the Orthodox Union's kosher certification agency was in talks with several medical marijuana manufacturers in New York to evaluate whether their product stood up to Jewish law. Untreated plants are automatically kosher, but rabbis must vet other marijuana products like edibles or pills in order for them to be cleared for ingestion by religious Jews.
On Wednesday, Vireo Health of New York, a branch of a major medical marijuana manufacturer, announced that it won the Orthodox Union's stamp of approval.
"Judaism prioritizes health and encourages the use of medicine designed to improve one's health or reduce pain," said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of Orthodox Union's kosher division. "Using medical cannabis products recommended by a physician should not be regarded as a chet, a sinful act, but rather as a mitzvah, an imperative, a commandment."
In November 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act into law, clearing the way for legal medical marijuana in New York. The law specified that five organizations would be certified to grow and distribute pot in 20 dispensaries around the state. Vireo Health, which calls itself a physician-led company dedicated to providing best-in-class cannabis-based medications, is one of those five.
It's bid for the kosher-medical marijuana market began around the time of the law's passage. Before certifying the company's products as kosher, the Orthodox Union interviewed its senior management and sent out field representatives to check out Vireo's cannabis plants and lab facilities in Fulton County. With the union's blessing, the iconic "OU" symbol — a universal sign of kosher-ness — will now be stamped on Vireo's vape cartridges, cannabis oils, and marijuana pills.
"Being certified kosher by the OU will not only help us serve the dietary needs of the largest Jewish community in the United States, but also combat unfortunate stigmas associated with medical cannabis," said Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health of New York. The announcement, he added, "sends an important message to New Yorkers of all faiths and backgrounds that using medical cannabis to alleviate pain and suffering does not in any way represent an embrace of 'pot' culture. Patients should never feel guilty or ashamed for using a product recommended by their physicians."
Though the Orthodox Union has in the past refused to certify cigarettes and e-cigarettes, it's not a surprise that the group has agreed to certify medical marijuana products. Medical marijuana has been legal in Israel since 1999, and some of the country's top rabbis have long signaled their approval of weed-as-medicine.
Rabbi Hagai Bar Giora, a senior rabbi at the Israeli chief rabbinate, gave an interview to Israel's Cannabis Magazine in 2013 in which he assured sick kosher marijuana consumers, "If you smoke it, there is no problem whatsoever." He nevertheless warned against smoking weed around Passover, since in his view cannabis seeds qualify as legumes, which Ashkenazic customs prohibit on the holiday — a point that is disputed by botanists on the basis of classification, and by stoners who note that weed is typically smoked and not eaten.
While using marijuana for medical purposes is widely considered to be sanctioned by Jewish law, recreational use is more controversial. Rabbi J. David Bleich, a leading medical ethicist at Yeshiva University in New York, approves of medical marijuana but has warned against smoking pot as a form of "pleasure for pleasure's sake."
Last February, The Forward consulted leading Jewish thinkers about the marijuana's status in Judaism. Opinions varied widely; progressive Jewish rabbis and intellectuals were generally open to moderate recreational consumption, while orthodox and more conservative thinkers frowned upon casual drug use.
Still, as Bleich admitted in reference to Judaism's 613 Mitzvot (Commandments), it's not considered to be a major transgression.
"I can't tell you the 614th mitzvah is thou shalt not smoke pot," he said.
Image via Wikimedia Commons