The Do's and Don'ts of Kosher Marijuana

In the haze around the kashrut certificate granted to Vireo Health's medical pot, Rabbi Moshe Elefant of the Orthodox Union spoke with Haaretz about whether it's necessary. To be clear: yes and no.

Medical marijuana.
Olivier Fitoussi

If you really need it, and nothing else is available, medical marijuana probably does not need kashrut certification, confirms Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union's Kashruth Department.

This January, the OU gained the distinction of becoming the first kashruth organization to certify medical marijuana, produced by the company Vireo Health, causing some eyebrows to rise, on a number of grounds.

One is that medicine shouldn't require kashrut certification, should it? Asking this question led to a moment of pilpul-lite on the definition of "medicine."

"First of all, if someone is seriously ill and needs to take medicine, he need not be concerned about its kashrus," Rabbi Elefant clarified to Haaretz by phone from New York. "But it's not as simple as it sounds, certainly if somebody has a chronic condition. If they have a chronic condition and need a medicine, they should take it and not ask a question."

If there is a question, it's why the medical marijuana is being administered, the rabbi explains. "If somebody is taking a medicine for pain relief, and I want to stress that I am not a doctor, but marijuana as I understand it is typically taken for pain relief, [the issue of kashrut] is not as black and white," Elefant says.

In other words, there are cases in which medical marijuana is consumed more like aspirin than chemotherapy. In the former case, when the medical need is less pressing and a ritually accepted alternative is available, an observant Jew could forgo the unkosher intoxicant, the rabbi points out.

Mainly, observant Jews who keep kosher would always prefer to use a supervised, kosher product than an unsupervised one if they have the option, Elefant says. "If somebody, God forbid, is sick and needs medical marijuana, and if they have a choice to take marijuana with supervision and without, of course they would buy with supervision."

Rabbi Moshe Elefant
Courtesy of the Orthodox Union

"Why do some people insist on buying salt with hechsher [kosher stamp]? Because they do," said an observant source who does not feel kashrut certification for salt, or cannabis, is necessary. "Some ultra-Orthodox families won't buy a product if it doesn't have a kashrut stamp on it, whether or not it makes sense."

Bug life

The marijuana certified by the OU is produced by the New York-based company Vireo Health, which points out that in keeping with New York law, it doesn't sell the leaf for smoking (or eating), only as processed product.

Which leads us to the question, what does "kosher" actually mean in the context of Vireo's medical marijuana?

First, that all the ingredients used in manufacturing it are kosher, Elefant explains. Second, that the equipment used in manufacturing the certified products is only used for kosher products, and if it isn't, that it is adequately sanitized or kosherized in between. The OU was given a list of the ingredients by Vireo, made sure all were kosher, "then we visited the facility where the product is made to make sure there were no equipment issues."

What the kashrut process for Vireo's weed products did not involve is eliminating bugs, though eating insects is a huge no-no in kosher circles. (In fact, some Israeli hotels eschew certain vegetables entirely because eliminating the mites is such a problem.)

Rabbi Elefant explains. Indeed, "infestation in kosher law is a very serious issue," he confirms. Jews may not eat bugs. If however they accidentally eat an impaired insect, for instance one that has lost a leg, it is not a nullification, he explains.. So the lack of concern about six-legged friends in Vireo's product boils down to the fact that the company sells its greenery in ground form.

"Of course, somebody keeping a kosher diet may not eat anything that has infestation. Nor may one deliberately take a product that is infested and try to grind it up, say now it's not infested any more, the insects are ground up," Elefant elaborates. But in the case of a product that is ground up in its normal manufacturing process, not specifically in order to eliminate the insects or appease the rabbis - then the prohibition of infestation is rendered irrelevant.

So, OU did not have to inspect Vireo's plants for insects because the copmany's marijuana is ground up in the process: "We're not certifying a leaf, to eat or whatever, which would involve an issue of bugs."

The bottom line on uncertified medical marijuana and the observant Jew is a merciful one. "If he really needed to have the medical marijuana and nothing else is available – he would probably be allowed to," Rabbi Elefant sums up.