"Kosher cannabis" is like "furry rabbit" or "meaningless redundancy," for all the announcement from New York-based Vireo Health last week that it is pioneering kosher medical cannabis. Marijuana doesn't need a kashrut certification, at least if you're smoking it. As one rabbi told Haaretz, "Cannabis isn't not kosher." If you're planning to eat it, that becomes another story.
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So when the New York-based Orthodox Union certification agency last week certified Vireo's products as kosher, some Israeli observers wondered what they had been smoking.
Marijuana, like apples or spinach, is a plant. If grown in Israel, to be consumable by the religious under Jewish law, its growers would have to adhere to the custom of shnat shmita (meaning, allowing the land to rest every seventh year). For American-grown pot, shmita does not apply, hence hechsher (kosher approval) is not necessary.
Speaking with Haaretz, Vireo CEO Ari Hoffnung explained that in contrast to, say, Israel, New York law bans recreational use of marijuana, so the company's medical cannabis is not sold in leaf form.
"The only products permissible [in New York] are cannabis extract products, like capsules, like oils, and like vaporization cartridges," which is how Vireo will be marketing its product, Hoffnung explained. "Of course, fruits and vegetables and natural plants are kosher but we're not talking about natural plants here – we're talking a pharma product that contain extracts from natural plants." Some Vireo products may contain other ingredients like gelatin, he added.
And so the Orthodox Union (OU) symbol will be appearing "for the first time ever" on the medical cannabis that the company sells in New York, sans flowers, to "qualifying patients" through retail dispensaries in White Plains, Queens, Binghamton and Albany, New York state.
Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the chief operating officer of OU, points out that in life or death situations, "Jewish law clearly sets aside the kosher status of a medicine, but in other cases, it is preferable and sometimes recommended that a medicine be certified kosher.”
"Why do some people insist on buying salt with hechsher? Because they do," says 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."
What assurance does the OU certification buy the user? The real deal behind the kashrut certification process, an OU source told Haaretz, is to ensure that the marijuana isn't laced with insects, which Jews are not allowed to eat. (There is no prohibition against smoking them, though why anybody would want to defies the imagination.)
"Any leafy vegetable can be infested with bugs," the OU source pointed out. Marijuana is certainly susceptible to mites and other creepy-crawlies, and though hardy little pests, they would hardly withstand industrial processing.
"What OU has done is send a team of rabbinic inspectors to our manufacturing facility, met with our staff there and reviewed all the ingredients going into the product, and ensured all are kosher and are all parve," Hoffnung says. "For a certain segment of the Jewish community that is really important and we want to be sensitive to the religious dietary needs of our patients."
Also, the company hopes the OU certification will combat stigmas associated with medical cannabis, the CEO explained. "I think and I hope that this certification will send a message to New Yorkers of all faiths and backgrounds that using medical cannabis to alleviate their pain and suffering is okay. It doesn't represent an embrace of pot culture and is nothing that patients should be ashamed or guilty about."
This would not be the first time smoking products have undergone "kosher-washing". Ahead of Passover, the Israeli cigarettes manufacturer Dubek markets packets of cigarettes marked "kosher for Passover," which, the company told Haaretz, are identical in every way to cigarettes that are not declared to be kosher for Passover. The difference is that ahead of Passover, Dubek gets special rabbinical confirmation that all its cigarettes – and the glue used in the cigarette paper - have been checked and contain no chametz or legumes. Of course, normal cigarettes sold all year don't contain chametz or legumes either unless there was a very weird accident at the factory.
The Jewish religious establishment's attitude towards smoking in general and pot in particular has evolved over the centuries from appreciation to tolerance to abhorrence (which falls short of halakhic prohibition. Smoking in Israel's ultra-orthodox community is not rare.) Centuries ago, Jewish lawmakers tended to approve of smoking, partly assuming that it aided digestion. But upon realizing that the demon weed – that means tobacco - is actually a very dangerous habit, starting in the 19th century, most rabbis began to rule against its use, though some continue to rely on King David's tenet that the Lord protects the unwary.
As for medical marijuana, Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of OU Kosher, encourages its use when needed. Judaism prioritizes health, and encourages the medicines designed to improve one’s health or reduce pain, he stated: "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."