Culture: Kosher Cannabis — Controversy or Concession?
Although only roughly 2% of Americans identify as Jewish, about 40% of all packaged foods in US supermarkets are certified kosher. Kosher certification is not only given to foods, however; those interested in abiding by kosher law can now purchase kosher-certified cannabis.
What Does Kosher Certification Mean?
The word “kosher” is a Hebrew term that translates to “fit” in English. The laws of kosher essentially detail the foods that are “fit” for consumption by Jewish people. These laws define which animals can be consumed, how food must be prepared, and when and how the food must be served. Kosher laws are collectively a mitzvah, which for Jewish people is a divine commandment; they provide a way for the observant to imbue their lives with the spirit of their faith beyond holy institutions and holidays. Kosher laws are meant both to promote health for the Jewish people and humane treatment of animals and to unify Jews throughout the world.1
Kosher foods are enjoyed not only by the Jewish community, however; a kosher certification allows vegans and vegetarians to know that the packaged foods they purchase don’t contain meat products. (Meat can also be certified kosher and undergoes its own certification process separate from packaged goods.) The value of a kosher certification also extends to Muslims, as the kosher laws are stricter than halal law, so Muslims can purchase kosher certified foods knowing they are abiding by the requirements of their faith. Even consumers not affiliated with a particular religion can find value in kosher certification, as it demands stringent hygiene requirements in all facilities producing kosher-certified products.2
What Is Kosher Cannabis and How Is It Certified?
In short, kosher cannabis is cannabis that has been inspected by a rabbi and received kosher certification.
Kosher certifications are provided by rabbis who represent kosher-certifying agencies that grant a hechsher—essentially a seal of approval given to ingredients, packaged goods, and beverages (as well as to the facilities within which the kosher food is prepared and served). The rabbi, upon receiving an application from a facility to receive kosher certification, creates a contract stipulating the requirements for ingredients, production process, and equipment; the facility must abide by all the stipulations to receive kosher certification. The rabbi then oversees the implementation of the stipulations and evaluates the entire process of production, including every ingredient as well as the equipment itself.
Rabbi Yaakov Cohen, CEO and founder of Whole Kosher Services (a kosher certification agency based in Houston), provides kosher certifications to companies within the United States and Mexico.
The process of kosher-certifying cannabis is straightforward, though meticulous. “Cannabis flower buds typically aren’t an issue,” Cohen says. “Because you smoke the buds, it’s not a problem since the insects get incinerated. But people respond differently to cannabis. Some people need to eat it in an edible or they use the oils. So we review all of the raw ingredients to make sure that the raw ingredients don’t come from animals or dairy—no fish, no bug derivatives, but also no grapes, no wine. We have very strict requirements for grapes and wine.”
In addition, he says, “we also ensure that the equipment was bought new or only used with kosher-certified or kosher-approved ingredients. The equipment can’t be shared with other, nonkosher material.”
Once a kosher certification is granted, a rabbi periodically conducts unannounced audits of the facility and production process throughout the year to ensure continued compliance with kashrut, or Jewish dietary law. Different kosher certification agencies have their own symbols that companies can display on their products, and these symbols can be revoked if the company doesn’t comply with the rules and regulations of kashrut. It’s important to note, however, that kosher certification pertains specifically to Jewish law and doesn’t replace government safety testing regulations. Furthermore, a certification is revoked if willful violations of the kosher requirements are discovered upon audit.
Why Is Kosher Cannabis Important?
Though cannabis remains a controversial topic in the Jewish community, there’s a growing acceptance of medicinal cannabis among the orthodox community.
In a 2015 news briefing released by the Orthodox Union (OU)—the world’s largest and most widely recognized kosher certification agency—Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, stated, “Judaism prioritizes health and encourages the use of medicine designed to improve one’s health or reduce pain. 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.”3
In that same briefing, Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health of New York, said, “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. Today’s announcement [of the certification of our products] 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.”3
Cohen’s perspective on medicinal cannabis mirrors Hoffnung’s sentiment, and he acknowledges both the stigma around cannabis and the importance of removing that stigma when cannabis is used medicinally.
His advocacy for kosher cannabis is deeply personal. His company began extending kosher certification to cannabis companies after his young son, Elisha, died from brain cancer.
At the time, medicinal cannabis wasn’t available in Texas, where Cohen and his family reside, so the family had to travel to California to find a cannabis company that could provide products to assist Elisha as he fought cancer. Elisha responded well to cannabis as part of his cancer treatment but relied on the California-based company’s commitment to shipping its products to Texas. Unfortunately, the second shipment of Elisha’s medicinal cannabis was intercepted by federal agencies, and the cannabis company that had committed to helping the family was shut down.
As Cohen continued to seek treatments for Elisha, the young boy’s cancer worsened and he died. In the time that followed, individuals from the Jewish community reached out to Cohen, asking him for guidance on treating a variety of ailments. Having firsthand experience of the impact of medicinal cannabis on his own son, Cohen saw the need for kosher-certified cannabis products for those adhering to kosher laws. As the owner and founder of his own kosher-certifying agency, Cohen decided to offer his services to fill this need in his community.
Why Is Cannabis Controversial in the Jewish Community?
According to Cohen, the controversy around cannabis lies in the fact that in the United States, cannabis exists in a legal limbo, with some states legalizing both adult use and medicinal cannabis while the drug remains illegal under federal law.
In discussing the controversies surrounding cannabis that result from this gray area, Cohen mentions dina de-malkhuta dina, a principle in Jewish law that stipulates that the law of the country within which a Jew resides is binding.4 Therefore, the stigma surrounding cannabis has persisted, even among rabbis. The core issue, however, isn’t the medicinal use of cannabis; in fact, in 2016 Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the leading authorities in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community, declared that medicinal cannabis is kosher, which means those who require cannabis for medical reasons can continue to use it during Passover.5 The issue with cannabis pertains to the fact that at a federal level, it’s not yet considered a legal substance.
Furthermore, kosher certification, in the eyes of the Jewish leaders who support it, is appropriate and needed only for medicinal cannabis. Thus, the legalization of adult/recreational use cannabis contributes to the controversy, as kosher certification is meant to support medicinal use of the plant, not its adult use. Cohen emphasizes that Jewish leaders don’t support recreational cannabis use.
“Recreation is not a word in the Torah,” Cohen says. “Jews are purposeful people; every one of our actions has to have a purpose behind it. Even taking a break and resting is serving God. We are resting to get more energy to go back to being more productive. On the Sabbath, we take a break only to recharge in order to dive back into our work again.”
However, Cohen and other rabbis who share his perspective see true value in medicinal cannabis. “Old people and sick people who need help with their pain, who need help sleeping ... these are the people who will benefit from this medicine. This is why it’s necessary,” he says.
Cohen sees his work as a mitzvah, a calling to honor tikkun olam, a Jewish concept that encourages Jews to act constructively and to give back to the world.6 “Tikkun olam is a Jewish principle that encourages us to repair the world,” Cohen says. “It starts with yourself and your family and your community, your immediate relationships. For this reason, I see my work as a mitzvah.”
— Sandeep Kaur Dhillon, MS, RDN, received her master’s degree in nutrition and exercise physiology from Columbia University. She completed her dietetic training in New York City and practices as a dietitian in Los Angeles.
1. What is kosher? Chabad.org website. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/113425/jewish/What-Is-Kosher.htm
2. What is kosher & what does kosher mean? KLDB Worldwide Kosher Certification website. https://www.klbdkosher.org/what-is-kosher-certified/
3. Vireo Health of New York’s medical cannabis products now certified by OU kosher. Orthodox Union website. https://www.ou.org/news/vireo-health-new-york-medical-cannabis-ou-kosher/. Published December 29, 2015.
4. Dina de-malkhuta dina. Jewish Virtual Library website. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/dina-de-malkhuta-dina
5. Medical marijuana: it’s kosher. NPR website. https://www.npr.org/2016/04/24/475511991/medical-marijuana-its-kosher. Published April 24, 2016.
6. Noparstak J. Tikkun olam. Learning to Give website. https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/tikkun-olam