Hechshered cannabis, anybody?
IT IS hard to remember a kashrut story generating as much media attention as the announcement that cannabis was getting a kosher stamp. The Orthodox Union, the large American rabbinate, announced in late December that its esteemed OU symbol was to appear on the products of Vireo Health of New York, one of only five companies licensed by the New York State Department of Health to produce and sell medical cannabis.
The products being supervised include vaporisation cartridges, oils and capsules, which are now available via prescription at special chemists in New York.
“J u d a i s m p r i o r i t i s e s health and encourages the use of medicine designed to improve one’s health or reduce pain,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of OU Kosher. “Using medical cannabis products that have been recommended by a physician should not be regarded as a a sinful act, but rather as a mitzvah, an imperative, a commandment.”
The chief executive of the cannabis company Ari Hoffnung had a similar message.“Today’s announcement 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,” he said.
“Patients should never feel guilty or ashamed for using a product recommended by their physicians.”
And then something interesting started to happen. The announcement
s t i m u - lated a discussion on which products need supervision and which do not. It played out over the US-Canada border, when the Kashrut Council of Canada started considering whether it would follow suit and came to a different conclusion from that of the OU.
“Something that is medicine, that’s prescribed from your doctor, that you need to take for your health, doesn’t need kosher certification,” the council’s managing director, Richard Rabkin, told local media. He added: “We don’t really want to get into the business of providing kosher certification for something that is doctorprescribed.”
The OU hit back at the criticism that the Canadian response generated.
“Some have suggested that a natural product, derived from the cannabis plant, for a life-threatening condition, does not require certification,” it stated, retorting that “this is factually incorrect”.
It confirmed that the product was natural but said that the “final product may contain kosher-sensitive ingredients such as alcohol and oil” — which could be non-kosher. And it commented that it was not so clear that medicines are always above questions of kashrut, saying: “The qualifying medical conditions are not always life-threatening and, even in such instances where there is a threat to life, it is preferable to use a kosher medication when available.”
The question of whether medicine should be kosher is a little complicated and tied to how ill the patient is. There is agreement that a dangerously ill person can always take medicine that is non-kosher, though the less serious the illness, the less lenient the rulings. However, the practical application of this is limited, as the method of dosing also makes a difference.
Many rabbis describe taking capsules as meaning that while it enters your body orally, you do not actually eat it. Taking medicines through non-oral means is normally thought to free the patient from kashrut concerns.
Nobody can dispute the kosher stamp, just as nobody could dispute a vegetarian sign on an apple — it is indeed free from non-kosher ingredients. It is just unclear whether there is any religious value in this stamp. But then again, perhaps the American certification is more of a sociological phenomenon than it is a religious statement.
The certification seems to be important for both the company and the OU for its power to break down the stigmas against the medical use of cannabis — this is indicated in their statements. This seems to flow from the fact that, on the American market, “kosher” is seen by people as synonymous with clean and trustworthy. There seems to be no more concise way of signalling to consumers on the American market that a product is not morally problematic and it does not carry a stigma.
And here comes the really interesting question thrown up by the kosher cannabis controversy — not just the subject of how this certification is viewed by Jewish law but the question of market usage of the word “kosher” to communicate something that is largely unconnected to Judaism. Is it exploitation of kashrut, or should we embrace the compliment that kashrut is viewed so positively and happily lend out “kosher” status for worthy products like medical cannabis that have a stigma to shake? It is an argument that is just beginning.
If a drug gains religious sanction, what message does this send?