Hechsh­ered cannabis, any­body?

The Jewish Chronicle - - KOSHER - BY NATHAN JEFFAY

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?

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