Marijuana is the name given to the dried flowers and leaves from the cannabis flowering plant. In several states, including Washington and Colorado, it is now legal to possess recreational marijuana. Many more have permitted medical marijuana which can be smoked, eaten or used in cooking. Marijuana is gaining increasing acceptance by American society.
Now, the Orthodox Union is reportedly considering hechshering a company that producers medical marijuana edibles in Colorado. According to a New York Post interview this month with Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of the OU’s Kashrus Department, the OU “Would not have a problem certifying” medical marijuana. The article noted that “As a plant, marijuana doesn’t have to be certified kosher, but when it comes to edibles, the other ingredients are the issue.”
Many studies show that marijuana has medical benefits. The main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, works by targeting the CB1 receptor, a cannabinoid receptor found mainly in the brain but also in the liver, kidneys, lungs and nervous system. Studies have shown that THC is effective in combating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, glaucoma, Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Two FDA-approved, non-plant forms of THC, dronabinol and nabilone, have been shown to reduce nausea caused by chemotherapy. A 2007 study found that THC is proven effective at reducing pain caused by damaged nerves in HIV patients, something that opiates such as morphine cannot achieve. THC also has psychological benefits including anxiety relief, sedation and euphoria. As far as delivery methods go, smoking marijuana has been shown to be safer than smoking tobacco, although it is certainly possible for a heavy marijuana smoker to develop lung cancer. The leaf of the plant would not need a hechsher and vaporizers can be used which are safer than smoking since they heat, but don’t burn the leaves. There is concern that both methods carry a risk of asthma and bronchial spasms. Marijuana edibles such as oil, candies and brownies, on the other hand, carry no risk of carcinogens or lung issues. However, even more caution must be taken with edibles since their effects can be more potent and longer lasting and this is where the kosher certification would be needed.
Meanwhile, studies showing the benefits of medical marijuana have been severely limited by the fact that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. Before the medical marijuana movement caught fire, researchers were forced to rely on one legal marijuana supplier, which is hampered by bureaucratic red tape. The long-term safety of medical marijuana has not been adequately studied. One 2013 report found that it caused, “diseases of the liver (particularly with co-existing hepatitis C), lungs, heart, and vasculature.” Unlike prescription drugs which have been rigorously safety-tested by the FDA, most marijuana products have not undergone FDA evaluation, a process which normally takes between 10 and 15 years from start to commercial product.
The biggest danger lies with people who have a history of mental illness and who have a low tolerance to THC. Depending on many factors, THC could worsen pre-existing conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A 2015 British report lead by Dr. Marta Di Forti, found that extra-potent “skunk” marijuana is more likely to cause psychosis or psychotic disorders, hallucinations or paranoid delusions for those who smoke every day, especially when users started smoking by the age of 15.
Marijuana dependency is a real possibility. Were California’s medical marijuana laws properly enforced, the risk to patients could be diminished. Instead, doctors at numerous cannabis clinics across Los Angeles are quick to give prescriptions to anyone who says they have a condition warranting the use of marijuana. State law requires proof of necessity from a primary physician, but no one is checking on these clinics to make sure that “patients” have a referral from a doctor who has fully evaluated the request. Clinic doctors may be state licensed but their prescription allows for the purchase and use of any amount of marijuana. Contrast this to an actual prescription which specifies how much to take and how often.
There is no requirement for labels to show the content of THC (or whatever else) is in their products, and there aren’t routine safety inspections. While some dispensaries in Los Angeles have been shut down due to the federal ban on marijuana, as well as the city ordinance limiting the number of total dispensaries to 135, the issue of patient safety has not been systematized. Beyond the need to pay a fee to a cannabis clinic or to L.A. County’s Medical Marijuana Identification Program, there is almost no difference between the sale of marijuana for medicinal or recreational use in California.
Rabbi J. David Bleich, a medical ethics expert at Yeshiva University in New York points out, using marijuana for recreational purposes is, “pleasure for pleasure’s sake,” and, “certainly not that to which a Jew should aspire.” Yet he also agrees that medical marijuana is, “a perfectly acceptable use of a plant that grows in G-d’s garden.”
At the same time, the overriding principle in Jewish medical ethics is pikuach nefesh. The Torah teaches us that it is a mitzvah to save a person’s life, even if it violates other halachos, (i.e. keeping Shabbos or dina d’malchuta dina). Some authorities extend this principle to reducing extreme suffering. For example, Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, in his 1977 responsa collection Tzitz Eliezer, rules that the use of morphine is permissible for cases of severe pain, even though it could shorten the patient’s life and form an addiction. Rabbi Waldenberg applies this extreme example to more general instances of suffering in ruling that, “the undertaking of measures by a physician aimed at reducing suffering falls under the category of ‘medicine.’”
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Professor of Jewish Ethics at Yeshiva University, believes that concern over the risks of marijuana is “not adequate” to deny it to needy patients. Indeed, it may actually be preferable in cases where prescription drugs either don’t help or where their side effects are unbearable.
At any rate the actuality of purchasing kosher marijuana is limited to the ability to regulate the production facility. Given California’s dysfunctional system, it seems unlikely that a kosher certification will be easy to locate any time soon.