Is medical marijuana kosher?

In Feature Stories by Dave Gordon

Legalizing marijuana for medical purposes has become a hot topic, so how do religious groups approach the use of medical marijuana? The ethical, spiritual and medical questions are being debated in the Jewish world, with rabbis weighing in on whether taking cannabis would violate Torah prohibitions or be considered necessary medicine.

An Orthodox rabbi in Israel, Rabbi Efraim Zalmanovich, recently ruled that smoking and distributing medicinal marijuana is kosher for Jews, but using it recreationally is forbidden. For medical purposes, Judaism has a legal concept of pekuach nephesh (health and life trumps all).

There’s also been big buzz recently about Jeffrey Kahn – a pulpit rabbi for 30 years – who recently opened the Takoma Wellness Center, one of the first marijuana dispensaries in Washington.

Three Toronto rabbis – two Orthodox and one Conservative – acknowledged the permissibility of medical marijuana within the context of Jewish law, as long as the substance is acquired legally.

It is presumed that liberal rabbinical leaders would decide similarly; the Union for Reform Judaism in 2003 passed a resolution supporting medical marijuana and its legalization.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, the founding director of Nishma, an adult study organization in Toronto, points out that using marijuana to reduce pain is sanctioned by Jewish law – but only if the drug is acquired legally.

“From a Jewish perspective, a Jew has an obligation to be a good citizen – in simple terms, observe the law of the land,” he says. “In this regard, violating it (unless the law is inherently immoral) is like violating an aspect of Jewish law.

“If [buying marijuana] would be supporting criminal elements in society, that’s a concern. Judaism would demand that someone look at the broader matters. There’s a hesitation and concern that you’re supporting people causing violence and havoc, perhaps an underground organization.”

Rabbi Erwin Schild, Conservative rabbi of Toronto’s Adath Israel, agreed. “If people absolutely need it, yes, use it. Judaism says that’s fine. But only legally. It’s harmful otherwise.”

He adds, “You’re not supposed to do harm to our minds or bodies. We’re not allowed to violate the sanctity of our bodies.”

Rabbi Avram Rothman of Aish Thornhill Community Shul says that marijuana is “no different from any other alternative drug, from any other herb you might find bottled in some health stores.”

The Jewish view, he says, is that so long as medical science says it’s properly administered, “and that it will have no ill side effects, it’s OK to use.”

Rabbi Rothman likens it to the use of medical morphine. “It’s medically acceptable for certain conditions, and legal for doctors to give it to patients.”

RabbiHaberRabbi Dr. Geoffrey Haber, the director of spiritual care at Baycrest Hospital for Geriatric Care in Toronto, says that although he’s not aware of any patients using medical marijuana at the facility, he wouldn’t be surprised if there were.

“Individuals can work within the legalities of the law, to acquire marijuana for legitimate medical use, and I would be in favour of that,” he says.

But how should medical cannabis use be managed? “I think it should be regulated in the way that other controlled substances are, like morphine and OxyContin, for the use of medical purposes,” says Haber.

Author Yoseph Needelman recently published Cannabis Chassidis (Autonomedia), a book that explores the Jewish use of marijuana. Looking at Scripture, the Book of Exodus (30:23) refers to anointing oils with an ingredient called knei-bosem, often thought to be cannabis.

Needelman contends that there are renowned rabbis in history that partook in drugs, including the Ba’al Shem Tov, the originator of the Chassidic movement, as well as modern minstrel Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was rumoured to have used marijuana to better relate with young congregants.

Some Jewish history experts see no reason for marijuana to remain illegal. Mark Washovsky, a rabbi and professor of Jewish law and practice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote recently in the Jerusalem Post: “If the medical community determines that marijuana is an effective and indicated treatment for pain, Jewish law raises no barriers to its use for palliative purposes.

“From a halachic perspective, the burden would rest upon the civil authorities to show why the medical use of marijuana should continue to be illegal.”

Top photo courtesy Rabbi Hecht

Embedded photo courtesy Rabbi Haber


gordonDave Gordon is a freelance writer in Toronto. His work can be found in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Toronto Star, National Post and others.