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Is Your Kosher Marijuana Ethically Grown?

Kashrut—even for pot—should involve morality as well as ritual

Marjorie Ingall
February 26, 2015

At 12:01 a.m. today, marijuana became legal (well, kinda-sorta) in Washington, D.C. It’s been decriminalized in Colorado, Washington state and Alaska; Oregon passed an initiative that takes effect in July; five more states face upcoming ballot initiatives on legalization. In 24 states, medical marijuana is legal.

So with pot becoming increasingly accepted and available (57 percent of Americans live in states that have decriminalized possession and/or allow medical marijuana, and 86 percent of all Americans support medical marijuana), the Orthodox Union announced earlier this week that it would be willing to offer its kosher certification to qualified medical marijuana products. (Hey, there’s gold in them thar ills.)

This got me thinking. What with increasing concern about the origins and effects of what we put into our bodies, and increasing awareness of the possibly exploitative and certainly unprincipled practices of some food producers, could we ever see ethical kosher certification for pot? Just as there are numerous Jewish groups devoted to ethical and sustainable food (Tuv Haaretz, Tav Chevrati, Tav HaYosher, Magen Tzedek), will we ever have a Jewish organization serving as an ethical watchdog and Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the Aunt Mary, the chronic, the diggity dank, the kind bud, the golden leaf, the kush?

I posed this question (without the Internet slang) to Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, a Reform rabbi in Washington, D.C. who runs a medical marijuana dispensary. Profiled in Tablet back in 2012, Kahn became interested in medical marijuana after watching his father-in-law die of multiple sclerosis in 2005 and his mother-in-law die of cancer in 2009. Their doctors recommended medical marijuana to ease their pain, but it was then illegal in their state. So Kahn and his wife Stephanie Reifkind Kahn, a nurse, began planning to open what eventually became the Takoma Wellness Center.

In an interview, Kahn made it clear that there’s a need for kosher certification in general. While marijuana itself is a plant and needs no special approval, “if medical marijuana is available in a community with an Orthodox or even Haredi population, the products used in manufacture—all the things like glycerin and glycol and gelatin, the products in tinctures and oils and capsules—can be made with different animal products or as vegetarian products, and those have to be kosher,” he said.

But he became animated when talking about the ethical issues that might make ethical certification desirable. “Anything that comes from the street is connected to a whole trail of woe and misery,” he said. “It is tainted by crime and oppression and death. Tens of thousands of people or more have died as a result of drug wars in Central and South America—and at our behest, basically. People have been exploited, tortured, and murdered along the way. All you have to do is Google ‘marijuana in Mexico’ to see what I mean.”

Evidence actually suggests that increased legalization in America is already hurting Mexican drug cartels. But just because something is legal—as pot now is in D.C.—doesn’t mean it’s moral to buy on the street. “That’s like thinking you can buy a TV on the street and you won’t be prosecuted,” he said. “You can buy a TV that fell off a truck, but that’s not Jewish or ethical.”

For Kahn, ethically kosher marijuana would involve treating the people who grow and handle the product fairly, paying them an honest wage, paying taxes on one’s business. “It’s also about treating the product as God’s creation and not adding anything to it that might be harmful—making it organic is something we’d want to aim for,” he told me.

It also means knowing precisely what different kinds of marijuana do, so you can provide the specific products that will be most beneficial. “Part of the ethical chain we’re talking about means that if they’re looking for a specific strain that is helpful with MS, let’s say, I can say ‘Here’s that strain,’ with confidence that it really is that strain, even if I didn’t put the seed in the ground. I can rely on the person who gave me the seed. The whole process, the whole chain, is dependent on trust all along. That’s part of what ethical kashrut would entail.”

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh!” I say, and he laughs.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.