Kosher kush is not just the name of an award-winning Cannabis indica strain. Starting this month, as dispensaries open their doors for business across New York, it’s also a caliber of medical marijuana that will be available from one of the state’s five licensed growers.
Vireo Health of New York, one of the five organizations licensed to grow, manufacture, and dispense medical marijuana under the Compassionate Care Act, is now the first cannabis company to be certified as kosher from the Orthodox Union (OU), the largest and most widely recognized kosher certification agency in the world. The OU’s trademarked symbol (a U encircled by an O) will appear on medical cannabis products, including Vireo’s oils, capsules, and vaporization cartridges, sold throughout the company’s four dispensaries in Queens, White Plains, Binghamton, and Albany.
New York is home to the largest Jewish community in the United States. According to a Pew research study, 89 percent of American ultra-Orthodox and 61 percent of modern Orthodox Jews live in the Northeast, including New York and New Jersey. For the subset of the Jewish population that keeps strictly kosher, this certification will be important to them, says Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health of New York.
“It’s our hope that [being certified kosher] will also help combat unfortunate stigmas associated with medical cannabis and that it will send a message to people of all faiths that using medical cannabis to alleviate pain and suffering does not represent an embrace of ‘pot’ culture,” he says. “Patients should never feel guilty or ashamed for using a product recommended by their physicians.” Hoffnung says that prospective patients have been asking him about kosher cannabis in New York.
New York’s strict and heavily regulated medical marijuana program bans smoking medical cannabis products. Treatments can only be ingested in the form of vaporizable oils, tinctures, capsules,and under-the-tongue strips, or applied through medicated patches. “I keep kosher. If [medical marijuana] had a kosher symbol, I would feel more comfortable with that,” says Yitzy, a Brooklyn resident who says he hopes to get a doctor recommendation for medical cannabis to help treat his Chron’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, one of the ten conditions covered as part of the state’s program. “If it has any other ingredients besides the cannabis, I know I’m not getting pig fat, gelatin, or something grossly non-kosher.”
Yitzy, who spoke on the condition that he not reveal his last name, has already talked to his physician about getting a recommendation and says that interest in medical cannabis is becoming more prevalent in the Orthodox community, thanks in part to coverage of the medical marijuana program in Jewish-audience publications like Vos Iz Neias and Yeshiva World. When an Orthodox Jew uses a substance for medicinal purposes, especially in a life or death situation, it doesn’t require a kosher certification — such is the case with antibiotics, for instance. But in Yitzy’s case, he says he would use medical marijuana to help ease discomfort, which would not qualify as life or death. “It’s another tool in the toolbox,” he says. Needing a kosher certification for cannabis is comparable to needing one for cough drops or vitamins.
“Judaism prioritizes health and encourages the use of medicine designed to improve one’s health or reduce pain, says Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher. “Using medical cannabis products recommended by a physician should not be regarded as a chet, a sinful act, but rather as a mitzvah, an imperative, a commandment.”
Rabbi Moshe Elefant OU’s chief operating officer says the agency is only certifying cannabis for medical use, he adds, not for recreational purposes.
“The OU is very sensitive to certifying products that we feel are appropriate,” he says. For example, though many kosher-keeping Jews smoke tobacco, the OU does not actively certify cigarettes as kosher. “If you buy a pack of cigarettes, there’s a general warning about health. Putting our stamp endorses and approves [a product’s] use,” he says.
Achieving a kosher certification, however, is no simple task. All of the individual ingredients in a manufactured cannabis product must qualify as kosher for it to receive a certification. For instance, alcohols or additives used in extraction processes may or may not be kosher, Elefant says. Meanwhile, the equipment used in manufacturing must be used only for kosher ingredients, or thoroughly cleaned between uses. And just because a product is certified kosher doesn’t mean it has been blessed. “That’s a common misconception,” he says, adding that the cannabis products will not have received a blessing.
The OU has also certified other products, such as kosher vitamins and cough syrups, and the agency is now in conversation with other cannabis companies in New York and around the country, seeking kosher certification.
“I think New York’s medical cannabis program is going to be unique,” says Hoffnung. “We are transforming the patient’s experience and professionalizing the industry. In other states, patients might be offered products with street names like AK-47, here they’ll be offered THC capsules. In other states, patients are greeted by bud tenders, in New York they’ll be greeted by licensed pharmacists. Today’s [kosher] certification is another step in professionalizing the industry.”