June 16, 2016

Orthodox Rabbis in New York decide to certify kosher medical marijuana

By Katja Ridderbusch

Rabbi Moshe Elefant is used to making difficult decisions about what complies with Jewish dietary laws. But this one “was particularly complicated,” says the Rabbi, an executive with the world’s largest kosher certification agency. The bone of contention: kosher cannabis.

Since January, medical marijuana has been legal in New York state. Vireo Health, a pharmaceutical start-up with production facilities in Minnesota and New York, quickly decided to focus on the kosher niche market. “New York is home to the largest Jewish population in the United States,” says the company's CEO, Ari Hoffnung.

To be precise, almost 9 percent of New York is Jewish. In the United States, an average of 2.1 percent of the population identify themselves as Jewish. “It just made sense for us as a company to offer kosher medical marijuana in New York,” he adds.

The kashrut -- the compliance with Jewish dietary laws -- “wasn’t our main issue,” says Rabbi Elefant, Chief Operating Officer of the kosher division at the Orthodox Union (OU) in New York City. It was the policy decision involved with certifying medical marijuana. After all, he says, “marijuana comes with very, very negative connotations.” For the OU, the certification process was unchartered territory, and there were quite a few in New York’s Jewish community who remained skeptical.

In the end, the rabbis gave their blessing – along with the recognizable “OU” stamp: Kosher Certified. Yet Rabbi Elefant wants to be clear: “The Orthodox Union would never certify marijuana for any other use, but medical.”

In Israel, where cutting-edge marijuana research has been taking place for many years, medical marijuana is legal, while the recreational use is forbidden. Yet he admits that he did not consult his colleagues in Israel during his decision making process. “They make their decisions, and we make ours,” he says.

Hoffnung, who previously worked as a Wall Street executive for JP Morgan and then as deputy comptroller for the city of New York, is thrilled about the rabbis’ approval, which also serves an important public relations purpose, he says. “If a prominent religious organization like the Orthodox Union certifies our products as kosher, that will help combat the stigma that’s still associated with medical marijuana.”

As a medicine, marijuana is used to treat symptoms of cancer and HIV; ease pain and nausea; and help people suffering from seizures caused by epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Vireo offers medical marijuana in three forms -- oil, capsules, or a tincture to be inhaled through a vaporizer. Smoking the dried cannabis flower, as a joint or in a bong, a type of water pipe, is forbidden under New York regulations.

Vireo’s cannabis plant is located an hour northwest of Albany, the state’s capital. The plant is in a building that was once occupied, ironically, by an infamous juvenile detention center.

At its New York plant, Vireo only produces kosher marijuana products, which it sells in its four stores around New York City and upstate, says Hoffnung, The cannabis stores are called “dispensaries” in industry jargon.

Vireo’s researchers and the rabbis from the Orthodox Union had been in a dialogue for several months, says Hoffnung. “We had so many interesting and involved conversations. It was as learning process -- for both sides, I hope.”

For the rabbis, the process presented a number of challenges. According to Jewish religious law, lifesaving medications are excluded from the kashrut. Yet medical marijuana is not one of them. While it can alleviate symptoms, it typically doesn’t provide cure. “And that was exactly our problem,” explains Rabbi Elefant. The reason why the rabbis finally went ahead with the certification was that “marijuana may help many people better deal with their health situation,” says the rabbi. “However, observant Jews would not take it unless it’s kosher certified.”

In terms of production, it’s not the plant itself that had the OU representatives worried, but the ingredients and equipment used to turn it into medical marijuana products. For example, marijuana gel caps must not be made of pig gelatin. Equipment used for production of kosher marijuana cannot be used to produce non-kosher products.

For months, the conversation between Vireo and the Orthodox Union went back and forth, Hoffnung recalls. “There were documents the OU people wanted to see and people they wanted to speak with, and we made anything and anyone available to them, so they could get comfortable with our process.”

The effort paid off. The two rabbis who came to the plant for the final inspection were satisfied. Hoffnung doesn’t want to say how much Vireo spent on preparing for the kosher certification, but emphasizes it was well worth it.  Kosher medical marijuana sales started in January, “and while the market is still in its initial phase, we are seeing a steady increase in the number of patients we serve.”

Also, it looks like Vireo Health has set a precedent. Just recently, Cresco Labs, a cannabis producer in Illinois, has received a kosher certification by the Chicago Rabbinical Council.  Marijuana producers in other states with large Jewish populations, like California and Massachusetts, are considering launching kosher medical marijuana product lines.

Vireo has received numerous requests from cannabis producers and pharmaceutical companies from around the country and the globe, says Hoffnung. The Orthodox Union got similar calls, “from producers in other states, as well as other rabbis asking for our opinion about what they should do,” says Rabbi Elefant.

Kosher marijuana isn’t available yet in Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, in addition to medical cannabis. “(That is) simply because the market in Colorado is too small and therefore, wouldn’t be profitable,” says Madalyn McElwain, an attorney in Denver who specializes on the legal aspects of the cannabis industry. Jews makes up about two percent of the Colorado population, and the majority identify themselves as secular.

However, McElwain thinks that the situation for businesses considering kosher cannabis production could change quickly and drastically –- if marijuana is legalized on the federal level. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law and is listed in the same category of forbidden substances as heroin, cocaine, LSD, and ecstasy.

The federal ban also prohibits the export of marijuana products from one state to another.

As of now, 25 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana in one form or another. In four of those states, as well as in Washington, DC, recreational use is also permitted. In 2015, legal marijuana sales in the U.S. were $4.4 billion and are estimated to rise up to $5.7 billion in 2016.

Congress just passed a bill allowing veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to use medial marijuana. “The lobbying efforts are heating up and the pressure to legalize marijuana federally is rising,” says McElwain. “It’s only a matter of time before the dominos start to fall.”

She expects the federal ban to fall within the next five to 10 years. Then, cannabis producers, including those of kosher medical marijuana, would be able to ship their products anywhere in the U.S.  “This will open up new markets, new demand and new competition,” says McElwain.

For Rabbi Moshe Elefant and his kosher certification team at the Orthodox Union, this would also mean: more work, more discussion, and more difficult decisions.  All of which he’s well used to.

This is the translation of an article published in the German Jewish weekly “Jüdische Allgemeine” on June 16, 2016.

© Katja Ridderbusch