Making sure kosher cannabis business is fair
Having kosher cannabis for sale may doesn’t sound quite reasoning, but for some Jews, it’s a medical necessity. Rabbi Yaakov Cohen, who owns Whole Kosher Services (a kosher certifying agency out of Houston, Texas), is on a mission to end the stigma around cannabis by making it more accessible to the Jewish community at large.
For Cohen, his mission was born out of personal tragedy. In 2012, Cohen’s son Elisha was diagnosed with brain cancer at five years old and began going through the hardships of radiation and chemotherapy. At the time, Cohen was only familiar with medicinal cannabis in the context of glaucoma or to aid cancer patients with loss of appetite. “Then we were seeing studies that came out in Israel that it could actually shrink cancer, even specifically brain cancer,” told Cohen.
To try out a medicinal cannabis treatment for Elisha, Cohen and his wife flew to California, where Elisha could receive cannabis-based juices. He started showing signs of improvement. “He was doing quite well but we couldn’t stay there, and the people tried to send the medicine to us in Texas, but I guess it got discovered at the post office,” he said.
As a result, Cohen turned to other experimental treatments for Elisha that failed to alleviate his pain. Less than two years after his diagnosis, his son died at six years old. After Elisha’s death, Cohen pledged to honor his son’s memory by making medicinal cannabis more accessible for all.
In the beginning, Cohen had certified mainly food products, such as Trader Joe’s Enchilada sauce and various syrups for Kona Ice. But now, as cannabis becomes more socially accepted, most of Cohen’s new clients are associated with the cannabis business.
On the heels of New Jersey legalizing it in 2021, Cohen paid a visit to Curaleaf’s manufacturing facility in Camden County for inspection. According to Kristin Fitzpatrick, senior compliance manager for New Jersey, Curaleaf is the world’s largest cannabis company with stores in 17 states, including a few stores in Camden and Burlington Counties. With Cohen’s approval, “we should be the first in New Jersey to certify kosher,” she said.
But to certify such a large cannabis facility isn’t easy. “You have to see the entire facility top to bottom, verify the equipment, check every single raw ingredient,” Cohen added. “A lot goes into it.”
Some problems Cohen runs into is the use of gelatin in gummies or chews. Also, when facilities “use a solvent such as ethanol, it could be made from grape or whey,” he said, which presents potential kashrut problems.
Rabbi Ephraim Epstein, director of the “Cherry-K Vaad Hakashrut,” which supervises several local food factories in their koshering process, said that the question isn’t whether cannabis is kosher as a plant, but rather if an infestation occurs. “Anything that grows from the ground is by definition kosher,” Epstein said. “But people don’t realize that the consumption of an insect can violate six prohibitions of the Torah.”
The current community scholar-In-residence at the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, Epstein added that avoiding insects is a big reason why growing hydroponic vegetation without using soil has become such a popular industry.
When it comes to certifying edibles or cannabis oil, bugs pose the greatest risk to the koshering process. If it’s smoked, on the other hand, “the flower tops are being burnt so that doesn’t present a kosher issue,” Cohen said.
So far, Cohen has certified kosher most of Curaleaf’s products, while other items such as their topical lotions and squeeze bottles still await official word.
The squeeze bottle, which is essentially liquid concentrate, is an item that Fitzpatrick said many Jews who keep kosher have asked about in doctors’ offices, particularly those who are experiencing pain, anxiety, or insomnia. “I think it’s because it’s a discreet way to medicate. If you want to be in a social setting and are having pain, you can sip a drink without that stigma that’s sometimes associated with cannabis,” she said.
Cohen acknowledged that while cannabis has become more accepted, it remains an issue in some Jewish communities. “It’s still very controversial,” he said. “When I started this, I think there was one other rabbi in California doing it, but basically no one else.”