Stop us if you’ve heard this one: A rabbi and a pot farmer walk into a cannabis processing facility. It might sound funny, but for Rabbi Yaakov Cohen, a kosher supervisor and rabbi in Israel (by way of Texas and California), it’s not a joke — it’s a calling.
Rabbi Cohen is on a mission to make sure cannabis products are available for anyone who keeps kosher — and the rest of us too.
In a community where kosher certification is important, and where not everyone is comfortable with smoking, certifying edibles is crucial to ensuring access.
“I want the community to have kosher options available,” Rabbi Cohen explained. “I help get people connected to this medicine and they don’t want to smoke, they don’t want tinctures, but edibles work well for them. Why shouldn’t edibles with the medicine people need be available with the kosher option?”
That option is one that more than just Jews often prefer. “Even in the regular supermarket, something like 40 or 60% of the items in the grocery store are kosher and people prefer a kosher item to a non-kosher item,” Rabbi Cohen said, explaining that the kosher seal means that “there was another pair of eyes” supervising the manufacturing process.
Rabbi Cohen told The Cannigma that his company Whole Kosher Services has certified the products of about 20 companies so far, including CBD brand Charlotte’s Web and and Wana, a Colorado based maker of THC and CBD edibles.
What makes cannabis kosher?
While the laws of kashrut can be perplexing even for those who grew up in a Jewish household, Rabbi Cohen makes it sound rather simple, being that it involves plant-based products, and not animal-derived food items.
“There are insects in the flower buds, but because you smoke it, you smoke the buds then it’s no problem,” Rabbi Cohen said, adding that “if you put the plants or leaves in your salad, say, that would be a problem. But most people don’t do that, so there’s no problem giving kosher certification to the flower tops.”
(Rabbi Cohen also stated that he doesn’t know if there’s anything particularly kosher about the cannabis strain Kosher Kush, only that “there is nothing kosher to it other than its plant based.”)
What could make cannabis unkosher?
For cannabis oils though, Rabbi Cohen said kosher certification involves a more extensive process of inspecting the processing facilities, as well as making sure that the carrier oils used in infusions, such as MCT oil, have kosher certification as well.
These all may seem like pretty straightforward regulations, but like many things involving Jewish law, it can get a bit complicated.
With cannabis concentrates, you must first determine if the extraction method involved ethanol, and if so, whether or not it came from grapes. If so, then they must have been kosher grapes for it to be considered kosher.
When it comes to edibles, because people who keep kosher also abstain from mixing milk and meat products, determining if animal-derived whey is included in the ingredients is a must.
And for gummies? The presence of gelatin as a thickening agent is generally forbidden for people who keep kosher, so Rabbi Cohen must ensure that they use pectin instead.
Regardless though, unlike kosher meat slaughter and processing, inspecting cannabis facilities is a rather simple affair, he clarifies.
“The certification is pretty simple, you don’t always need to continuously go and inspect things like if it was meat. You just go in four or six times a year. If it’s all kosher ingredients and what not, it’s all pretty straightforward.”
The unthinkable tragedy of needing cannabis for your child
But how did Rabbi Cohen become a kosher cannabis certifier? Like many parents before him, his introduction to the world of cannabis came when his child became desperately ill.
Originally from Los Angeles, Rabbi Cohen spent a decade in San Antonio as a rabbi and Jewish community leader before moving with his family to Houston in 2011 for a job. Within a year of moving, however, his son Elisha, then five years old, was diagnosed with brain cancer and began going through the turmoil of radiation and chemotherapy.
Rabbi Cohen said he and his wife “knew about cannabis and we were reading the research coming out of Israel about cannabis and stories about people in California who used cannabis for their kid and the kid totally got better.”
Nevertheless, his family didn’t know much about medical cannabis or how to prepare or administer it. They were very much on their own, trying whatever they could to provide some relief to their son.
In 2012, the family flew out to California so they could start medical cannabis treatment and found a doctor who helped them prepare cannabis-based juices for their son. He said they also managed to link up with a cannabis farm in California that provided them with cannabis they would then juice for Elisha.
“He did incredible with it, his energy level, his functioning systems were all getting better. He was getting stronger.”
However, they couldn’t stay in California forever and had to move back to Texas, where they were no longer able to access the cannabis medicine Elisha needed.
In April 2014, Elisha succumbed to his illness. In the wake of this family tragedy, Rabbi Cohen decided to lean in on helping people access medicinal cannabis in honor of his son’s memory.
‘It’s a mission that I’m on in memory of my son’
How does that link up to certifying cannabis products as kosher?
“Since then, and since we’ve been involved in cannabis, a lot of people have approached us, Rabbi Cohen explained, “and since I was already running my own kashrut services, they came to us,” Cohen said.
Having already performed kosher certification in San Antonio and Houston, Cohen said he decided to offer his services to cannabis companies “so that people who are sick with whatever ailment would have kosher options.”
Rabbi Cohen does note that he does not personally partake of cannabis, and that “I’m not promoting a lifestyle, I’m promoting medicine.”
But it’s clear that for him it’s also about more than adhering to religious tradition or supplying medicine to people in need.
“It’s a mission that I’m on in memory of my son. It’s so that people will have a more clear track than what we had. We found out late, we were completely in the dark about medical cannabis.”
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