Judaism and the Legalization of Marijuana?

November 3, 2013 4:36 pm 13 comments

Medical marijuana. Photo: Coaster420/Wikimedia Commons.

Currently, the Knesset is debating the issue of legalizing pot. To be more accurate, it is debating legalizing pot for medical reasons. This‎ is a position that has already found favor in 20 States in the USA.

Furthermore, the states of Washington and Colorado have actually legalized recreational pot, even if the Federal government has not! But that’s the USA for you. In the UK, in recent years, various ministers have tried testing the waters to legalize pot, but they have only got as far as telling the police not to make a fuss over small amounts of pot for personal use. A typical Anglo fudge.

In Israel, it is believed as many as one million people use the drug, which is readily available (even if officially illegal). The users come from all sorts of sources – including, interestingly, Christian, Jews, and Muslims, as well, of course, as the usual suspects. Westerners tend to think of religion as a definite killjoy. In Israel, religious communities of all sorts are less opposed to the use of pot in practice, if not in political stance. Perhaps pot and alcohol are the only way many strictly religious people can cope with the restrictions of faith (or perhaps their claustrophobic communities)!

In 1967, after the Six Day War, East Jerusalem was flooded not only with tourists, but with Israelis who wanted pot. Sacks of all different varieties were as common as peanuts and sunflower seeds throughout the Old City markets. I had an old friend who was living in what was officially a hotel, but was in fact a den of vice with a very cheap overnight rate, just inside the Damascus Gate. I was at the time, of course, a good black-hatted yeshiva bochur and purely out of friendship, I assure you, I found time to pay him a visit. I recall being overwhelmed by, amongst other things, the powerful aroma of pot.

Yet, dear reader, I give you my word of honor, my virtue remained intact!

Several years later, I was the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in Glasgow when the same friend came to visit me on his way back from Afghanistan. This was forty years ago, before the Russians, the Taliban, or the Americans. He was dressed in a flowing scarlet cloak, bright green trousers, and a brown Afghani soft hat on his head. Thus clothed, he just dropped in on me one Shabbat morning in my synagogue.

My congregants were shocked but, given my position and he a friend, he was actually called to the Torah in his gear. He was a scholar of no mean attainment, despite his lifestyle, and he performed well. I took him home, fed him, and after Shabbat went out, he insisted I have a smoke. The last thing I wanted was to be the first Scottish rabbi to be charged with drug use, and I told him that if he wanted a puff, he should step outside into the garden, although it was a frozen Scottish winter’s day. Which is what he did. But then I had second thoughts and joined him and had my first and only spliff. It didn’t do anything for me, but he clearly was in a happy place.

Many years later and was in the holy city of Antwerp. There I had a friend who is Belzer Chasid trying bravely to lead a normal life in the Ghetto. He tells me the only way he can survive without going mad is by smoking vast amounts of the weed. I am scandalized. Yet now, twenty-five years later, he is a successful businessman, a father of many children, and the grandfather of lots more. He is still as good a Chasid as he ever was, and he puts it all down to pot. Go figure.

I have always been uncomfortable with any kind of dependency, even placebos. People pop far too many pills, or visit miracle rabbis and pseudo kabbalists, and they are all hooked in one way or another. Yet I strongly believe in legalizing drugs. That goes for the heavy ones, let alone the soft ones. Prohibition rarely works. It didn’t with alcohol. It opens the demand up to criminals and drug lords. It drives people underground and inhibits rehabilitation. If all drugs were legalized and taxed, part of the revenue could be used for helping, if not curing, addicts. We do this with gambling, alcohol, tobacco, and indeed with Vicodin and other medical opiates. Even then there are abuses. If the concern is that addicts put society at risk, so do alcohol and guns. Too many human beings find life too hard or self-control too difficult to manage without their goodies or their props.

Religion has used drugs of various sorts throughout its history. Somepeople even think the incense used in the Tabernacle, the Knei Bosem (Exodus 30), was, if not marijuana, some other hallucinogen. I chuckle at the thought of all those Israelites crowded into the Temple getting a high. Perhaps that explains why we lost two Temples. John Allegro even argued that the Dead Sea sects were permanently high on mushroom-based drugs.

When I was a headmaster, I asked the great and much missed Lubavitcher Rebbe to send me teachers who would inspire my charges with a love for Judaism. Two lovely fellows arrived and did a great job inviting pupils to their homes, and I was delighted until I discovered they were plying thirteen-year-olds with vodka. Any religion that requires artificial stimuli, as far as I am concerned, is dishonest, crazy, or dangerous. Perhaps all those people who have visions of the Virgin Mary have been taking something.

I am in favor of helping those who suffer pain, but still I am wary of drugs of any kind. I believe a person healthy in body and mind should avoid them. Not all users are addled addicts, and just as some people like alcohol in moderation perhaps pot works for others too despite the dire warnings of brain damage. I have on occasion taken a sleeping pill. In other words, as adults we have a responsibility to be sensible in our tastes and indulgencies and there are limits to government interference.

I see the useless drug wars that narcotic agents wage all over the world. They haven’t succeeded so far, so why not legalize and tax? Bureaucracies and government agencies seem to have a record of incompetence, political interference, and vested interests. Just look at the U.S. tax system or the Affordable Care Act. Do you really need any more proof? Let the sick, the poor and the weak have their little pleasures. The role of government is to ensure they do not harm others.

We have a tradition of allowing our children to drink wine for kiddush. Usually our children do not grow into alcoholics. Control, education, and moderation are the best means of bringing people up to know where the limits are, not legislation.

13 Comments

  • Some famous rabbis that sound like they used drugs were Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer, or Baal Shem Tov, the father of the Chasidic movement. A Baal Shem/Doktor is someone who picked wild grasses and barks, and made medicines out of them which he would sell, along with advice on how to use [them] properly. He used to smoke from a water pipe to experience an “aliyat neshama,” or ascension of the soul. His biographer, Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polonoye, said that he would give his entire portion in this world, and in the world to come, just for a taste of what the Ba’al Shem Tov got from his pipe.

  • Mike from Toronto

    … and then realized that you are a Rabbi? Sorry for being overly sensitive. People insult religious people enough that we don’t need to be doing it to! Please do not publish my previous comment if possible. Thanks.

  • Mike from Toronto

    “Perhaps pot and alcohol are the only way many strictly religious people can cope with the restrictions of faith (or perhaps their claustrophobic communities)!”

    And that offensive and condescending jab is where I stopped reading this article. Horrible journalism. What an infantile conception of religion. Have you ever even spoken to a “strictly religious” person?

  • That recipe (Exodus 30:23) includes about 6 pounds of “kaneh-bosen”.

    According to many biblical scholars, “kaneh-bosen” was/is Marijuana.
    Most of the diseases mentioned as being healed miraculously after anointing are, curiously, the same ones that cannabis can heal today. Things like epilepsy, leprosy, and “crooked limbs” (an obvious reference to multiple sclerosis).

    Exodus 30:
    23 Moreover, the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even 250 shekels, and of qaneh-bosm [cannabis] 250 shekels, 24 And of cassia 500 shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: 25 And thou shalt make it an oil of holy anointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. 26 And thous shalt anoint the tabernacle of the congregation therewith, and the ark of the testimony, 27 And the table and all his vessels, and the candlestick ahd his vessels, and the altar of incense, 28 And the altar of burnt offerings with all his vessels, and the laver and his foot. 29 And thou shalt sanctify them, that they may be most holy: whatsoever toucheth them shall be holy.

    • Yes but its only a theory and an unlikely one because both words are used elsewhere to mean other stuff altogether. The Talmud on the other hand refers to KANBOS ( Canvas ) which is hemp of course!

  • I see no reason why marijuana shouldn’t be legal for adults. Conversely, it is apparent in the USA that medical marijuana is just a subterfuge to get around the antiquated restrictions on its use.

  • to all in it’s season,

  • Good food and good sex are God-given human pleasures and there should be no shame attached; just responsibility…and moderation.

  • Chaya Goldstein

    B”H

    If I’m not mistaken, according to R. Moshe Feinstein z”l, the use of marijuana is prohibited because we are commanded “Kedoshim tihiyu.” Marijuana increases and amplifies ones desire for physical pleasures such as food and sex. (So I’m told.)

    I am also pro-legalization. I don’t think halacha is effectively enforced by civil law.

    However, I find your remark, “Let the sick, the poor and the weak have their little pleasures,” callous and wrong-headed.

    • Yes you are right that was a callous statement for which I apologize. Thanks for picking me up on it.

      In theory of course Rav Moshe ZL was right, it carries with it not just the dangers you enumerate but also an identification in our culture with values that are alien to Torah. But that, like religion, is a matter of choice and besides in matters of pain and health other criteria apply.

  • Yes my name is Seth Green. An I have Cerebral Palsy Seizures Multiple Sclerosis and a Stroke. I was wanting to know if it was possible to get me baptize in Holy Oil? Anyway Cannabis saved my life. Years I thought it was a sin. But now I know it is not. God put it here for a medical and economic purposes. I just love this article

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