How much should the government get involved in the lives and choices of the people? This is a perpetual question of politics. Many agree that government should protect its people and provide basic services, but what about regulating morality and ethics? The libertarian side argues that individuals should be free from interference, even if that means being allowed to engage in activities that may be harmful to themselves. The other side argues that governments should uphold values that are in the interest of all.
This question plays out in a number of areas, including the legalization of marijuana. Many states in the U.S. have decided that the government should no longer prohibit adults from buying and using the drug. In New Jersey, the legalization effort is currently stalled, while Israel just decriminalized cannabis.
A new party in Israel, Zehut, wants to go further and has made legalization of the drug a central part of its campaign. Zehut bills itself as libertarian, with right-wing positions on the Palestinian issue and advocacy for personal freedom on social issues. Despite its libertarian orientation, Zehut also believes that Israel should be guided of Jewish law, values and tradition.
So what does Judaism have to say about marijuana? Previous rabbis have ruled that use of the drug is against Jewish law, but those decisions were mostly made when cannabis was illegal. Now that it is allowed in some jurisdictions, is pot kosher?
Nothing in Jewish texts prohibit consumption of marijuana. In fact it is mentioned as an herb in the Talmud and there is no suggestion that it should be avoided. Judaism allows pleasures of the body, including the consumption of good food and drinking alcohol. Pot produces a similar effect as alcohol so it makes sense that if legal, it would also be permitted according to Jewish law.
The medieval rabbi Nachmanides understood that there was a danger to Judaism’s permissive attitude toward alcohol. Since drinking was allowed, someone could abuse alcohol and not violate halakha. Basing himself on the Torah, he argued that Jews have an obligation to pursue the path of moderation. One may eat and drink, but it is a religious duty not to do so to excess. This same approach would apply to marijuana as well: one may use it but not abuse it.
We live in a world that is quickly changing. While most rabbis of a previous generation opposed cannabis consumption, today some Kashrut organizations have begun to certify edible versions of the drug for medical use. But have we also considered all of the costs of legalization?
Are we as a society prepared for the possibility of an increase in substance abuse, car accidents and other negative effects of increased marijuana use? Have we considered how we will wipe clean the records of people convicted of using and selling the drug in the past? Do we have a plan to allow people of color to benefit from a new legal cannabis economy rather than be exploited by it? What will we do to help rebuild communities that have been devastated by the war on drugs? These are weighty questions that go beyond the simple question of whether to legalize pot or not, but we ignore them at our peril.