The Jews and the joint: a rabbi, a doctor and a lawyer talk pot

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As Canada gets closer to legalizing marijuana in July 2018; a rabbi, a doctor and a lawyer discuss the potential impact on the Jewish community.

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner is the Rosh Beit Midrash at the YU Torah Mitzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov.

Dr. Barry Pakes is program director of the public health and preventive medicine program at the University of Toronto.

Matthew Friedberg is a criminal defence lawyer with Caramanna, Friedberg LLP.

Is there a difference between marijuana and alcohol? Should we approach pot legalization differently?

Pakes: There are certainly differences between pot and alcohol. The harms (and benefits) of each of these substances are related to their unique chemical and physiologic properties, but more importantly, the context of their use – who uses, when, where, with what substances, the social context of its use, sale and production, etc.

The key difference in our approach to cannabis legalization at this point in time is that we now have the opportunity to create the best regulatory and public-health environment possible for legalization, knowing everything we know about the successes and failures with tobacco and alcohol. The question is: will it make a difference?

Friedberg: For most, it is certainly beyond dispute that marijuana is a far less harmful drug than alcohol. Still, while it has medical benefits in some circumstances, when used recreationally – especially if abused – it can have harmful health consequences.

As a result, we ought to approach marijuana legalization in a similar way to how we currently deal with alcohol and tobacco, enforcing limitations on how people can access it. An additional goal of legalization should be to reduce the monopoly organized crime currently has on the marijuana trade.

Rabbi Torczyner: From a Jewish perspective, both alcohol and marijuana are problematic. Aside from their respective health risks, they are often used for escapist purposes, and Judaism is philosophically committed to confronting this world’s problems, rather than avoiding them.

However, the role of alcohol is complicated in Judaism, because certain rituals, such as Kiddush on Friday night, identify the use of wine as ideal. So there is tension between promoting the responsible use of wine in limited quantities, while simultaneously recognizing its potential harm.

Marijuana, on the other hand, has no traditional or historical role in Judaism, and so there is no religious imperative to use it. So even if pot is less addictive or less destructive than alcohol, Judaism would still have a much freer hand in rejecting drug use than it does in rejecting alcohol use.

One of the arguments for legalization is the idea of permitting a lesser evil to prevent greater harm. Do you think there’s any basis for that?

Pakes: Balancing harms at the individual and societal levels is the core challenge of public-health ethics, and of designing a public-health response to a political decision like pot legalization. Will pot legalization reduce harms (like incarceration, or use of contaminated products) to those currently at risk? Yes. But will this be offset by an increase in harm caused by the fact that more people will have access to the drug? Perhaps.

From a public-health perspective, it is not only about individuals harmlessly seeking gratification – it’s about how the whole pot industry affects communities. My sense is that this is where public-health ethics and Halachah may share more with each other than with secular Canadian law.

Friedberg: There are very strong reasons to believe that legalization will reduce harm. Whether it be harm reduction from a public-health perspective, deterring organized crime, protecting youth or relieving the overburdened criminal justice system – all of these provide strong evidence against the misguided and failed anti-marijuana policy that Canada currently has.

As a criminal defence lawyer and civil libertarian, it always stuck me as irrational that our country tried to make criminals out of people who were seeking instant gratification and not hurting others. Human beings are, by nature, pleasure-seeking creatures. A government can’t legislate away our DNA.


Rabbi Torczyner: As a general rule, Judaism is against the philosophy of the ends justifying the means. However, there is precedent in Jewish law for allowing a lesser evil to take place, in order to avoid a greater evil. For example, the Talmud prohibits ransoming hostages, lest the payment provide an incentive for more hostage-taking.

On this basis, one could argue that Judaism should refrain from punishing marijuana use, to prevent the use of harder drugs. However, this presumes there is no better way to avoid harder drugs, and that allowing marijuana use would actually stop people from using other controlled substances. I am not sure that these assumptions are correct.

Is the Jewish community prepared to deal with addiction among users of legal marijuana?

Pakes: There are many different communities within the Jewish community, each with very different demographic, social and behavioural features that will determine how cannabis legalization will impact them. What is certain is that no community is prepared and all will be impacted.

Jewish religious leaders and other authority figures and institutions will certainly influence individuals and the community as a whole. Their perspectives on recreational cannabis will likely range from forbidden to encouraged.

I, like most public-health physicians, think continued criminalization is not a wise policy, but I expect many of us will be surprised by how ill-prepared we are.

Friedberg: This question presupposes that legalization will lead to an increase in drug addiction. That is an assumption. One important question is whether legalization will lead those who already use marijuana to consume more of it, and whether more people will try it as result of it being legal.

If there is an increase in usage, the Jewish community is well prepared to deal with the issue – largely because, over the last 20 years, our community has come to accept that it is just as susceptible to substance abuse as any other. There are now support groups, infrastructure and treatment options for Jews who suffer from all forms of addiction.

Rabbi Torczyner: In an ideal world, Judaism would fulfil people’s needs for happiness and meaning, but that isn’t the reality for much of our population. So we need to recognize that with legal access to an addictive drug, we will see an increase in drug addiction, just as we already have significant rates of alcohol addiction.

I think we need professional training for synagogue rabbis, teachers and camp and youth group leaders. There should also be educational programs for parents. However, we must recognize that the risk is not only in youth – it is also very much in adults. An increase in funding for organizations that deal with addiction might be wise, along with the creation of support groups with capable social workers.

Should synagogues, schools and other Jewish community organizations allow marijuana use at events? What about marijuana-focused events?

Pakes: I have no doubt that some organizations will allow marijuana use at events and perhaps have marijuana-themed events. From a public-health perspective, it is important to have a clear understanding of the dynamics of substance use. For every 100 people who use a substance casually, nine (9 per cent) will at some point become regular users. Of these, several will have serious mental health, educational or occupational impacts, and one will likely have a severe outcome. These are very rough numbers prior to legalization, but likely in the right ballpark.


Having recently attended a scotch-tasting event at a synagogue, I still feel community organizations should carefully consider the risk of using any substance to draw people to Jewish events.

Friedberg: While I certainly don’t think there is anything “wrong” with marijuana use, I don’t think there is anything “right” about it, either. Marijuana use ought to be treated by Jewish institutions the same way they treat alcohol and tobacco use. Judaism has much more to offer than getting high, or doing outreach by enticing people with drugs or alcohol.

As for events that already have alcohol served in limited ways, such as at kiddushes or weddings, serious thought will have to be given by each institution as to how it wants to deal with marijuana, if, how and when the law allows them to do so.

Rabbi Torczyner: I am against marijuana use at Jewish community events, and particularly at events attended by children. I take the same stance regarding open-ended alcohol use (as opposed to a formal wine-tasting). It may be legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

I have read of Jewish outreach organizations that use marijuana as a means of connecting with potential members, but I fear this is dangerously short-sighted.

On Sunday, Sept. 10, Yeshiva University Torah Mitzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov presents “A New Challenge: Marijuana Legalization and the Jewish Community,” a discussion featuring the three experts in the above article.