With April 20th on the way, arguably a national “high holy day” for stoners across the globe, the world of marijuana is given a huge spotlight, especially among the youth. It’s no secret that we’ve seen menorah-shaped glass bongs or kosher edibles as well as prominent Jewish-stoner celebrities in our social media feed. This brings up the question regarding marijuana’s connection to Judaism and Jewish culture in America and abroad. It is important to understand and examine the reasons behind this cultural trend associated with marijuana and its socio-political history. With the hopes of clarifying a few stereotypes and analyzing past and present social views, this article will examine the history and significance of marijuana as it relates to Judaism and the global Jewish community.
Marijuana, also known as “weed” or “mary jane,” among many other names, is a psychoactive substance derived from the cannabis plant. Its main psychoactive chemicals include THC and CBD, which are known to alter a person’s state of mind and mood. There are positive side effects associated with the drug such as relaxation, increased appetite, and euphoric feelings of happiness and pleasure. Some also experience increased anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, long-term impaired memory and mental ability, and respiratory infections. Common methods of taking the drug include smoking, inhaling, and consuming food. Marijuana is one of the most widely consumed drugs in the world with reasons of use stemming from recreational and mental to spiritual and medical. In the United States, marijuana is the single most commonly used federally prohibited drug with 48 million Americans reported using it at least once in 2019, according to the CDC. Legislative measures are taking place nationwide to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. As of 2023, 21 states legalized its recreational use. Furthermore, the cannabis industry is growing across the globe, with more and more governments pursuing the legalization and permittance of recreational use. California is the biggest market for adult cannabis use, with market estimates as large as $5.3 billion from sales garnered in the year 2018-2022 in the state alone. The cannabis industry is spearheaded by Jewish-Americans and Israeli companies who are some of the largest distributors of the substance in the world.
There is considerable debate among archaeological and botanic scholars regarding whether marijuana was ever used in ancient Israel or mentioned in the Torah. In 2020, an archaeological dig site in the Negev named Tel Arad found residues of cannabis contained within the temple sanctuary altar. Some scientists suggest that this find confirms that cannabis was used for ancient Jewish rituals going back to the time of King Solomon. Religious scholars debate about whether the plant is mentioned in the Talmud or classified as kosher.
There is no doubt that marijuana is becoming more and more widespread, evidenced by the growth of its billion-dollar industry and its changing legal status in the world. Still, marijuana is classified as a schedule one drug under federal U.S. drug policy. According to marijuana incarceration statistics, there are 600,000 people arrested for marijuana every year in the U.S. despite its widespread legalization. Moreover, marijuana accounts for about 43% of all drug arrests in the country. A disproportionate amount of these arrests and those charged with criminal penalties for marijuana are people of color, which leads to disparities in employment, housing, and public or private financial assistance. Further, there is a considerable amount of stigma associated with marijuana and its connections with racial and religious minorities. The War on Drugs began in 1971, with the Nixon administration prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders in order to disrupt communities focused on civil rights and anti-war activism. Most of these prosecutions were targeted to black communities and politically liberal groups, whose use of marijuana was widespread. Another disturbing fact to consider is how black Americans are four times as likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. Ever since then, marijuana has been heavily regulated by the government and frowned upon by the American public with African Americans serving as scapegoats for drug policy violations.
It is from this point that we can begin to understand the social and political Jewish connection to marijuana. In the modern age, Jews are thought to encompass a large portion of the population involved in marijuana’s recreational use. Stemming from Jewish groups focused on civil rights, liberal attitudes, urban environments, and involvement with avant-garde movements throughout the world, Jewish liberal attitudes towards society and culture influence this perception. Nixon himself stated to Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff, “Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish…what the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?”. Yoseph Needleman, a prominent Jewish writer on medical marijuana explains that “‘persecution amidst redemptive activity’ is present in both Jewish history and in the history of cannabis prohibition and consumption”. Needelman also states that ‘the imperative to reflect, process, laugh at and with, and ultimately digest through making peace’ is Jewish, and weed-ish. Like Torah, a ‘reed of wisdom,’ cannabis offers a lens through which to see and experience life—and to draw connections to morality and history”. Another important fact to consider is how generational trauma contributes to the over-representation of Jews involved with marijuana use. Studies show that the Jewish history rooted in generations of persecution as well as current patterns of anti-Semitism cause PTSD and anxiety among Jews born under these circumstances. Marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD within all groups of people, and the Jewish population is no exception.
Socially, Jewish families are thought to be more liberal and less authoritative in their attitudes toward the experimental use of drugs. Tolerance and participation in social progress is almost a fact of life for most Jewish families, especially considering our own history of persecution and anti-Semitism. There is no question that some of the most famous stoners in showbusiness and the world are Jewish. Seth Rogan, Bill Maher, Bob Dylan, Jonah Hill, and Paul Rudd are some of the most prominent celebrity stoners who are Jewish. It is possibly their image in film and television that contributes to stereotypes surrounding the public perception of Jews and marijuana. Some might view these Jewish celebrities’ associations with marijuana as a positive stereotype, as their image reflects an inclusive and tolerant attitude of Jews in the public sphere. Not to mention these celebrities are some of the coolest people to exist today.
In Israel, marijuana is the most popular consumed drug among adults. Statistics show that in 2017 around 27% of Israeli adults have used marijuana in the past year. This classifies Israel as one of the world’s leading cannabis consumers, with numbers showing to rise yearly. It was an Israeli scientist, Raphael Mechoulam, sometimes called “the father of cannabis research,” the first to isolate the THC chemical from the marijuana plant in 1964. Pioneering research done on the substance since the 1960s has made Israel the leading researcher in cannabis-related treatment and experiments. The Israeli-based Tikkun Olam Company is Israel’s principal provider of medicinal marijuana and the world’s leading supplier of medicinal products. Even today, Israeli and Jewish-American scientists lead the world in the research and development of cannabis in medical and scientific institutions.
Here in Los Angeles, Jews like Cat Goldberg, the founder, and CEO of Weed Bar LA, are champions of the cannabis cause in the Jewish community. Goldberg even organizes multiple 420-friendly events catered to the Jewish community in LA. Mitzvah Herbal, another LA-based and Jewish-owned company provides observant Jews with kosher-parve cannabis products. Some of the most notable religious leaders in the Jewish community have commented on marijuana’s kashrut, with differing opinions on its medical and recreational use. Most famously, Rabbi Efraim Zalmanovich and other orthodox Jewish organizations have ruled that cannabis is kosher and permitted under Jewish law. And for those of you who were worried about whether weed is kosher for Passover, it has been ruled that weed is certified “k for p.” Dr. Yosef Glassman, who also happens to be a rabbi, has speculated on the future of marijuana in medicine as well as its connection to rabbinical Judaism. Dr. Glassman is not only very optimistic about cannabis’s future use in medicine but explains that “deep into Talmudic literature are instructions for how to grow cannabis, where you can grow it, and other uses for it, such as in clothing or candle wick…and is considered to have a form of spiritual protection, so it was used very commonly in burying the dead in Israel”.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of research and publications done on cannabis and its relationship to Jewish culture. What is important to understand is the liberal attitudes Jews have that make marijuana a big part of Jewish social, artistic, economic, and religious culture. With the expansiveness of the cannabis industry going beyond the perceived social attitudes of the world, cannabis will continue to play a big role in science and medicine. It is important to understand the stigma and social consequences of harmful perspectives towards the substance so that communities can combat discrimination and prejudice. Legislation and social change is the principal force behind cannabis’s popularity, with acknowledgment of its dark past being integral in shaping views today.
“The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or ASUCLA Communications Board.”