Op-Ed by Laetitia Pierre-Louis
Over the past few year, marijuana policy has been a popular topic of public debate among the international community. While most countries have not accepted recreational use, in light of new research, many have legalized cannabis for medical use. Other countries, like the United States, adopted mixed legislation over the years, which allows the federal government and local municipalities to establish their own unique decriminalization or legalization laws.
Surprisingly, while many places have just begun to define their position on marijuana, Israel has been developing their policy since the 1960s and using it for medical treatment since the 1990s. Though recreational law has yet to surpass decriminalization, medical marijuana law has progressively changed alongside the society’s popular opinion. In fact, Israel is one of three countries in the world, aside Canada and the Netherlands, with a government sponsored cannabis program. Leaders in medical research, Israeli scientists have crafted consistent strains with varying levels of cannabinoids to treat patients. In December, 2018, the Israeli Knesset approved a law that permits regulated growers to export medical standard marijuana on the global market, yet the movement must still be passed by the Prime Minister. The market is electrified, the investments are flowing, the estimated payoff is huge, but it is unclear whether the nation will begin export.
But, how did the Jewish state become a leader in progressive medical marijuana research?
The story of Israel’s marijuana policy began with Hebrew professor Raphael Mechoulam, whose fascination with the plant’s chemistry prompted him to conduct marijuana research in the 1960s. Mechoulam never intended to discover the medical benefits of the drug, but through his experiments, he learned of its many psychoactive and medical potential. Despite his discoveries, Mechoulam’s research was halted due to a lack of grants. Upon request for a grant from the National Institute of Health, Mechoulam was denied of funding simply because it was not an “American problem”. At the time, research was dedicated to bone marrow stem cells. Despite this, Professor Mechoulam continued his research. Eventually, he was able to isolate and synthesize the major compound within the cannabis, called Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active hallucinogenic chemical within cannabis, the part of the plant that causes delusions, creates euphoria, and hallucinations. Professor Mechoulam’s extraction was able to be used as an agent to treat pain. Such an advancement led to immense research on the benefits of marijuana including the treatment of severe diseases.
Even Though marijuana research is increasing, medical use is still limited around the world. In countries such as Great Britain, marijuana has been used to reduce muscle spasms in patients who suffer from multiple sclerosis. However, many of the treatments are too often expensive for patients to access. In addition, it is quite difficult to qualify for such treatment. In order to access medical marijuana, it is mandatory for patients to undergo evaluation by physicians under the Ministry of Health in Israel to see their eligibility. The cost of receiving such medication is 370 Israeli new shekel per month. If qualified, the patient needs to make a request for a medical cannabis license to the Ministry of Health. In Great Britain, patients have to pay a fee of about £3,655 (approx. $4,835), in addition to that, they have to be deemed “clinically exceptional” by their physician. In Israel, such research is thriving in the hopes of making it more available for patients at a lower cost. Universities, such as Hadassah Academic college, have even initiated courses on the history, laws, and advantages of marijuana, to educate and inspire more cannabis research, in hopes of creating more accessible treatments. Offering about 90 college courses focused on marijuana-related content, cumulatively, universities seem to be shaping Israel’s medical marijuana industry by educating their students, scientifically. Ranked as one of Israel’s leading research universities, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has done immense work on marijuana research that is expected to revolutionize medicine.
A new study conducted by Prof. Pesach Shvartzman of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is an example of how the use of cannabis is effective in decreasing pain in elderly patients. This Israeli study took place between January 2015 to October 2017, examined the effective results of cannabis as a tool for the treatment of pain in cancer patients that are over the age of 65. This clinical trial consisted of 2,000 patients, who experienced multiple agonizing symptoms from chemotherapy. Prior to being given cannibal doses, patient’s average pain level was ranked an 8 on a scale from 0-10 (0 being the least pain and 10 being the most). When given cannibal doses, their pain level decreased by half, with their cannabis-treated pain level reported to be a 4 on average. Thus, showing a significant impact of the use of marijuana for the use of pain treatment.
Most research may be done strictly for medical purposes, but focused on enhancing favorable cannabis qualities and gene strains, these same studies produce results that are both medically and recreationally desirable. For this reason, both politics and business are major influencers on Israeli marijuana policy due to the extraordinary expected profit gain from the cannabis industry. By selling marijuana to hospitals, it would lead to an increase in the market for the production of such drug, thus, making it look as if the medical marijuana industry is more of business than healthcare industry. If Israel commercialized marijuana, the market could expect a relative increase in the plant’s production which would lead to over $30 billion in the next 7 years, making cannabis one of the top industries in Israel. Mati Broudo, the co-owner of Better, a small marijuana start-up, is frustrated by the government’s lack of approval regarding the export of the drug. This diminishes his hopes of exponentially growing this market.
Many Israeli business leaders have begun pressuring the government to allow them to export the product abroad. With the government’s aid to export medical marijuana products, such as oils and capsules, this would increase the economy in Israel. Since domestic production is not profitable, exporting these products around the world allows Israel to make a large profit from these products. However, exporting marijuana is somewhat difficult because many countries “lack the local rules that enforce international standards for quality control in growing medical marijuana or distributing it” says Hagai Amit from Haaretz magazine. Israel is currently 1 of 3 countries that include a government-sponsored medical marijuana program. The debate on cannabis research is not a large problem in Israel, unlike others, because it receives bipartisan support. Despite, medical marijuana being used as a business for leaders to profit on, it is also essential in the health industry, as it relieves many patients from undesirable pain.
Laetitia Pierre-Louis, is currently a freshman at American University. She is majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Public Health. Laetitia is very passionate about the healthcare system, and inspires to be a Physician.