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Israel: Beyond the Horizon of Unrestricted Cannabis Research

Israel: Beyond the Horizon of Unrestricted Cannabis Research

In The Magazine

Israel: Beyond the Horizon of Unrestricted Cannabis Research

The Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel overlook the Mediterranean Sea. Photos courtesy Tikun Olam

Israel: Beyond the Horizon of Unrestricted Cannabis Research

Israel is leading the world in medical cannabis research, but citizens want more progress at home.

I’m walking down the street in Florentin, an artsy corner of beachy south Tel Aviv, wearing a T-shirt that reads “Mishtelet Yisrael” — or “the Israeli Plantation” in Hebrew. A pot leaf is laid over the well-known logo for the Israeli police force, Mishteret Yisrael, just one letter different. Israel’s pro-legalization political party Ale Yarok(“Green Leaf”) designed the parody.

A duo of street musicians notice my shirt and stop me to offer a few hits from their joint. They’re drumming on upside-down trash cans and rapping. As we shoot the sh*t, we start chatting about weed and cannabis prohibition vis-à-vis Israel’s pioneering advancements in the field of marijuana science.

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, only recently passed a tepid decriminalization policy. This is notwithstanding the fact that 27 percent of the population has smoked cannabis in the past year. Meanwhile, 35,000 patients legally receive medical marijuana. To sign up with one of Israel’s eight medical cannabis providers, patients must demonstrate they have tried a traditional treatment for a year and it has failed.

Activists complain about something of a “greenwashing” syndrome, whereby the Israeli cannabis scene has clout abroad, but lags behind at home. This has created a somewhat paradoxical situation: Israeli cannabis companies are speeding ahead with technological and scientific research, while normal citizens such as my new street musician friends are left to smoke on the streets and hope the police don’t arrive to break up the party.

A worker for Tikun Olam, which holds 40 percent of the market share of Israel’s medical marijuana industry, trims cannabis.

Beyond Lifestyle: Tech Innovation & Global Opportunity

In 1964, now 87-year-old scientist Raphael Mechoulam became the first person to identify the THC molecule. This discovery was the first of many findings that would position Israel as the leader in medical marijuana. Today, the tech advancements of the “Start-Up Nation” and a fully legal approach to cannabis medicine have fostered great scientific achievement among Israeli scientists.

Saul Kaye, founder and CEO of the Israel-based cannabis tech incubator iCan, says that cannabis startups in Israel are positioned to significantly influence the direction of the global cannabis industry.

“All the young startups in Israel’s cannabis space with brilliant pieces of technology will revolutionize what’s happening,” he said. “The broadest impact will be from those who solve a problem in the industry.”

While cannabis marketing often positions the plant as a “lifestyle” product, Kaye says that Israeli companies are focusing on bigger issues like how to transact cannabis, internationally transfer it and create products that are backed by clinical trials.

“I think there’s a shift in Israel to not just be another grow or another vertically integrated cannabis company with a brand,” he says. “A lot of the innovation in Israel is focusing on global opportunity.”

Some Israeli companies are changing the consumer experience of cannabis itself, developing rectal ingestion or dosed vaporization technologies, while others are innovating methods to sterilize the plant material before it gets tested for pesticides.

Cannabis brings together players from different fields, professions and ethnic backgrounds, he says, noting that everyone from the ultra-Orthodox to Arab Israelis have found room in the industry.

“Cannabis is one of those subjects that crosses all spectrums,” he says. “It breaks social norms and allows us to collaborate in a new way. And, with more PhDs per capita in Israel than anywhere else, there are still more clinical trials [on cannabis] done here than any other country, across multiple indications.”

Tikun Olam benefits from Israel’s pro-medical marijuana research laws to develop strains around patients’ particular needs.

Government-Backed Cannabis Research

According to Mechoulam, who is now a professor of medicinal chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israeli cannabis research began with an exploration of the plant’s phytochemistry in the ’60s. The research evolved into the realms of pharmacology, physiology and the endocannabinoid system, through which Mechoulam and his colleagues discovered anandamide, the endogenous “bliss molecule” in the ’90s.

“The human body not only makes anandamide, but a hundred more related compounds,” Mechoulam says, noting these compounds work against brain trauma, osteoporosis, addiction and several other ailments in animal models.

Nowadays, Mechoulam’s team is researching anandamide-like compounds that have anti-addictive properties. They’re also looking at CBD derivatives and synthesizing and testing them.

“These are compounds being developed by pharmaceutical companies [like GW Pharmaceuticals], so I expect that we shall have derivatives of cannabidiol on the market many years from now,” he says.

Another of Mechoulam’s projects analyzes compounds like THCA or CBDA, the acidic precursors to THC and CBD. Until recently, these compounds haven’t been thoroughly investigated because they’re not stable enough, Mechoulam says.

“We were able to stabilize CBDA and found it works on anxiety,” he says. “These products seem to be as active as CBD, if not more, so chances are people will be looking at these compounds and trying to develop or work with these acids and derivatives of them.”

So far, Mechoulam’s lab has already published evidence that CBD acts on autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, epilepsy and more. CBD even works on schizophrenia, he says, but still has not been practically applied to treating the disease.

“Slowly, the cannabinoids will become a major group of therapeutic entities, probably in semi-synthetic form,” Mechoulam says.

Ultimately, Mechoulam’s research is made possible by the fact that, in Israel, cannabis scientists can benefit from a legal medical program that is supported by the government. In the United States, federal prohibition makes comparable research impossible.

“The lack of clinical work in the U.S. is really a shame,” says Mechoulam.

Despite this, Mechoulam is able to receive grant money from the U.S. government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The beach in Tel Aviv, Israel’s economic and technological capital. Photo Tel Aviv Jaffa

The godfather of cannabis research, however, isn’t the only scientist pushing the envelope. Dr. David Meiri, head of the Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Cannabinoid Research, grew his lab from a half-dozen to 45 people within a couple of years. The team is currently researching more than 650 types of cannabis to learn how different compounds and strains can best be used to treat specific ailments, like epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, autism, cancer, autoimmune disease and sleep disorders.

To understand how certain cannabis products affect certain conditions, Meiri’s lab collects survey data from Israel’s medical marijuana patients, who must register with a supplier that administers the medicine. They compare that data to samples from the medical marijuana companies.

“The result will help physicians in Israel treat the patient better,” Meiri says. “If we find that one strain in Israel works best for autistic kids, we’ll give this information to physicians that immediately can start to treat them with it.”

While cannabis medicine is here to stay, Meiri says producers, physicians and patients still need to take a more serious approach to cannabis dosing, contraindications with other medications and consistency.

Fortunately, there are companies working on technology to address these issues. One Israeli company named Indose, for example, uses meter dosage technology to measure in real time the amount of THC or CBD a consumer inhales.

“They can choose to control their dose as they see fit or as their health provider recommends,” explains Ari Freeman, Indose’s co-founder and president. “We saw the potential in the cannabis market in Israel because there’s a true medical cannabis scene, administered by doctors in hospitals, versus what I’d call more of a quasi-medical wellness scene in California. We wanted to do something that was very exact.”

Plants grow in Tikun Olam’s Israeli facilities.

Legitimate Medicine & Legalization

The legitimacy of cannabis medicine isn’t questioned in Israel as it is by American physicians, says Stephen Gardner, chief marketing officer for Tikun Olam USA, the American branch of the international cannabis brand that was founded in Israel before branching into Canada, Australia and the United States. Today, Tikun Olam holds 40 percent of the market share in Israel’s medical cannabis industry.

“The stigma isn’t there [in Israel] and therefore they’re further advanced in that research,” he says.

Cannabis companies like Tikun Olam often take advantage of the legalized medical program in Israel to systematically develop strains or products around patients’ particular needs.

“We go through a 700-question questionnaire and through our breeding program to alter and try to modify cannabinoids and terpenes, to dial them up or down,” Gardner says. “This is quite unique because in the U.S., for years most growers were working toward breeding programs for higher yield, higher THC or bigger bud structure. But because [our cannabis] was always bred as medicine, our landrace plants truly are unique and we make sure we’re maintaining a level of consistency.”

Tikun Olam treats and conducts clinical research on various ailments, including epilepsy, cancer, pediatric diseases, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, colitis, IBS, autism and geriatric diseases.

Though cannabis exports abroad are far off for Israel — Donald Trump dissuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from sanctioning such a thing last year — Israeli cannabis companies still collaborate with those abroad. For example, the California-based laboratory Steep Hill is working with the Israeli terpene company Eybna on a new proprietary methodology called Delta to offer customized terpene batches to enhance cannabis oils. The technology analyzes a strain’s terpenoid profile, then tailors a formulation to recreate that profile after the extraction process.

However, despite the country’s medicinal achievements, cannabis patients and unlicensed pot smokers still demand more progress. According to Cannabis Magazine, Israel’s primary source of marijuana news, patients have noticed a decline in quality, strain variety and service in recent years. There’s also been a shortage in varieties that patients have been consuming for years, the magazine details. Why? Oren Lebovitch, the publisher of Cannabis Magazine and chairman of Ale Yarok, says it is because the head of the Israel Medical Cannabis Authority (IMCA) doesn’t make science-based decisions.

Stephen Gardner, chief marketing officer for Tikun Olam USA, stands in one of Tikun Olam’s grow facilities.

Dr. Alan Flashman, a psychiatrist and former professor in Israel, says he fears the IMCA is undercutting the country’s medical program so severely that pharmaceuticals — such as “a derivative of cannabis that can be standardized and patented,” he suggests — will replace medical marijuana.

“I have suggested that under the influence of [anti-cannabis American billionaire] Sheldon Adelson, Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to preventing legalization,” Flashman wrote in the Times of Israel. “Legalization would, of course, give the pharmaceutical derivative little chance of success.”

All the while, activists continue to push for full legalization. Under the new decriminalization policy, even those like my newfound friends on the Florentin street corner could still be subject to large fines or even criminal penalties for public consumption, especially if there’s a prior record.

“We call it ‘fake decriminalization,’” Lebovitch says. “But it’s opened up a good chance for us: We’ll use this change in law to file a lawsuit in high court, based on the human dignity and liberty law.”

Laws that were amended after 1992 are subject to challenges like this, he explains, and since the Knesset recently amended its drug law, it’s now vulnerable to such a challenge.

“We’re going to open a campaign and fight it in the next few months,” Lebovitch says, pointing to American states that decriminalized cannabis to support his arguments. “Hopefully, it will work.”

TELL US, how do you think Israel’s recent policy changes on exporting medical cannabis will impact the pace of its domestic cannabis research?

Originally published in Issue 34 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

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