Israel and Medical Cannabis
It’s no exaggeration to say that Israel is the birthplace, or at the very least one of the birthplaces, of cannabis research.
Five decades ago, Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam became the “godfather of cannabis” when he helped to isolate and then synthesize tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gives marijuana its intoxicating “high.”
Mechoulam was also instrumental in establishing a medical cannabis program in Israel via the country’s Ministry of Health.
“I believe that the cannabinoids [the chemical compounds in cannabis] represent a medicinal treasure trove which waits to be discovered,” Mechoulam said in a 2012 interview.
Israel legalized medical cannabis in the early 1990s and decriminalized pot’s recreational use two years ago. With a population of close to nine million people, it has around 45,000 registered medical marijuana users.
Late last year, Israel’s parliament approved a measure allowing the export of medical cannabis from Israel.
All that experience, study and knowledge, along with a tolerant political landscape towards cannabis, has combined to make Israel a world leader in medical cannabis research, development and cultivation.
And many Israeli companies are looking at North America — and the United States, in particular — as the next big medical marijuana market.
One Israeli company, Tikun Olam (Hebrew for “repair the world”) is selling its medical cannabis products in Delaware, California and Florida.
It recently announced it was bringing its genetically unique strains of medical cannabis to the U.S. market.
Tikun Olam has been researching medical cannabis for over a decade. It’s also put together what it says is the world’s largest medical cannabis treatment database, with about 20,000 patient records.
The company says its specially-bred strains have, in clinical studies, proven their effectiveness as a treatment for Crohn’s disease and colitis, as well as autism, chronic pain, Parkinson’s and other medical conditions.
Stephen Gardner, Tikun Olam’s chief marketing officer, believes Israel’s streamlined regulatory process for medical cannabis, as well as its cost-efficient research protocols, has given Israeli cannabis companies a strategic and financial edge.
“Something that might cost millions of dollars in the United States might only be hundreds of thousands of dollars in a Phase II clinical trial in Israel,” he tells DOPE Magazine. “Where capital can be scarce sometimes, it allows you to stretch those research dollars a lot further. I think that’s a critical component of why Israel’s been very effective in terms of coming out with more and more new things.”
In those studies, there’s a long-term commitment to following how cannabis is affecting the patients involved. One example is a medical cannabis study the company ran with over 2,900 cancer patients with high levels of pain.
“We were able to provide for each [patient] and monitor them over time,” Gardner says. “We realized there’s something there when we had 52 percent of the patients going from a high pain potential of nine to a four, on a scale of 10. We stopped 35 percent of the prescription drugs by having cannabis within their regimen.” And, he adds, the patients in the study noted a 95 percent improvement in the quality of their lives — while six percent of the patients in the study reportedly stopped using opioids altogether.
Dr. Annabelle Manalo, scientific director of Tikun Olam USA, is a cell biologist with an extensive background in cancer and cardiology research. She ended up getting involved with cannabis when her infant son was diagnosed with severe brain issues.
“I was told that he’d never walk, talk, you name it,” she tells DOPE Magazine. “I started giving him cannabis at six months old, and he’s three years old now. Kid turns three and has no developmental deficits. This is now a very passionate subject for me.”
That said, Manalo doesn’t view medical cannabis as a cure-all — but sees it as a very diverse medication with seemingly unlimited potential.
“I think it could be helpful for everything, because the endocannabinoid system works on our body’s defense mechanism, which is healing of all [our systems],” she says. “Once we get the mechanism to that and understand what each component of this plant is good for, why different strains are superior to others, then I think that we can hunt until we could be in a really good place, as far as the cannabis industry is concerned.”
But at this point, Manalo admits, the scientific community still knows very little about cannabinoids.
“We’re just really scratching the surface,” she says. “I feel like, in a hundred years, everything might have cannabis involved in it when you talk about medications and the regimens of medications for a variety of different reasons.”
Gardner believes that, intentionally or not, the U.S. federal government has set up its cannabis research efforts to fail.
“If the United States really looked at having the interest of exploring what cannabis can do as a medical treatment, it would put the money and research behind understanding what’s safe, what’s not safe, what are the elements we can improve upon,” he says.
Instead, he notes, there is this “perfect storm” created by federal prohibition, the continuing cultural stigma against cannabis — as well as a concerted anti-cannabis lobbying effort by the nation’s pharmaceutical companies.
The cannabis legalization movement might be spreading across the U.S., he adds, but there is still a long road towards the legitimization of cannabis; of people “understanding that this is a plant that has physical benefits.”
The Prognosis for Medical Cannabis
In talking with these different experts, patients and others involved with medical cannabis, several themes were consistently repeated. And these themes appear to explain a lot about the current climate in the U.S. when it comes to legalized medical cannabis and its future here.
One idea put forward is that there’s been some effort by many pharmaceutical corporations to willfully obstruct any forward movement regarding continued research and development of medical cannabis.
That theme has been examined elsewhere, including in some legal journals.
“As the door continues to open for marijuana as a legal medical alternative, Big Pharma may be faced with a significant competitive adversary,” Katharine Pickle wrote last year in the Emory University School of Law’s Corporate Governance and Accountability Review.
Pickle said there is “some evidence to suggest” that Big Pharma is responding to this competition from legal medical cannabis “by using its deep pockets not only to prevent legalization but also to prevent research that would inform consumers of the beneficial effects of botanical marijuana vs. its synthetic counterpart.”
As an example, she pointed towards a case that made headlines several years ago regarding Insys Therapeutics, an Arizona-based pharmaceutical company. That company has developed a drug with a synthetic formulation of THC. It also manufactures several opioid products, including fentanyl. Ahead of the 2016 elections, Insys donated $500,000 to an Arizona group that opposes cannabis legalization.
Speaking on the Insys case, a pro-cannabis advocate in Arizona told the Washington Post it appeared the company was “trying to kill a non-pharmaceutical market for marijuana in order to line their own pockets.”
The FDA and other federal agencies, meanwhile, are coming under increased scrutiny for allegedly catering to drug companies while helping to keep their pharmaceutical pipelines running.
Late last year, an FDA panel approved a new opioid called Dsuvia, thought to be five to ten times more powerful than fentanyl.
That approval was not unanimous, however. At least one panel member, Dr. Raeford Brown, criticized Dsuvia as being too dangerous. He also said the drug’s approval was another sign of the “cozy, cozy relationships between the pharmaceutical industry and various parts of the FDA.”
There are other signs of pushback against the status quo. Attorneys general in several states, along with the Justice Department, are reportedly investigating some pharmaceutical companies for allegedly conspiring to fix prices on hundreds of drugs currently on the market.
At the same time, medical cannabis legalization is gaining support among lawmakers, as well as the U.S. public, as the stigma surrounding marijuana fades nationally and more Americans look for safe alternatives to opioids and other potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals.
Last year a Quinnipiac University national poll reported that a record 63 percent of American voters favored legalizing marijuana. But, more importantly, support for medical marijuana among those surveyed came in at 93 percent.
Medical marijuana may not be a cure-all, as some of its proponents claim, but there is a lot of evidence — anecdotal and otherwise — that it is a drug whose full potential has yet to be realized.