Most people don’t associate Israel with cannabis. But the Middle-Eastern nation, slightly larger than New Jersey, is a world leader when it comes to pioneering medical cannabis research and development.
In the 1960s Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, using confiscated Lebanese hashish he obtained from the police, was one of the first researchers to identify cannabidiol (CBD), one of the plant’s key compounds. Soon after he determined the structure of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gives cannabis its intoxicating effect.
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
Using his research as a basis, Mechoulam convinced the country’s Ministry of Health to establish a medical cannabis program. In 1992, the ministry approved medical cannabis and eventually established a medical cannabis program that is currently being used by close to 25,000 Israeli patients.
“Working in a small country certainly has its positive aspects,” Mechoulam, now an elder statesman in cannabis research, said in a 2012 interview with Israel21c. “It couldn’t have happened in the United States, because the laws were too strict. In Israel there’s a lot of shouting, but in the end you can make it.”
Mechoulam’s research has included co-discovering the endocannabinoid system, the largest receptor system in the human body. He also found that the human brain produces its own cannabinoids, compounds that stimulate the body’s receptor system. Scientists at the NIH believe these compounds could alleviate dozens of illnesses, including schizophrenia, diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis, to name a few. The revelation of this endogenous cannabinoid system essentially legitimized the study of a substance previously on the margins of scientific research.
“We wouldn’t have the scientific interest we have now around the world without the discovery and understanding of how these constituents in the marijuana plant act on this receptor system,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the Washington-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Mechoulam’s research, he says, “opened the door to making the study of cannabis and cannabinoids a legitimate avenue for more conventional scientists.”
And while cannabis for non-medicinal use remains illegal in Israel, the nation’s liberal approach to cannabis studies has given it a substantial headstart over most countries when it comes to government approval for agricultural and clinical research. Late last month Dr. Adi Eran, head of the pediatric neurology department at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, obtained government permits for the first-ever formal clinical trial of medicinal cannabis with autistic children and adults.
“Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”
And now, Israel is looking to export. Israel’s government is on track to pass regulations that would allow growers to export their products. At least one company, Breath of Life Pharma, intends to submit an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in hopes of getting legal approval to bring its experimental treatments stateside.
It’s all part of a mission to capture a piece of a market expected to exceed $30 billion over the next seven years, and help patients worldwide get some much-needed relief from chronic conditions.
“The seriousness with which the Israeli scientific community approaches this is incomparable,” Charles Pollack, a medicinal cannabis expert at Thomas Jefferson University, told Rolling Stone recently.
As of April, there were more than 100 cannabis-related clinical trials taking place there. Scientists are looking into how marijuana could help people with conditions like autism, arthritis, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other conditions.
With this rate of clinical trials and cannabis now being investigated for a variety of devastating diseases answers are beginning to come. More importantly, many more questions have come along about the ways cannabis may be useful in medicine. No matter what breakthroughs the future holds for cannabis, the odds of them being discovered in Israel are extremely good.