Pubdate: Sun, 18 Dec 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Isabel Kershner


JERUSALEM - Israeli scientists began their pioneering research to
isolate the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana with a 10-pound stash
seized by the Tel Aviv police. That effort, in the 1960s, helped
propel Israel to the vanguard of research into the plant's medicinal
properties and lay the foundations for a medical marijuana industry.

Now the nation's burgeoning pot business, backed by an unlikely
coalition of farmers, lawyers, scientists, entrepreneurs and the
country's ultra-Orthodox health minister, is going mainstream - and
eyeing markets abroad.

Marijuana, or cannabis, is still classified as a dangerous drug in
Israel and remains illegal for recreational purposes. But the
government is also at the forefront of efforts to develop and expand
the fast-growing medical marijuana industry and make Israel a major
center for it.

Recent government efforts to regulate medical marijuana will make it
more accessible and available by prescription at pharmacies. The
government has also appointed a committee to examine the possibility
of Israel becoming one of the few countries to allow exports, although
the destination for products remains unclear.

The Volcani Center, the Ministry of Agriculture's research
organization, is building a national institute for medical marijuana
research. The chief scientist's office of the Ministry of Economy has
infused millions of shekels into innovative marijuana companies, much
as government investment helped fuel the Israeli tech boom in the
1990s. The government is also setting standards for the cultivation,
storage and use of medical marijuana.

"It is almost unprecedented," said Tamir Gedo, the chief executive of
Breath of Life Pharma, an Israeli company permitted to grow medical
cannabis and make and distribute products. "It seems the government is
working faster than the private industry."

The reforms spearheaded by the Health Ministry, which is led by Yaakov
Litzman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, open up
licensing for an unlimited number of growers, up from eight farms. The
list of doctors trained and authorized to prescribe marijuana is to be
expanded and research encouraged. The reforms, which were approved by
the government in the summer, were formulated in cooperation with the
Ministries of Agriculture, Justice, Internal Security and Finance.

"I cannot say that I am in favor of cannabis," Mr. Litzman said at a
business conference last month, reflecting concerns that medical
marijuana could trickle into the recreational market. But Mr. Litzman
said he would even support the idea of export so long as revenues went
to the Health Ministry, adding, "There is a lot of pressure on me."

Some of Israel's more traditional medical institutions and
associations are still averse to joining the party, a wariness that
marijuana advocates put down to a lack of knowledge. The police worry
about leakage into the recreational black market, and some Israelis
are concerned that export, if allowed, would stigmatize the country as
one that dealt primarily in arms and drugs.

About 25,000 Israelis, in a population of 8.5 million, hold permits to
use medical marijuana to ease symptoms of cancer, epilepsy and other
diseases, but that number is expected to grow rapidly. So far, medical
marijuana has been distributed by the growers through special
dispensaries or by home delivery.

The Health Ministry's written protocols on the matter, known as the
Green Book, have generated international interest.

"We wrote this because we couldn't find it in other countries," said
Dr. Michael Dor, a family physician and senior adviser to the Health
Ministry's medical cannabis unit. "Now everybody is asking about it."

The ministry has approved dozens of clinical trials, Dr. Dor said,
adding, "If we don't do it right here, the specialists will go abroad
with their knowledge, and we have wonderful knowledge here."

Raphael Mechoulam, now a professor of medicinal chemistry at the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and his colleague Yechiel Gaoni first
isolated the main compounds, including the psychoactive ingredient -
tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC - with the marijuana supplied by the Tel
Aviv police. When administrators at the Weizmann Institute of Science,
where Professor Mechoulam was conducting his research, first called
the police with the request, he recalled in an interview, "they asked
if I was trustworthy."

Professor Mechoulam, 86, has continued his research in his current
post, focusing on the compounds in the brain that make the active
components of marijuana work. He is also a consultant for the Ministry
of Health and collaborates with research groups around the world.

"Medicinal cannabis has to follow medical lines of thought and
development and modern medical routes" in order to produce proper
drugs, he said. Pointing to an international paucity of clinical
trials, he said, "Israel has more than the United States at the
moment, which is ridiculous." In the United States, medical marijuana
programs exist in many states but remain illegal under federal law.

Professor Mechoulam is also a member of the advisory board of Breath
of Life, whose products, according to Mr. Gedo, the chief executive,
are made according to pharmaceutical best-practice protocols.

"We are working as a pharmaceutical company, not a cannabis company,"
Mr. Gedo said. Breath of Life is participating in a dozen clinical
trials, including one based on cannabinoids, the chemical compounds in
marijuana, for autism in children with the Shaare Zedek Medical Center
in Jerusalem.

According to Mr. Gedo, several American companies are conducting
trials in Israel based on Breath of Life's active pharmaceutical

Teva Israel, a subsidiary of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.,
recently announced a distribution and cooperation agreement with Syqe
Medical, a Tel Aviv company that developed an inhaler for
administering marijuana in precise doses. The dose can be tailored to
each patient like a standard medical treatment, which experts say
should reduce or eliminate the objections of reluctant physicians.

Two international medical marijuana conferences have taken place in
Israel this year. At the Cann10 conference in Tel Aviv in September,
speakers discussed science, medicine, technology and commerce.
Purveyors, some in white lab coats, displayed their wares. A grower
called PharmoCann displayed rows of sealed plastic vials containing
strains of flowers undergoing testing with names like Blue, Train
Wreck and Voodoo Child.

Israelis have been producing products with varying degrees of THC for
years. Another company at the Cann10 conference, Cannabliss, makes
medical marijuana oil and other nonsmoking products, works with a
professor of immunotherapy and bone marrow at the Hadassah Medical
Center in Jerusalem and supplies the hospital's medical marijuana 

"We hope the market will open up in the world as soon as possible,"
Moshe Ihea, Cannabliss's founder and chief executive, said. "First we
have to open up the people." He added that he had discovered the
medicinal benefits after he suffered a leg injury during an army exercise.

Saul Kaye, a pharmacist and the chief executive of iCan: 
Israel-Cannabis, a venture fund and technology incubator for start-ups 
driving the global medical marijuana industry, said this "could be 
another incredible economy for Israel."

He added, "There's a national consciousness for cannabis that you
cannot ignore."
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MAP posted-by: Matt