Medical Marijuana Industry Sprouts Up in Israel
Mimi Peleg’s job is to teach people how to use pot—how long to inhale smoke or vapor, how to administer sublingual drops, or how to ration out a pot cookie.
Peleg directs large-scale cannabis training for the Israeli government’s state-supported, discreet, successful and expanding medical cannabis distribution center, MECHKAR. MECHKAR began as a tiny program serving about 1,800 people from 2008-2009. Today, supplied by eight farms located all over the country, the program distributes cannabis to 12,000 patients.
While medical marijuana has been approved in 18 U.S. states, and recreational use in two, U.S. federal law still criminalizes the drug, and its future remains uncertain. In Israel, however, the $40-million-per-year medical-marijuana industry is thriving. And, while research efforts have been continually hindered in the states by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the DEA, the Israeli government is funding and supporting breakthrough research on the many healing potentials of the cannabis plant.
Likud Party MK Haim Katz, who chairs the Labor, Social Welfare and Health Committee in Israel’s Knesset, said in January that the number of doctors allowed to prescribe medical cannabis would double from nine to 20 by the end of the year. Mimi Peleg told AlterNet that has already happened, as more than 20 doctors can now legally prescribe cannabis in Israel, though some are limited to the prescription of cannabis oil.
While Israel has long had a hash-smoking underculture, recreational cannabis use is not nearly as common as in the U.S.
“There was always hash here, but not a pot culture so to speak,” Peleg said, noting that most students arrive at her offices terrified they will hallucinate or lose their minds.
“For them [getting high] is an adverse effect,” she said. “So I tell them what to do if they get too high, how to lower their senses a little bit, how to relax, things to expect, and how long they should expect it to stay in their body—which I tell them is between 45 minutes and two hours—before they’ll have to smoke or vape again.”
Unlike California’s medical marijuana program in which doctors recommend the herb for more mild conditions like headaches, anxiety, chronic pain and difficulty sleeping, cannabis in Israel is reserved as a last option for people with serious illnesses, often near the end of their lives.
Patients must exhaust all available pharmaceutical options and complete a long-winded bureaucratic process before they can access cannabis.
While Israel has a historically strict drug policy, it does not share the U.S.’s lengthy and tumultuous history with the cannabis plant. Peleg says Israel doesn't have a “stoner” stereotype—while Israelis are often wary of trying the new drug, there is no serious stigma surrounding the use of the cannabis herb for medical purposes. So, she says, there was “never any question” that cannabis would be viewed as “strictly medical” when it was introduced to Israeli patients.
However, many patients also lack any knowledge or experience about how to properly use cannabis, and that’s where Peleg comes in.
Peleg credits her friend and “favorite politician” Boaz Wachtel with bringing medical cannabis to Israel. Wachtel co-founded Israel’s Ale Yarok political party, best known for its work to decriminalize cannabis. For decades he has worked to reform the drug policies of his home country, meeting both successes and failures.
Wachtel told AlterNet that Peleg’s role is important not only to educate patients but to alleviate fears.
“These patients have never smoked cannabis before, medically or recreationally, and they think they will see flying elephants in the room if they do that,” he said. “Mimi will give them a few strains to check on which strain fits them better. That’s why... patient education must be a part of any successful cannabis program.”