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Medical Marijuana Industry Sprouts Up in Israel

Israel's medical-marijuana industry is thriving, and the Israeli government is funding breakthrough research on the healing potential of the cannabis plant.

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“That first day, to have so much going on around us while we were just trying to get sick people their medicine, felt to me like a slap in the face,” she said. “But, I have to say in retrospect there have been some really positive outcomes from the placement of the center, which were unexpected.”

For one, Peleg said she thinks the fact that thousands of medical cannabis patients are now frequenting a mental health institution is helping to normalize the Israeli public’s perception of mental illness.  

“There’s this feeling in Israel of ‘Buck up and take it, everybody’s got problems,’” she said. “And then people come into this mental hospital and they see that [the mentally ill] people here are really, truly suffering and not just making it up.”

Peleg said while some patients with ailments like  cancer near the end of life, and chronic, treatment-resistant pain have a relatively easy time acquiring a cannabis prescription, those with psychological problems have a more difficult time.

Even the many patients diagnosed with PTSD, a common problem in Israel, must cut through thick red tape. Before they can acquire a cannabis prescription, PTSD patients must work with a doctor for a year and show that all other approved medicines did not work.

Peleg said she has also seen cannabis licenses for phantom pain, anorexia, Crohn’s and fibromyalgia, all of which have psychological components.

While she and other employees continue to survive on a shoestring budget and minimum-wage salary, Peleg said Israel’s cannabis program has grown markedly over its first four years.

Wachtel said that while the cannabis program is running successfully, it’s “not like everything is roses.”

Two years ago the Israeli government attempted to move away from local growers and import cannabis from the Netherlands—a move Wachtel calls a “major threat” as the Dutch medical cannabis program grows a limited number of strains at a very expensive price.

“It’s going to be cannabis for the rich if we import it, even though it may be politically more convenient for the government,” he said.

Wachtel and supporters led a campaign against importation, and met with government officials to explain how cannabis would become a drug for the elites if Israel were to import it. Those efforts eventually convinced the government to shelve importation, “for now,” Wachtel said.

Despite ongoing challenges, thanks to MECHKAR, cannabis has become an accepted, normalized medicine in Israel today.

But this was not always the case.

Forming MECHKAR

After Wachtel returned to Israel from the U.S. he co-founded the Israeli foundation for drug law reform in 1994. The next year the fruit of his drug reform labors arrived in the form of a committee established by the Israeli parliament to study the legal implications of medical cannabis in Israel. Wachtel was one of two public representatives on that committee, and Israeli  Raphael Mechoulam, famous in the '60s for his breakthrough isolation of the active ingredient in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, was the committee head.

Wachtel said research on cannabis in Israel started during the 1960s. While it was illegal to use cannabis for personal consumption, it was never illegal to conduct research on the plant. Wachtel points out that the research of prohibited drugs is legal under the UN Drug Conventions everywhere in the world, including the U.S. It is federal law, not international law, that prohibits certain drug research in places like the U.S.

The committee brought an HIV patient to the Israeli Ministry of Health who requested permission to use medical cannabis to treat his symptoms. In response, the Ministry’s deputy director said the committee would be allowed to proceed if they found a way the program would not cost the government any money.

 
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