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9 Reasons Israel Is the Capital of Cannabis Research

February 6, 2017
(AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
Widely seen as a leader in medical cannabis research and development, an Israeli government committee last weekend approved a plan that would allow medical marijuana companies to export products internationally. The legislation could take months to make its way through the Knesset, but it’s already stoking industry and investor interest.

Currently just nine licensed suppliers provide cannabis to Israel’s roughly 26,000 registered patients, creating a modest domestic market of about $15 million to $20 million. But despite its small size, Israel has drawn an estimated $100 million dollars in international investment, according to the research group iCAN. It’s now home to dozens of companies that specialize in everything from cannabis cultivation to clinical inhalers.


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Why Israel? There are at least nine good reasons why the tiny country of 8 million people is filling the void left by other major powers. If you’re an American interested in cannabis research, technology, or entrepreneurship, these explanations should make you question (and fight) the policies that have allowed the United States and others to fall behind.

1. The Professor

The Israelis jumped into the fray as far back as 1964, when an organic chemist, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, discovered the two most prevalent components in the plant, THC and CBD. Until then, the chemistry was a mystery. Mechoulam, 88, has been researching cannabinoids ever since. “Initially the bureaucratic hurdles were minimal,” the scientist told me from his office at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “I got the hashish I needed [to do the research] from the police—and even thanked them in my papers—and the Ministry of Health gave me their approval without too much paperwork.” There are benefits to being in a small country.

2. Prohibition in One Place Creates Opportunity in Another

In 1970, US Congress and President Richard Nixon wrongly classified cannabis as a Schedule I “narcotic,” a category reserved for substances that are highly addictive and have no medical benefits. This has essentially made it impossible for researchers without a DEA license to study the herb. Almost all cannabis research in the US is still carried out by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which has a congressional mandate to study only the harmful effects of the drug. With researchers in the United States effectively barred from studying cannabis as medicine, teams from other countries stepped in to fill the void.

(AP Photo)

3. Persistence Pays

Mechoulam has continued to explore the effects of cannabis on disease over the last 50 years, study that has spurred research in other countries, as well. There are currently more than 20,000 small-scale studies listed on PubMed, a US government site that tracks medical publications. Researchers are investigating marijuana’s potential to treats 105 illnesses, many of which are resistant to other forms of treatment. We’re talking Type II diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, migraines, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, and even certain forms of cancer. Despite ongoing claims that cannabis is not a healing compound, science is proving otherwise.

4. There’s Money in Medical Cannabis and the Israeli Government Is Going for It

When Israel was founded, one of the country’s ambitions was to make the desert bloom—and today the country is at the forefront of agricultural technology. Not only did growers succeed in getting flowers and fruit to blossom in the arid landscape, they also cultivated cannabis—often some very powerful stuff. The Israeli government recently announced it was investing $2 million to spur development of 13 strains to treat specific medical conditions. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel has expanded the number of licenses granted to growers and said he would back export of locally grown medical marijuana abroad.


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5. High Tech vs. “High” Tech

Israel has spawned dozens of high-tech companies in the fields of cybersecurity, transportation tech (the navigation app Waze, which Google bought for $1.1 billion in 2013, was an Israeli creation), and now cannabis. Today, there are over 70 Israeli companies involved in the sector. Pharmaceutical giant Teva is bringing the Syqe, a medical-grade cannabis inhaler, to market. Two other Israeli companies have developed sublingual marijuana tablets, which are being tested to improve cognitive functioning and treat Alzheimer’s disease.

(AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

6. The Cannaboom Isn’t Just About Capitalism

“Tikkun olam” is a Jewish rabbinical concept that means “healing the world.” Not coincidentally, it is also the name of one Israel’s largest grow operations. The phrase underpins certain social policies aimed at protecting the disadvantaged. Whether one is religious or not, the value has become part of the national ethos. Dr. Bereket Schiff-Keren, one of the country’s leading pain specialists, told me that she has bucked the opprobrium of many of her more skeptical colleagues by prescribing MMJ to over 1,500 patients suffering with chronic, neuropathic – even phantom limb — pain. “My job is to heal,” she told me in no uncertain terms. “People are so prejudiced and frightened but I stopped being frightened a long time ago, because the patients told me it works.”

7. MMJ Is Inexpensive Compared to Pharmaceuticals

Developing countries need lower-cost solutions to safeguard public health. Fifteen years ago, the Israeli government bucked international law to create the world’s first state-supported medical cannabis program. National health insurance covers a prescription of 30 grams (a little over an ounce) per month. Today the program is 26,000 patients strong, and this year that number is projected to double. Guess what? Society hasn’t disintegrated, there’s been no outbreak of mass psychosis, and traffic fatalities haven’t increased. So much for all those the fears that prohibitionists cite.


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8. God Never Dissed Cannabis

Many people believe that “kene busim,” which the Old Testament refers to as a “healing herb” was cannabis. I mean, just say the words “kene busim” out loud. It doesn’t sound like “tarragon” does it? Today, kosher edibles are blessed by rabbis, and even the country’s ultra-Orthodox health minister has called for increased cannabis cultivation to shorten the time that patients must wait to obtain their medicine.

9. Israel Wasn’t Founded by Puritans

The collective Israeli mindset around cannabis seems to be far less prudish toward the substance than that of the United States. In Israel, cannabis is a plant, not a hot-button political issue. “A lot of the problems we have in America regarding cannabis,” said psychiatrist Dr. Julie Holland, “aren’t from drug use but from our drug policies.”

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Joe Dolce

Joe Dolce, the former editor of Details magazine, is the author of Brave New Weed, published in October 2016 by Harper Wave.

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  • EquaYona

    Too bad Tikkun olam doesn’t extend to Palestinians.

    • cinderabi

      Really… if anyone needs to chill out and “calm down Beavis” it’s Israel’s next door neighbors. Wouldn’t it be sweet if the entire middle east just got high and let go? Peace out Palestine… with everybody acting more amiable with each other we might actually see less fighting and more enlightening. Yes, its a “pipe dream” but they say if you can imagine it you can create it.

  • I’ve been smoking marijuana since 1974, the only problem or side effects I’ve encountered was law enforcement. I have a very highly skilled position and smoking marijuana hasn’t effected my skills in a negative way, but positively enhanced it several different ways in a creative manner.


    I agree that their are many ‘other’ issues with Israel/Palestine…this just isn’t the right place to address them.

  • Dave

    Horsemannv, too many things are extended to Israelis: boycotts by 30 Moslem countries, constant risk of falling rockets above their heads and having to sleep in shelters near the borders with the Palestine, inability to drive into Palestinian areas for fear of being killed. Here is a reminder: Palestinians are living in areas occupied by Israel in the 1967 war of self-defense. Attack Israel and you will end up being occupied for 100 years.

  • Charlie7777

    zionists only want to make money and exploit nature……..all these products will be boycotted …..the zionist entity is a war criminal…FREE the weed……

    • 360dunk

      Exploit nature….can you be any more ignorant?

    • Stephen Rolfe

      Charlie7777. Are you for real? Park your bigotry at the kerb man. The Israeli research will lead us from the darkness of prohibition and misinformation.

  • Darla

    The CBD oil never helped me or my dogs for joint pain or any other pain. I guess it works for some people. My holistic vet said he only uses it for seizures or behavioral problems in pets, but not for pain, because he’s not convinced that it works for that.

  • Stephen Rolfe

    Beat your drum on another site mate. This is upbeat news for goodness sakes.

    • Arlan Pierce

      Ok, The US government with all the pharmaceutical lobbyist, with their deep pockets, keep marijuana as a Schedule I drug. This in turn substantially curbs research with marijuana. We could be so far a head on research and medicines. I feel we owe it to mankind to do our best to help. As far as the lobbyist/pharmacist deep pockets, if we found cures for many of the sicknesses. The government and companies would benefit so much more. There should be a, men and women’s march for medical research for marijuana.

  • Arlan Pierce

    Ask any Native Am. about his plight with land and rights with the government.

  • Mary Lucas

    yup, they are definitely leading the way:

  • Joseph Cantu

    Im very curious on how the state operated program allows insurance to cover MMJ. Anyone have any further citation to this??