TORONTO — When Neil Closner, the former vice president of Business Development for Toronto’s world-renowned Mount Sinai Hospital, found himself a bit cynical about his latest job offer, it took a trip to Safed, Israel, to help him make up his mind.
Closner is now the CEO of MedReleaf, a licensed producer and supplier of medical cannabis which works out of a 55,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility in Markham, Ontario, just minutes east of Toronto. He had no background in this area, and swears that he’s never even had so much as a drag on a cigarette.
But when Stephen Arbib, CEO of MENA Investment Network, the company behind MedReleaf, approached him about the job, Closner wasn’t convinced that the medical pot business was anything more than a legal way for people to get high.
“When I left Mount Sinai, I knew that I wanted to be part of a successful business, but I also knew that it would have to be a business in which we were helping people with the quality of their lives; to help improve the world, bit by bit,” says Closner.
So Closner made the 13-hour plane ride to Israel to visit Tikun Olam, Israel’s first and largest government-approved producer of medical cannabis. Known as the start-up nation for its entrepreneurial spirit, Israel is also one of the most progressive medical cannabis markets on the globe.
Closner soon found himself in a senior citizen nursing home on a kibbutz about an hour outside of Tel Aviv where Tikun Olam had been running clinical trials of the effects of medical cannabis on its patients for two years.
After spending a day visiting with several seniors and hearing their personal stories, Closner knew he had found his new business, one that melded nicely with the Jewish values he had grown up with in Toronto’s Jewish community.
“I went room to room, meeting with at least a dozen of these octogenarians, and each one of them told me their stories about how their lives were totally transformed by cannabis, most of which really blew my mind,” says Closner.
Among the seniors he chatted with, Closner relates a particularly heartfelt and emotional tale of a patient suffering from dementia.
Unable to eat or go to the bathroom by himself, the man needed 24-hour care, someone to literally spoon-feed him every day lest he succumb to malnutrition. After taking a couple of cannabis capsules daily, he soon found himself not only eating on his own, but able to take care of his bathroom needs without anybody’s help.
A gentleman in the facility, a painter, could no longer hold a brush due to the tremors brought on by Parkinson’s. After taking a daily capsule, his tremors lessened, allowing him to get back to the activity he loved.
Closner quickly identified another vital benefit of the business.
“What really got me interested in accepting this new challenge with MedReleaf was when I realized the economic impact it could have,” says Closner. “As the baby-boomers in North America, and around the world, continue to age, I realized that we simply don’t have the caregivers to take care of each and every one, especially those who require around-the-clock-care. And, even if we did, the cost would be enormous.”
Closner realized that if seniors can take a capsule with a tiny amount of cannabis that helps them get o the point where they can become even a bit more self-sufficient and content, “it could save society an enormous amount of money in the long run.”
“After my time in that Israeli nursing home, I got back on the plane, saying to myself, ‘Wow, this business is legitimate. Let’s get back to Canada, fill out the forms for Health Canada, and let’s start improving lives,” says Closner.
And what more appropriate partner could there have been for MedReleaf than a company called “Tikun Olam,” (Hebrew for “repairing the world”)?
“Our partnership with Tikun Olam gives us a significant scientific advantage,” says Closner. “We have access to treatment data from more than 7,000 of their patients, that will give us great insight into the effectiveness and efficacy of various strains and, in turn, an advanced ability to work with patients and physicians to create the most beneficial treatment protocols. The partnership also provides us with exclusive access to an array of proprietary medical cannabis varieties.”
Two of the varieties to which Closner refers are Erez, the best-selling variety in Israel, and AviDekel. Erez, with its high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, is well known for treating sleep disorders and managing pain, nausea, inflammation, and indigestion. AviDekel, a sativa-dominant strain, contains very high levels of cannabidiol (CBD), and virtually no THC, which, by the way, means no “getting high.” CBD is a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis that has been shown to have a positive impact on disorders such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis and epilepsy, amongst other ailments.
As you’d expect from Closner’s hospital background, a tour of MedReleaf’s Markham facility is impressive, almost awe-inspiring. With rooms cleaner than an operating room, employees constantly monitored via video surveillance, a decontamination room, and staff gowned up head to toe with white clean-room suits, masks, gloves, hair nets and booties part of their daily working uniform, MedReleaf, which trademarked its product, “medical grade standard,” has clearly gone above and beyond the regulations and requirements of Health Canada.
“Health Canada pays us regular and frequent surprise inspections, so we always need to be operating at the top of our game,” says Closner. “We are focused on building a pharma-like company, even if Health Canada doesn’t yet consider cannabis an official drug. We are building this business with the assumption that at some point, that will change.”
The facility includes a “Mother Room,” where, upon passing through an airlock that could have been on the set of the sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” there are rows and rows of plants flourishing under 1,000 watt lights. From there, the plants are trimmed, clones are made, and they are moved to one of the facility’s flower rooms. There, many thousands of plants grow under intense lights and are regularly fed nutrients for about two months before being harvested.
MedReleaf, still growing and already looking for other facilities, will soon have as many as 10 flower rooms and will grow some 150,000 plants at any one time. At the end of its processing, the medical cannabis is vacuum-sealed, picked up by Canada Post, and delivered to patients.
In partnership with Tikun Olam, MedReleaf is also currently collaborating on nearly two dozen cannabis-related research studies with doctors and professors at eight leading hospitals in Israel including the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon, Sheba Medical Center at Tel hashomer, Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba and Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Centre.
“With MedReleaf, what we’ve aimed for is a combination of Israeli ingenuity which has led that country to become a world leader in the research and application of medicinal cannabis, and Canadian growing experience and mastery, which is incomparable,” says Arbib.
“Combining the strengths of these two great nations, we’ve created value which will provide tremendous benefits to doctors, researchers, and most important of all, patients,” says Arbib.