Future Health Ministry head wants state to subsidize medical pot

After appeal by parents of kids suffering from epilepsy, MK Litzman calls to add cannabis remedies to universal health care package

MK Yakov Litzman speaks during a Knesset session in 2007. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
MK Yakov Litzman speaks during a Knesset session in 2007. (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox MK Yaakov Litzman, who’s set to take over the Health Ministry in the new government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, may pave the way for state-subsidized medicinal marijuana to be covered by national health care.

The United Torah Judaism party leader addressed the issue after parents of dozens of children suffering from severe cases of epilepsy turned to him for assistance.

The parents said medications currently included in the state-subsidized health care package inadequately treats their severe seizures.

But where pharmaceutical drugs failed, the parents said cannabis oil was more effective.

Parents said they treat their children with concentrated cannabis oil — under Health Ministry authorization — but must cover the costs themselves, which amounts to approximately NIS 400 ($100) a month, according to a Channel 2 report on Wednesday.

Purchasing medicinal marijuana in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Purchasing medicinal marijuana in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Litzman responded to the parents appeal by sending a letter to a top Health Ministry official Tuesday, requesting the issue be further investigated in order to “allow these children to live a relaxed, seizure-free life.”

“If their severe seizures disappear completely, why shouldn’t the health care system fund the minimal cost of the treatment?”

Litzman made apparent in his letter to the official that the marijuana treatment would be significantly cheaper than current medications included in the subsidized by the state.

“This doesn’t make sense. The drugs aren’t useful, the oil is. It is medically supervised. So why can’t an agreement be reached with the health care system?” he asked the official.

Although the inquiry currently only addressed the case of a few dozen children, if successfully brought into the state-subsidized package of treatments it could lead to a wider approval of medical marijuana.

Israel gained a reputation as an expert grower of cannabis for use as a pain reliever for those suffering from serious illnesses, such as cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. Among Western countries, Israel already has one of the highest per capita rates of legal cannabis use, with over 21,000 people medically licensed to use the drug.

Prior to the March elections, Litzman had expressed an ambivalent attitude towards state-sponsored medical marijuana treatment. In an interview with Hebrew daily Haaretz, Litzman said that when he previously served as deputy health minister, he was opposed to the use of cannabis. But he also stated that he was weighing importing marijuana capsules from Holland, as an alternative to growing it in Israel. That plan was not implemented.

Cannabis plants at a growing facility in northern Israel, 2010. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Cannabis plants at a growing facility in northern Israel, 2010. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Public attitude towards cannabis has been shifting in recent years, not only in support of its medicinal use, but also in calling for decriminalization or legalization of its recreational use.

Last week, several Knesset members from both right and left wing parties were among over 1,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv for a demonstration against the ban on pot, as well as the severe measures taken by authorities against recreational users.

Also on Wednesday, Israel Police chief Yohanan Danino called for the government to reassess its current policies in light of growing calls from lawmakers and the public against prohibition of the drug.

“More and more citizens are demanding marijuana use be permitted,” he said. “I think it’s time for the police, along with the state, to reevaluate its traditional position.”

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