The State of Israel’s official marijuana plants grow in four squat, unassuming greenhouses in the city of Rishon LeZion. About 100 marijuana plants grow in carefully controlled conditions, grown exactly to specifications for ongoing medical research.
The plants are part of the government-funded research into medical cannabis at the agricultural research Volcani Center, part of the country’s push to be a world leader in the field of medical marijuana. The operation combines both greenhouse growing and lab work under the same roof in order to streamline medical research into medical cannabis’s affect on different diseases.
But just as Israel is touting the country’s liberal approach to medical cannabis research, many in the cannabis industry are increasingly frustrated over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to halt medical cannabis exports. Netanyahu froze discussions over exports in February, reportedly to avoid upsetting US president Donald Trump.
Both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance recommended the export of medical cannabis from Israel in August of last year. The joint committee estimated the Israeli export market could be valued between NIS 1 to 4 billion ($US275 million to over $US1 billion), and that exports be carried out under the regulation of the Ministry of Health. But Netanyahu froze discussions over the regulations in February, and no progress has been made since then.
A spokesman in the Prime Minister’s office said there are no plans to change the current situation.
A pot of gold
“Israel has an excellent reputation internationally as a brand that is cutting edge with all things technology,” said Yona Levy, the CEO of Alvit LCS Pharma, a company which develops medical cannabis products with specific dosage requirements. “The list is long and varied and there is no reason it should not be the same in the cannabis arena,” said Levy.
There is enormous market potential for medical cannabis, both in Israel and abroad. Cannabics Pharmaceuticals, an Israeli company that developed a marijuana capsule for cancer sufferers, estimates that the medical marijuana market has the potential to reach $3.6 billion in the US alone by 2019. This would make it larger than the organic food market. Some estimate that the global cannabis market could reach $50 billion by 2025.
“We speak with people all the time around the world that want ‘Israeli’ cannabis, and to be honest, it’s difficult to explain the holdup,” Levy said. “A potential exists for Israel to be a world leader in an industry that is expected to grow to $57 billion annually by 2027. There is an opportunity for Israel to be an international cannabis hub.”
Currently, the world leader in medical cannabis exports is the United Kingdom, which exports approximately two tons per year, or 70% of medical cannabis exports, according to a drug study from the United Nations. The UK also produced the most medical cannabis, with 95 tons, followed by Canada (80 tons), and Portugal (21 tons). Israel is currently the fourth largest producer of medical cannabis with nine tons, according to the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board report, which measured 2016 production.
“The opportunity will not be there forever,” Levy said. “Every month that goes by, the likelihood of Israel becoming an international hub for cannabis diminishes. Countries are finding their solutions. They cannot afford to wait. Our fear is that when Israel finally approves cannabis export it may be too little too late.”
Levy said his company is already looking into growing internationally in order to circumvent the freeze on exports. “Ultimately, our business will profit and succeed, but Israel will unfortunately lose,” he said.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan opposes cannabis exports because the economic benefits that it would bring do not justify “the harm that could be done by transforming Israel into the flagship country for cannabis exports,” according to the Ynet news site.
One of Erdan’s foremost concerns is that the police do not have the manpower or budget to ensure that there is not substantial leakage of cannabis from legal growers (all of whom must have a clean criminal record and promise to enact strict security measures around their farms), to criminals who will almost certainly sell cannabis to minors.
Erdan believes if the growth industry expands to include exporters, that will increase the risk that marijuana will find its way to the streets, according to the ministry’s legal counsel.
That’s grow biz
While ministers quibble over the exports, the Agriculture Ministry is funding research at the Volcani Center for the domestic Israeli market, which is still growing. Alvit said “mature” medical cannabis markets can see between 1.5% and 2% of the population consuming medical cannabis. In Israel, that would translate to 120,000 to 170,000 patients consuming 60-90 tons annually.
Today, there are approximately 23,000 patients who have medical marijuana prescriptions in Israel, up from 10,000 in 2012. That number will continue to rise as marijuana is approved to treat more ailments.
Last year, when people expected the government to approve medical cannabis exports, more than 700 entrepreneurs and businesses applied to the Israeli Health Ministry to grow or sell cannabis-related products. Venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary told CNBC that investing in marijuana is like “getting an opportunity to get into alcohol after Prohibition just ended.”
The Health Ministry is also loosening requirements for medical marijuana prescriptions within Israel. Two years ago, the government approved a plan initiated by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to expand the number of doctors who can prescribe cannabis to patients, remove limits on the number of marijuana growers, and make cannabis available at approved pharmacies. Additionally, the ministry is examining the possibility of eliminating the need for each patient to obtain a Health Ministry permit, so that just a doctor’s prescription will be sufficient for obtaining medical cannabis.
The government marijuana farm at the Volcani Center started three years ago, under the direction of Dr Hinanit Koltai. The lab focuses on researching how marijuana can assist “orphan diseases,” or diseases that do not affect many people. Drug companies are reluctant to fund research for orphan diseases because they are not as profitable as drugs for diseases that affect large numbers of people.
“We want to understand the mechanisms, not only if cannabis helps, but why,” said Dr Dvory Namdar, the chief chemist and research associate in Koltai’s lab. Scientists at the lab are finding different ways to extract and isolate the active cannabinoid compounds in the plant, including ways to separate the cannabidiol [CBD] from the tetrahydrocannabinol [THC]. THC is the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana that gives users a “high.” CBD is the more medicinal, healing part of the plant that does not produce the “high” feeling associated with marijuana.
Namdar noted that there are over 600 different strains of marijuana plants. Each plant has a different chemical composition of active compounds, which can make specific plants more effective for treating certain diseases.
“A [marijuana] extract can have 160 different compounds in different ratios, but we’ve found that the whole compound is much more effective than just the pure molecule of cannabinoid,” said Namdar.
For that reason, scientists must pinpoint which strain of marijuana is the most effective for each disease. Additionally, manipulating factors like sunlight exposure, watering, fertilizing, forcing the plant to flower at a certain time, or trimming the plant in certain ways can all affect the ratio of active compounds in the plant.
Getting medicine out of the weeds
Plant-based medicines are difficult to gain approval for because growers must be able to raise the plant over and over with similar ratios of active compounds required in the final product.
In June, the Federal Drug Administration in America approved the Epidiolex (cannabidiol) for treating two rare forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, in patients two years of age and older. It is the first time the FDA has approved a purified drug containing a substance derived from marijuana.
“This approval serves as a reminder that advancing sound development programs that properly evaluate active ingredients contained in marijuana can lead to important medical therapies. And the FDA is committed to this kind of careful scientific research and drug development,” said FDA Commissioner Dr Scott Gottlieb in a statement accompanying the drug’s approval.
These two types of epilepsy affect just 200 children in Israel and previously did not respond to other anti-seizure medications, said Namdar. Children with this type of epilepsy have such frequent seizures that they are often non-verbal and can die before reaching age 10. Approximately 40% of the children who are treated with the special strain of cannabis developed to treat the disease, can become seizure-free, Namdar said.
Companies like Tikun Olam have 15 strains of cannabis plants that are approved to treat diseases, and experts work with patients who have a marijuana prescription from their doctor to determine which plant, dosage, and method of delivery will best meet their needs.
Currently, cannabis is undergoing clinical trials and approved for use to treat tinnitus, colitis, Crohn’s disease, some of the spastic symptoms of cerebral palsy pediatric patients, Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Inflammatory Bowel disease, autism symptoms like insomnia or aggressiveness, and some of the side effects of some cancer treatments. Future trials include testing cannabis for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder and eye inflammations.
Medical experts involved in the country’s booming cannabis industry said Israel has the potential to be a cannabis hub due to a number of positive factors. The country has a critical mass of scientists and clinicians familiar with and open to medical uses for cannabis, a strong biotech industry and researchers in leading medical institutes and universities and, most importantly, a Ministry of Health that is generally supportive of medical marijuana.
The Volcani Center in Rishon LeZion usually focuses their research on growing better strains of citrus or disease-resistant tomatoes. But now scientists are applying their meticulous knowledge about plants to medical marijuana.
The lab both raises the plants and studies the chemical composition extracted from the plants, allowing for a much more streamlined growing process where scientists can make minute adjustments to the plants as needed. The greenhouses raise plants for five or six ongoing experiments at any given time.
A special security unit guards the greenhouses and visitors require approval from many different authorities, including the Ministry of Health and the police narcotics unit.
Professor Itamar Glazar, the Deputy Director of Research and Development at the Volcani Center, noted that medical marijuana is also proving to be an attractive crop for young people, who otherwise would be less likely to go into agricultural businesses. “Israel has always been strong in agriculture, and young people are looking for a new crop,” he said. “[Medical marijuana cultivation] can benefit both growers and manufacturers.”
Dr Moran Mazuz is the director of the lab at the Volcani Center where the extraction takes place. These days, she is working on testing how cannabis can reduce inflammation activity in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and colitis. The lab is also currently working on medicines for colon cancer and skin inflammations.
She said that some of the compounds are effective in reducing inflammation and killing cancer cells, but there is still a lot of work to be done. “We are not curing cancer tomorrow,” she said. “But we have a lot of science based on facts, and we are progressing. In the next few years, we will be able to turn it into medicine for even more diseases.”
But businesses are hoping that the government’s dedication to funding marijuana research will eventually pave the way for exporting Israeli grown medical marijuana to an international market.
“Netanyahu often looks at the long-term strategic benefits and outcomes to different things, and I think he needs to do the same thing with cannabis,” said Levy, of Alvit Pharma. “In the near term perhaps, we may have some short-term benefits with the USA by not exporting. But in the longer term, cannabis will ultimately be an internationally tradeable commo
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this article
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