How Israel Became A Medical Marijuana Powerhouse

By April M. Short, AlterNet January 19, 2014 Comments

This article originally appeared on AlterNet and was republished with permission

Mimi Peleg’s job is to teach people how to use pot—how long to inhale smoke or vapor, how to administer sublingual drops, or how to ration out a pot cookie.

Peleg directs large-scale cannabis training for the Israeli government’s state-supported, discreet, successful and expanding medical cannabis distribution center, MECHKAR. MECHKAR began as a tiny program serving about 1,800 people from 2008-2009. Today, supplied by eight farms located all over the country, the program distributes cannabis to 12,000 patients.

While medical marijuana has been approved in 18 U.S. states, and recreational use in two, U.S. federal law still criminalizes the drug, and its future remains uncertain. In Israel, however, the $40-million-per-year medical-marijuana industry is thriving. And, while research efforts have been continually hindered in the states by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the DEA, the Israeli government is funding and supporting breakthrough research on the many healing potentials of the cannabis plant.

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Likud Party MK Haim Katz, who chairs the Labor, Social Welfare and Health Committee in Israel’s Knesset, said in January that the number of doctors allowed to prescribe medical cannabis would double from nine to 20 by the end of the year. Mimi Peleg told AlterNet that has already happened, as more than 20 doctors can now legally prescribe cannabis in Israel, though some are limited to the prescription of cannabis oil.

While Israel has long had a hash-smoking underculture, recreational cannabis use is not nearly as common as in the U.S.

“There was always hash here, but not a pot culture so to speak,” Peleg said, noting that most students arrive at her offices terrified they will hallucinate or lose their minds.

“For them [getting high] is an adverse effect,” she said. “So I tell them what to do if they get too high, how to lower their senses a little bit, how to relax, things to expect, and how long they should expect it to stay in their body—which I tell them is between 45 minutes and two hours—before they’ll have to smoke or vape again.”

A last resort

Unlike California’s medical marijuana program in which doctors recommend the herb for more mild conditions like headaches, anxiety, chronic pain and difficulty sleeping, cannabis in Israel is reserved as a last option for people with serious illnesses, often near the end of their lives.

Patients must exhaust all available pharmaceutical options and complete a long-winded bureaucratic process before they can access cannabis.

While Israel has a historically strict drug policy, it does not share the U.S.’s lengthy and tumultuous history with the cannabis plant. Peleg says Israel doesn’t have a “stoner” stereotype—while Israelis are often wary of trying the new drug, there is no serious stigma surrounding the use of the cannabis herb for medical purposes. So, she says, there was “never any question” that cannabis would be viewed as “strictly medical” when it was introduced to Israeli patients.

However, many patients also lack any knowledge or experience about how to properly use cannabis, and that’s where Peleg comes in.

Peleg credits her friend and “favorite politician” Boaz Wachtel with bringing medical cannabis to Israel. Wachtel co-founded Israel’s Ale Yarok political party, best known for its work to decriminalize cannabis. For decades he has worked to reform the drug policies of his home country, meeting both successes and failures.

Wachtel told AlterNet that Peleg’s role is important not only to educate patients but to alleviate fears.

“These patients have never smoked cannabis before, medically or recreationally, and they think they will see flying elephants in the room if they do that,” he said. “Mimi will give them a few strains to check on which strain fits them better. That’s why… patient education must be a part of any successful cannabis program.”

On any given day, somewhere between 10 and 30 people with licenses for cannabis will come through the doors of the MECHKAR facility, made up of a few small rooms at the end of a mental hospital. In addition to training and supplying cannabis to patients, MECHKAR is a mecca for the unprecedented cannabis research.

Wachtel said Israel—which has the highest ratio of university degrees to the population in the world and produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation—has become a world leader in cannabis research as a result of the U.S.’s continued blockade of cannabis research. He says this is wonderful for Israel, but not for society at large.

“By denying people access to medical cannabis the U.S. has criminalized patients,” he said.

A research hub

Doctors from all over the world, including the U.S., arrive in Israel to research cannabis’ wide-ranging medical properties. Current studies are looking at cannabis’ use in the treatment of basal-cell carcinoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease.

Funding for cannabis research in Israel comes from the Israeli Ministry of Health (MOH) as well as private donors.

Peleg is also the clinical research associate for an ongoing study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, organized by the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). She helped write the abstract for a recent study conducted in Israel to assess the use of cannabis to treat chronic PTSD in 30 Israeli combat veterans, which turned out “promising” results. The study is currently under peer review in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.

“We took 30 combat veterans with treatment-resistant PTSD and gave them cannabis over time, and did testing before during and after,” she said.

Currently, about 200 PTSD patients are approved for medical cannabis in Israel, and Peleg said the number is on the rise. Peleg said the research results for all of the cannabis studies conducted in Israel have been “overwhelmingly positive.” A recent study conducted on fibromyalgia inspired many patients in a senior nursing home to apply and become licensed cannabis users.

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Via AlterNet
Photo: Marijuana by Bigstock

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