Cannabis’… The name sends shivers down the spine of Daily Mail readers. While not every Brit foams at the mouth at its very mention, most avoid the ‘c’ word in polite conversation. Not so in Israel. There, cannabis is a wonderful thing. To Israelis, it means a market, industry, innovation, opportunity. They know this plant could transform medicine and recreation in the 21st century, once governments get over themselves and legalise it. And they’re proud to be leading the revolution.
Lawmakers have helped, giving permits and licences. Eight companies can grow cannabis (compared to one in Britain) and restrictions on others doing so have just been lifted. More than 20 start-ups are working on its medical applications, conducting government-approved trials, after universities hand over their work. When something is shown to work, doctors prescribe it, and centres and pharmacies distribute it.
Israel has more than 26,000 patients using cannabis-related drugs (compared to Britain’s six) and this number is expected to be 150,000 in three years (second only to the United States). All the while, Israeli regulators have built a framework (nicknamed ‘the Green Book’) that is the envy of the world. Dr Tamir Gedo, chief executive at BOL Pharma and an industry pioneer, describes it as “20 years ahead of anywhere else”.
Israel’s cannabis ecosystem brings together regulators, patients, doctors, investors, scientists, entrepreneurs, growers, chemists and activists, and the start-up nation – with all its accelerators and incubators – knows how to get safe products quickly to market. There are even specialist recruiters for the industry. Headhunter Jackie Brown says one of the first questions they ask is: “Do you really care about cannabis and its myriad marvellous applications and potential, or do you just think it’s cool to work with weed?”
Dubbed “ground zero for cannabis research,” the land of milk and Mary Jane, Israel now attracts the world’s top marijuana researchers, suppliers and businesses at two annual summits (Cannatech, in March, and Cann10, in September) where talk moves from agriculture to genetics to medicine to commerce.
Exporting Israeli know-how is already well underway. “Israelis [in the cannabis industry] operate everywhere, from Peru to South Africa to Zimbabwe to Macedonia,” says Clifton Flack, co-founder of iCAN: Israel-Cannabis, an investor. “Every country is a link in the chain. Over the next 10 years, a significant percentage of cannabis regulation will be based on Israel’s rules, Israel’s ideology, because it’s so well-developed already. All over the world will be Israeli fingerprints.”
In an estimated £8billion industry, where no-one expects cannabis to remain illegal for recreational use (four US states already allow it, and 10 more are due to do so next year), the projected figures are jaw-dropping. But it is the plant’s possibilities for medical use – where far more countries approve of its use – that seem almost endless. Doron Ben Ami of Therapix Biosciences says: “Medical cannabis is just starting to flourish. Everyone’s realised it is a valued therapy, including the public. But it’s at an early stage.”
Work actually began more than 50 years ago, when Israeli scientists such as professor Raphael Mechoulam, began isolating and synthesising the psychoactive (THC) and pain-relieving components in cannabis. “The Ministry of Health checked I was trustworthy then gave me 5kg of hashish,” Mechoulam later recalled. “I carried it back [to the lab] on the bus, where everyone could smell it!”
Work since has shown that cannabis can work wonders neurologically too, so it is now known to help treat inflammation, sleep disorders, indigestion, nausea and stress, to name but a few, with trials showing promising results for colitis, Crohn’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, tinnitus, dystonia and spasticity in children with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
This month, Israeli scientists at BOL began their first cannabis trial on autism, and every day there seems to be a new breakthrough.
At Therapix, trials on patients with Tourette’s and those with early-stage Alzheimer’s are set to begin later this year. In another area, Gedo says one of its treatments (using 300mg of cannabinoids) was recently used in a leukaemia trial of 90 people. “It reduced the rate of rejection in bone marrow transplants from between 30-70 percent down to five. Most people whose bodies reject the transplant die, so this could save many lives. It’s an amazing result. We hope to have the drug in two years.”
All this focuses on Israel’s tiny domestic market, but the real prize is the huge markets outside Israel, in America and Europe, for example.
Ministerial reluctance, together with onerous international rules around production and shipping, has previously meant that Israel’s cannabis has stayed in Israel, but when BOL completes building work next year on (what will be) the world’s largest production facility dedicated to cannabis, that will all change.
With cannabis-related products set to shake up other industries like food supplements, cosmetics and medical devices, experts say the potential is huge. “It is remarkable how a plant is sending shock waves and investment tremors through established industries and ecosystems,” says Flack.
“The opportunities it offers local economies, together with the clear therapeutic and social benefits, are as exciting as they are wide and varied. Cannabis is the next big reason for innovation.”