Israel Relaxes Regulations On Medical Marijuana

Israel’s recent decision to permit greater use of medical marijuana may relieve thousands suffering from chronic pain.

Cannabis is known to give blessed relief from the pain of cancer. Yet the plant helps people suffering from many other ailments, such as multiple sclerosis, colitis, neurological pain, and post-trauma stress disorder. Until now, the herb has not been in the first line of treatment for chronic pain. Rather, conventional medicine has viewed it as an almost last-resort method.

Let’s take Rivka for example. Crippled by polio at age 4, she suffers constant pain from atrophied muscles and deteriorating hip bones. But she’s a fighter. In spite of bad days that oblige her to trade a wheelchair for her usual crutches, she has earned a degree in social work, married and raised a family of her own, and in earlier years took an active part in her community. Now severe chronic pain has blocked this intelligent and resourceful woman’s ability to to enjoy life and be useful.

Rivka used every conventional method of pain relief before asking her doctors for medical marijuana. Her doctors wouldn’t consider it; getting pot for a patient seemed just too deviant. But in September of 2010, Israel’s Ministry of Health authorized  five hospitals to issue licenses permitting patients to buy marijuana at authorized outlets. In the future, the patients, who now undergo extensive bureaucracy to get those permits, will obtain them via an interview with the managers of their local health funds.
In addition, a new study recommends more extensive use of marijuana to manage severe chronic pain.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported on a study recently conducted at the Sheba Medical Center in conjunction with the Israel Cancer Association, which involved 264 cancer patients who were treated with medical marijuana for a full year:

Some 61 percent of the respondents reported a significant improvement in their quality of life as a result of the medical marijuana, while 56 percent noted an improvement in their ability to manage pain. In general, 67 percent were in favor of the treatment, while 65 percent said they would recommend it to other patients.

The study concluded that more doctors should be prescribing cannabis. Given that cannabis is already proved to be effective, it’s time that people enduring severe chronic pain have access to it right away, instead of having to wait till they’ve tried everything else. We welcome the news that in Israel, times are changing in favor of this.

We may associate growing marijuana with furtive operations and police raids, but in Israel there are at least seven facilities authorized to grow the herb for medicine. And while illegal traders make big profits, Israel’s  biggest authorized cannabis suppliers simply gift it to licensed patients who can’t afford to pay. Tikun Olam is the name of the farm, and its name, which translates as “repairing the world,” reflects its idealistic origins.

Dora Cohen, a retired biologist with a big heart, began cultivating the plant in two rooms of her own home to help cancer patients. With official recognition of marijuana’s effectiveness in pain management, she and her family founded a facility with 11,000 square meters of greenhouses, automatic climate control systems, and a meteorological station.

The farm is located in an unpublicized area in the north. Police surveillance of the area is stringent, with cameras everywhere and the workers checked for smuggling. Strict safety precautions are taken when the processed marijuana is transported to patient’s homes or to Tikkun Olam’s center in Tel Aviv.  When we asked the farm’s spokesperson, Yuval “Tubi” Zolotov, about visiting the farm, he explained that it entails a complicated clearing process through the police. Luckily, he gave us a good picture of medical cannabis in Israel today by phone.

Worker steps among cannabis plants at a growing facility near the northern city of Safed

Worker from Tikun Olam company rolls cannabis in Tel Aviv 

Man receives rolled cannabis from a distribution center in Tel Aviv

Green Prophet: What’s special about medical marijuana?

Zolotov: The best-known chemical constituents of cannabis are the cannabinoids, and THC is the most famous of those. It’s the strongest one for making a person feel high. But it’s not  the most important cannabinoid for medical purposes. We are working on developing other strains of cannabis with lower THC values.

Green Prophet: Do patients get high anyway?

Zolotov: Each person reacts in his/her individual way to cannabis. Our clients are sick people seeking relief from physical or psychiatric suffering. It’s an entirely different atmosphere than when a person smokes it for fun. But presumably some people do experience a mild high. On the other hand, every conventional medication for major pain relief produces side effects and dependencies. Cannabis’s are far milder.

Green Prophet: Once a person has obtained a license to buy cannabis, do they just take the cigarettes home and start smoking?

Zolotov: We provide trained guides on managing safe treatment at home. We can’t recommend dosage because every patient has an individual pain threshold which he/she must learn to manage according to need. Some patients prefer to absorb cannabis through a tincture in alcohol (administered in drops), an edible oil from the seeds, or to eat chocolate or cookies containing marijuana.

Green Prophet: Approximately how many patients are authorized to use marijuana today?

Zolotov: It’s hard to say, because cannabis is usually issued only to patients in later stages of disease and so there are a certain number of deaths, as well as new patients, all the time. But we estimate 7000-8000 people. There are 120,000 cancer patients today in Israel; we estimate that in the future at least 40,000 of them will be using medical cannabis. 

Worker touches cannabis plant at a growing facility near the northern city of Safed