High hopes

The Hasidic Jew at the cutting edge of medicinal cannabis development.

By
March 29, 2019 09:52
High hopes

A worker harvests cannabis plants at a plantation near the northern town of Nazareth. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN)

 
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The trend toward recognizing the benefits of medicinal cannabis has gathered great momentum over the last year with the use of extracts from the plant having been legalized in a variety of therapeutic treatments in a number of international jurisdictions. It is a trend set to continue and gather pace, and one that Yahav Blaicher, one of Israel’s leading plant biologists and researchers, has embraced and incorporated into his life’s work. 


A 40-year-old Hasidic Jew, he has only recently switched to dedicating his expertise to developing the medicinal benefits of cannabis for the treatment of a variety of health conditions through his Kaneh-B company, an Israeli enterprise that is among those leading the way in seeking to challenge the status quo dominated with a vice-like grip by a small number of well-known international drug companies. 
 
His remarkable journey to this point has taken him on a rare, parallel scientific and religious road, a road that could lead to people of all creeds and faiths reaping the benefits, including those in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Despite longstanding taboos, they have turned to Blaicher in growing numbers to assist in a number of significant medical issues, rarely reported or acknowledged outside the strict confines of their predominantly closed societies.
 
Sporting a red beard complemented by impressive payot (sidecurls) that frame the sides of his face in the time honored manner of the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish sects, stout and strong, good-humored, and speaking more than acceptable English, Blaicher took time out to share his story with me.
 
As a young boy growing up in Nahariya, close to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, he enjoyed the freedom of a small, rural town surrounded by nature. The Mediterranean Sea had a mesmerizing effect on him (it still does), as too do plants and the natural world. It was as a mere five-year-old though that his route to today’s role was sparked by the tragic death of the young son of a family friend whose life was unable to be saved after he innocently ate a mushroom while playing in the fields around Nahariya.
 
“He was poisoned,” Blaicher tells The Jerusalem Report. “For me, beside the feeling of tragedy, even at that age I was fascinated by what could possibly be in a mushroom that can kill a boy?”
 
A voracious reader of encyclopedias, he completed high school, then was drafted into the Israeli army where his keen eye, high psychometric score, and curious nature led him to a role in the army’s criminal investigation and intelligence unit.
 
“Our team mostly came from high socioeconomic groups, many planning to be lawyers later on. The talk was that after the army everyone would go traveling, then go to university, but I was interested in people so thought maybe psychology or something like that would suit. Much of my military service placed me working with people in very hard and intense situations, both as victims, criminals, or informers.”
 
Blaicher spent two years after the army traveling extensively, including in Japan, where he worked as a barman, then Central America and Europe, before returning to Israel to seek out a degree course that would satisfy his inquisitive nature. He failed to connect to the atmosphere at the traditional Israeli seats of learning and was unimpressed by “too much concrete” on the campuses, but after visiting the Hebrew University’s Agriculture Faculty at Rehovot, he realized this was where he wanted to be. 
 
“The day I visited just happened to be their Open Day when all the professors were there and you could ask whatever you want. I immediately felt this was a very different place. My first degree was in plant biology relating to agriculture and I was involved in natural compounds’ biochemistry. This was my particular interest. Then I met Prof. Nativ Dudai, the head of the aromatic plant and aroma science division. I studied with him, and then decided I wanted to do a second degree. 
 
“This was the time that Omega 3 was the best-selling worldwide supplement and was suitable for people who didn’t like either the taste or the smell of fish. He told me there was a very unique and pioneering study project supported by a private company that was about to begin, and he and Professor Zohar Yaniv, a very famous plant research scientist, were looking for a masters degree student to work on this scientific program.” 


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