High hopes

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

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

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.” 
A plant that was part of the clary sage family that had traditionally been used for essential oils had been discovered to contain high levels of Omega 3. It was showing promising results in the fight against ADHD. Blaicher had found the perfect vehicle for his research skills and in due course more than 1,000 acres of clary sage were planted in Israel under his guidance. 
 
Five months before the end of his masters degree he married his girlfriend, Sharon. Only when the degree had been completed were they able to go on honeymoon, but the company that supported the clary sage research was keen for him to come on board immediately. Sharon, however, was insistent on going traveling for an extended period, so Blaicher informed his bosses that he and his wife wanted five months to travel in India. They gave the couple their blessing, and even paid for the extended honeymoon on the understanding he would return when ready to help them progress with their plans.
 
It was toward the end of their time in India that Sharon suddenly became religious after a short spell in Goa. He himself followed suit soon after having read a book on Judaism by the famed Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. 
 
“That was the moment I realized my life would never be the same,” he admits. “I didn’t know how, but it was going to change.”
The couple returned to Israel as religious Jews, to the astonishment of his wife’s family, in particular. 
 
“For a few years it was difficult because we became more spiritual, studied Torah, and were less career-oriented. We went to live in Bat Ayin in the settlements for six years, then moved to Beitar Ilit. During this time I did two things, studying Torah with the Breslav rabbis in Bat Ayin during the day, and then at night I would go on the computer looking for compounds that might help ADHD and behavioral issues.” 
 
Around 2007 a man from his religious settlement heard that clary sage had helped ADHD sufferers, then found out that 
Blaicher, who lived just down the road, was an acknowledged expert on the subject.
 
“Word spread fast and many Orthodox rabbis and yeshiva principals started to look for me because the situation with Ritalin and other medications was booming in their institutions, many of which have a minimum of 1,000 children. Ritalin helped many students concentrate and focus on their studies, but there was a significant percentage that couldn’t tolerate this medication. An alternative needed to be found.
 
“I found myself in a unique position with access to a lot of subjects with more genetic unifying parameters than the general community. They were from the Ashkenazi background, sometimes with as many as four subjects from the same family. I started working with natural compound mixes and received extensive feedback from the rabbis who were very supportive and particularly wanted to know all about the safety issues.”
 
Combining his scientific knowledge with methods used in Chinese medicine and Western herbalism, he found one plant that fitted the bill, and then extensively studied the best extraction methods to realize the highest amount of the compound, be it oil or hydraulic. It was a case of learning by trial and error.
 
After about a year Blaicher was producing bottles of the extract from his home laboratory but felt exposed to regulatory and safety issues. Satisfied with the formula though, he went to a private label manufacturer, presented them with the ways for combining the compounds and they started manufacturing. 
 
The rabbis then came to him with other challenging mainstream conditions they were struggling to handle in their communities.
“They explained they had major issues with people suffering from severe stress-related issues, mostly women who had sleep disorders. I worked on that for another year.”
 
As we discussed his career, I couldn’t help wondering if Blaicher’s scientific research was in any way conflicted by his religious passion and observance? As the debate about the creation rages in the US, for example, was it not a difficult path to tread when you are part of both worlds? 
 
“I didn’t find it a conflict,” he reflects. “You don’t want to be treating women in intimate situations, for example. I always told myself I was not in it for money or prosperity – in those days anyway; you are trying to make the world better. I was quite altruistic, but I had to bring money home to support my wife and children.”
 
Four years into working with the ultra-Orthodox communities the rabbis came to him with a particularly serious issue that had been kept under wraps for a long time and is rarely, if ever, discussed with outsiders.
 
“They started to ask me about sexual dysfunction – something that had become a major issue – such as getting pregnant, impotence issues, and the mental stress that leads to premature ejaculation by young grooms whose expectation is that they marry, and then after nine months they have their first child. It’s a big taboo in these communities. There is a great deal of pressure, especially on couples who haven’t had kids within 18 months of being married.
 
“The young people in these communities don’t know much at all about sex. The rabbis I met didn’t teach about sex in classes. Just two months before you marry you might receive some instruction; it depended on what kind of rabbi you had access to. You see, at this time the young couples really don’t know anything about it. Nothing! There are communities where the young couples don’t even know that you have babies because of having sex. I’ve met such people. Of course, the first night after the wedding can be very difficult for them.”
 
Given the proliferation of children in the ultra-Orthodox communities and their particularly high birth rate, this might come as surprising news. It isn’t at all hard though to appreciate the communal peer pressure young married couples must feel when they aren’t producing babies as quickly as others. 
 
“I worked with one of the highest authorities [in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox enclave] of Mea She’arim on these issues,” continued Blaicher. “He told me some couples are so stressed that three weeks after the wedding they still haven’t had sex. They don’t understand what is going on, and most couples don’t talk about this with their parents. As the months go by the pressure gets higher and they don’t feel they have anyone to turn to.
 
“After working with around 2,000 cases I didn’t find a solution for the issue of impotence, but I did manage to develop a natural formula that helped the issue of premature ejaculation. I combined compounds from plants and minerals and vitamins that affect both brain and other physiological mechanisms in the body that bring the mental and physical condition to a place where the man can perform. This is now part of the Kaneh-B range of products. We have around a 70% success rate.”
Alongside his work with the ultra-Orthodox community, Blaicher was also gaining a reputation developing products for Israeli and international cosmetic and supplement companies, and was being noticed on a wider scale. Then the opportunity to develop medicinal cannabis products came along.
 
“For me, it’s just another plant,” he says in a casual, matter-of-fact way. “I met with companies and start-ups that wanted cannabis product formulations and found myself very much in demand as I brought with me knowledge of proper development processes that few people had in this new ‘green rush.’ Within a month, 99 percent of my work shifted from general development to cannabis-related development.” 
 
Encouraged by his masters degree professor to go ahead and further research cannabis aroma, and with full laboratory facilities being placed at his disposal, Blaicher is delving ever deeper into the world of medicinal cannabis. 
 
“The mainstream scientific community has realized that the aromatic compounds from cannabis have a synergistic effect, together with the cannabinoids. The term coined by Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, the father of cannabis research, was the “entourage effect,” which synergizes the aroma compounds of cannabis to the active material.” 
 
When Blaicher’s uncle, businessman Jacob Gur, came to him along with respected Tel Aviv-based architect Ofer Segal, with a proposal to start a company growing medicinal cannabis plants, he persuaded them this was not the best direction. Instead, he suggested they head in the direction of producing medicinal cannabis-based products, work on the research and development of the delivery system, understand what could be done with the compounds, and what kind of applications they can be used for. 
 
They are now completely focused on developing new applications for the aromatic and cannabinoid compounds, and are working with regulators in countries around the world on how to apply it in consumer products.
 
There’s no doubt that medicinal cannabis is big news these days, but there are still many people with concerns this could all be hype. The doubts remain in some quarters about how safe cannabis use in medications will be, and whether it might lead to a dependence on other drugs down the line. Is Blaicher absolutely sure about the safety aspects of the new wonder-drug?
 
“The cannabis industry is indeed in a state of major hype now,” he admits. “It is the buzz word, but cannabis biology is here to stay forever because public health can no longer ignore the most abundant mechanism in the human body. It’s like suddenly choosing to ignore the cholesterol mechanism, or other major health mechanisms in the human body. Now you have found out about it, you cannot ignore it.” 
 
Surprisingly, given the levels of personal cannabis consumption and its legendary ‘Start-Up Nation status,’ Israel has been slow to pursue the medicinal benefits of cannabis, even though in the 1960s it was the first country to legalize research on the subject and, according to Blaicher, has the most developed research facilities. It is still illegal in the US to research cannabis, for example, even though they have been more progressive, along with Canada, with regard to the sale of medicinal cannabis in a growing number of states. 
 
The much publicized on-off-on-off-on decisions of Israeli parliamentarians in encouraging, then blocking, farmers wanting to grow the plant caused significant financial pain to early Israeli investors, many of whom remain uneasy about growing the plant here now, even though the climate offers near-ideal conditions but recent indications are that this may become a new Israeli boom industry.
Looking ahead, Blaicher predicts cannabis-based products are going to change the face of conventional medicine.
 
“I think that in a few years the cannabis industry is going to be very specific. Recreational consuming is not going to shut down – it will grow and grow – but the medical use is going to be massive in comparison. I believe the big pharmaceutical companies will also come to rule this particular environment.”
 
Is he suggesting then that instead of trying to bring down the research and development of medicinal cannabis such as his at all costs – as they have done with other burgeoning rivals to their market dominance in the past – the pharmaceutical corporations are going to say, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them?’
 
“Definitely,” says the red-haired Hasidic Jew, fixing his gaze directly on me. “The important point is that medicinal cannabis is here to stay.” ■
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com