Going to pot

Approval has been granted for a single, large-scale organic marijuana grower, a decision which may help provide respite to hundreds more patients.

cannabis plant 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cannabis plant 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first time D. smoked marijuana, he decided to make it a family affair. His wife, cousin and grandson sat with him as the 75-year- old Tel Aviv native carefully tucked the leaves into a Jamaican-accented pipe and lit up. "They left as soon as I started smoking. That was important, that is part of the rules," said D. "I never thought, never in a thousand years, that I would be a marijuana-smoker... I also never knew what marijuana really did." One year ago, D.'s cancer resurfaced after a long period of remission. His doctor recommended aggressive chemotherapy that took a toll on his appetite. "I was so dizzy, I felt really nauseated all the time. I lost a lot of weight and that was worse than anything else," said D. His grandson, who was studying to become a pediatrician, told him about the benefits of medical marijuana and encouraged him to discuss it with his doctor. "The first time I remember thinking, 'This is not bad enough, the cancer? I will also become a drug addict the last years of my life? God forbid,'" said D. "I had to read a lot. And truly, my grandson convinced me a lot, before I could even talk to my doctor about the option." D. now credits marijuana with extending and improving the quality of his life. He grows the plants in a small room adjacent to the kitchen, watering them with the same canister that his wife has used for years to cultivate the lush tangerine and kumquat trees in their backyard. They like to argue about who is the better gardener. According to Dr. Yehuda Baruch, the head of the Health Ministry unit which approves licenses for medical marijuana, there are currently 88 active licenses for cannabis. Marijuana was first prescribed here in the 1990s, and he estimates that since then it has been prescribed to more than 150 patients. Baruch is not sure how many requests he receives each year, but said that roughly 40 percent of the people who apply for cannabis are approved. "Many of the applications we get are not really legitimate. They are the applications of private people asking on their own behalf," he said. Several years ago, the Health Ministry established an application procedure for medical marijuana. The unit in charge of fielding the applications only accepts requests from recognized doctors. Chemotherapy, the AIDS cocktail, chronic pain, glaucoma and Crohn's disease are currently ailments that qualify patients for marijuana. If the doctor is applying on the basis of one of those ailments, the application is generally approved as long as the patient has no criminal record. Occasionally, doctors will also apply for marijuana for the treatment of less serious ailments. In those cases, they must provide published medical research qualifying the use of marijuana as treatment. "For the people that apply on their own behalf, most never try again through a doctor. Most are not serious," Baruch said. "Of those that apply through a doctor, however, 80 percent are approved." Once a patient is approved, he is given permission to grow up to 10 plants or possess up to 250 grams at a given time. He must notify the Health Ministry and the police of the exact location where the plants will be grown and consumed. GROWING OR consuming the plants at just any address is illegal. "One of the biggest problems facing us is the growing of the plants, the production. Many of the patients who receive permission for medical marijuana often don't have the ability to grow the plants," said Boaz Wachtal, a public health activist who has spent the past 15 years working on marijuana legislation. On March 20, the Health Ministry's panel for medical marijuana convened and approved one long-time grower for large-scale production. The Tel Aviv resident has provided approved patients with free cannabis for the past several years. The panel's decision will enable the grower to cultivate high-grade, organically grown marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, there are several hurdles left to overcome. "The issue is now with the police, who are dragging their feet [and] even once he gets approved, there is the problem of raising enough money to actually make it happen," Wachtal said. He is currently looking for donations, both here and abroad. In addition to the building and planting material, the greenhouse would need round-the-clock security and supervision. Last month's meeting to approve a grower is a "positive step," said Baruch, although he stressed that drastic changes in the laws relating to medical use of marijuana were not needed and the current system met the demands of patients. "I don't think that it is so pressing for legislation for change on this. There is a lot of work being done on a political level. I am not a part of that," he said. "Of course there is also always a need for improvement." OVER THE past decade, three MKs have introduced legislation to legalize marijuana possession. Two of them, Naomi Chazan and Roman Bronfman, were from the left-wing Meretz party. Last month, however, MK Aryeh Eldad, from the religious right-wing National Union-National Religious Party, also proposed a bill for legalization, marking a milestone in the slow crawl of religious/right-wing ideology toward marijuana legislation. "We have had a lot of success convincing the right-wing and religious parties to support legalization," said Michelle Levine, a spokeswoman for the Alei Yarok party which advocates legalizing marijuana. "We have already been assured that if the issue comes to a vote, the right-wing religious parties will vote in favor... A big part of our argument actually stems from the Torah and mentions of cannabis there." [The Jerusalem Post could not confirm any such specific reference.] As activists such as Wachtal are working to create laws to allow for broader medical marijuana usage, debate over the use and efficiency of cannabis is being waged in international forums. There are six other countries in which people can currently take marijuana for various ailments. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the purchase and possession of small amounts of cannabis is legal, but cultivating and wholesaling it are not. Spain and Switzerland have decriminalized the consumption and home cultivation of cannabis, but buying or selling it remains illegal. In 2001, the UK announced that the possession of small quantities would not be prosecuted, but the drug remains illegal. In Canada, the drug is legal only for medical use, but its use is broadly tolerated. The situation is most complicated in the US, where certain states have legalized marijuana within restricted parameters, while others still prosecute its use as a criminal offense. "Marijuana could be of a huge medical benefit to hundreds of people in Israel, but years and years of the US-adopted prohibitionist policy have created a lot of misconceptions," said Wachtal. "There are many people who could be applying, or at least exploring the medical benefits, but they do not because of the negative propaganda surrounding marijuana... Part of the problem is the perception of cannabis in general society. People don't know what it really is; they think that they are going to see flying pink elephants because of all the government propaganda." D. also thought that he would be having elaborate hallucinations while on cannabis. Instead, he said, he has only been feeling "happy and hungry." "I was scared, but also excited to maybe see these things. But I never see anything imaginary or fantastic. I just see the world as a happier place," he said.