Seventeen cancer patients suffering from severe pain and a few other diseases currently receive a special Health Ministry license to purchase marijuana for medical purposes. Since the medical cannabis program began eight years ago, 140 people have applied, and some 70 received permission to grow or purchase it, but most of those have already died. A ministry conference was held yesterday at the Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam to update and increase doctors' awareness of the medical uses of marijuana. Dr. Yehuda Baruch, director-general of Abarbanel, said that oncologists and other specialists have to apply for the license on their patients' behalf. "We want to import medical-grade cannabis from Holland," Baruch told The Jerusalem Post. "But so far, approval of the government there for export of marijuana has not been granted." There are also companies in Israel that want to get involved in the supply of medical cannabis, but the Israel Police opposes the import for fear the drugs would find their way into the hands of criminals. So far, said Baruch, the only patients who can marijuana so far have severe cancer pain, suffer from severe Crohn's disease (a gastrointestinal disorder) or have lost considerable weight due to AIDS. It is has not yet been given to victims of multiple sclerosis pain, except in one exceptional case. "We will change this only when medical evidence proves it can be of help that cannot be provided by conventional drugs. The ministry is looking into the possibility that the plant can help Alzheimer's patients by slowing their mental decline. A hashish-like compound has also been found to lower blood pressure in some cases," Baruch said. So far, local pharmaceutical companies have not invested seriously in cannabis research, due to the high costs and predicted low financial return. Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of The Hebrew University's School of Pharmacy, considered one of the world's leaders in cannabis research - advocates the use of the plant to ease the painful night spasms of multiple sclerosis patients, reduce pain in victims of neurological damage, and help AIDS patients regain weight. Mechoulam headed an Israeli-Scottish team that studied the effects of hashish on the brain, and in 1993 succeeded in identifying, isolating and synthesizing a previously unknown substance in the brain that functions much as the drug itself. The researchers named it anandamide, from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning "inner joy." The license to purchase medical cannabis is very restrictive, allowing only those licensed to smoke it, and only in a certain place. Baruch noted that smoking marijuana poses dangers, and has been known to trigger schizophrenia and other mental problems.