Patients to pay for medical marijuana as demand spikes

Nonprofit Tikun Olam group unable to keep up with cost; Health Ministry warns NIS 360 service charge illegal.

medical marijuana 311.187 (photo credit: Associated Press)
medical marijuana 311.187
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In several weeks patients in Israel who take medical marijuana as treatment will pay a NIS 360 monthly service charge to cover administrative and distribution costs, a source inside Tikkun Olam, the nonprofit organization that produces the country's medical marijuana, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
In addition, starting on Sunday, patients will pay a one-time NIS 116 administrative charge.
Until Sunday, patients had received the drug for free. But following a wave of publicity caused by media reports and a film on the benefits of medical marijuana, aired on Channel 2, Tikkun Olam has been flooded with a nearly 500-percent increase in requests for the drug, said a source inside the organization who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Currently neither the government nor insurance companies fund medical marijuana production. Donations received by Tikkun Olam have become inadequate for keeping up with the dramatic rise in demand, he said.
Furthermore, Tikkun Olam expects the number of requests to continue to rise, and with it the drug's price in coming months. A Health Ministry study estimates that there are nearly 40,000 ailing Israelis who would benefit from use of the drug.
There are also concerns within the organization that if tension rises on the northern border, where Tikkun Olam's confidential growing facilities are located and where Hizbullah is known to be stockpiling an arsenal of missiles, production could be disrupted, causing prices to rise further.
Shai Meir, a Tikkun Olam spokesman, said the organization was based on compassion and believed that patients should not have to pay for medical marijuana. However, until the Knesset's Labor and Health Committee creates a plan on how to subsidize it, patients will continue to pay, he said.
The committee is currently working on a plan, which is expected to be released in March.
But Dr. Yehuda Baruch, director of the medical-grade cannabis program within the Health Ministry, told the Post that it was the government's opinion that Tikkun Olam's implementation of the monthly fee would violate the law banning the sale of marijuana in Israel.
"We recognize that it is expensive to produce marijuana, and there will be a discussion in the Labor and Health Committee to see if they will be allowed to sell it," he said. "But until we decide, it is our position that it is illegal for them to charge a monthly fee. If they implement the fee without permission, we will pursue them in court."
Baruch added, "We don't have a problem with the NIS 116 fee. But as we understand it, the NIS 360 would cover much of the production cost. We think they are going through a backdoor avenue to sell it. We know that the costs of transportation and administration are far less."
Yael, a patient who takes medical marijuana to help ease the pain of chemotherapy, said she had been informed of the price hike when she stopped to pick up her weekly portion of 15 grams last week, and been forced to reconsider her use of marijuana as a medicine.
"I can't work because of the treatment I am undergoing," said Yael. "A lot of people who take marijuana as a medicine are in my position, and it's a lot of money for someone who doesn't have an income. Even though it works so well, I am thinking about getting off of it because of the high price."
Yael said she understood Tikkun Olam's decision to charge for the medicine, but believed that a treatment so effective in battling pain and illness was only being excluded from government and insurance healthcare plans because of lingering prejudice against the substance as a drug instead of medicine. MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) agreed.
"I recognize that Tikkun Olam has the right to charge money to provide the cannabis to patients. However, the payment should not come from the patient himself, but from the government and from the insurance companies," Gilon's spokeswoman told the Post on Monday. "They should recognize the medicine as part of the treatment."
In the meantime, Tikkun Olam will also set up a committee that will consider the economic situation of patients who do not have enough money, said Meir.
If patients were to pay the actual production price, it would come to more than NIS 1,500 per month, said Meir. If patients were to pay street prices for the 60 grams they receive monthly, the price would be significantly higher and the quality lower, he said.