High hopes: Israel set to become major exporter of medical cannabis

A medical cannabis inhaler. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A medical cannabis inhaler.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IN THE coming months, the government is expected to give the green light for the export of medical cannabis ‒ a milestone decision that will provide an additional boost to the emerging Israeli industry.
A growing number of local companies, encouraged by a supportive government, are engaged in the growing and/or clinical testing of cannabis, which doctors predict may help alleviate no less than 20 percent of diseases.
Over the past 50 years, Israel has become the international epicenter of medical cannabis, researching cures for diseases ranging from autism to diabetes.
Indeed, it is in Israel that THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis, was first discovered. And Israel was among the first countries to legalize medical cannabis use. It is also one of just three countries with a government- supported medical cannabis program, along with Canada and the Netherlands.
Israel has the world’s largest number of clinical trials testing the benefits of medical cannabis, and has emerged as the country of choice for medical cannabis research and development.
Breath of Life Pharma (BOL) has been pioneering the medical cannabis industry in Israel since 2007 and now employs more than 100 workers.
CEO Tamir Gedo says a number of factors have contributed to making Israel the world leader in the industry.
“Israel is basically an ecosystem. You don’t have just one ingredient. You have the whole value chain that actually contributes to that competitive advantage Israel has over other countries,” Gedo explains.
“First of all, you have very good climatic conditions and because of that we can grow the cannabis at a fraction of the cost compared to other countries ‒ we can grow it five times cheaper than Canada, for instance.
“The other big advantage is that the production is based on years of experience of pharma-ceutical production. For instance, 50 percent of BOL Pharma employees came from Teva [the Israeli-based pharmaceutical giant].
“The third element is that there is a very vast knowledge of cannabis research that was actually started in the ’60s by Prof. Raphael Mechoulam at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Some of the best researchers in Israel have been conducting research in cannabis and cannabis derivatives for more than 50 years now, and the number of patents registered in Israel is second only to the US.
“The fourth factor is the quality of hospital treatment and quality of clinical trials. Israel, unlike other countries, such as the US, does not forbid clinical trials and, actually, it’s quite easy to get approval if the clinical trial makes sense.”
Cannabis has 160 different active ingredients known as cannabinoids, each possessing unique attributes with the potential to treat different diseases. Although much of the research is in its early stages, medical cannabis has already proven effective in treating inflammation, autoimmune diseases, neurological and psychiatric disorders, and pain.
Whereas opioid painkillers on the market are addictive and dangerous ‒ 18,000 Americans died last year from overdoses ‒ drugs produced from mixing cannabinoids are not addictive and, so far, there have been no reports of allergies.
BOL Pharma has one million square feet of cultivation fields, a 35,000-square-foot production plant and 30,000 square feet of grow rooms and labs.
Based just off a major highway in southern Israel, the company grows and cultivates 60,000 kilograms of marijuana a year ‒ more than the entire production capacity of Canada ‒ in controlled conditions, complying with organic growing protocols and Good Agricultural Practices.
Plants are cultivated in controlled and automated greenhouses and monitored to ensure harvesting at the peak stage. The flowers are then dried and cleaned before the active ingredients are extracted to treat different diseases in a number of state-ofthe- art, on-site laboratories.
The production facilities are the biggest in the world and the company also makes a variety of delivery systems, such as inhalers, tablets, sublingual drops, vaporizers, transdermal patches, aerosols, powders and gel capsules.
“We are basically a hub for research,” Gedo says. “We are accommodating researchers from universities in the US, pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies, and we are partnering with these companies in an open innovation model to bring as many clinical trials as possible to market in order to find new drugs derived from cannabis.”
The US market remains a potential gold mine, and although smoking pot and growing marijuana is now legal in many US states, federal regulations make it almost impossible for companies that wish to carry out clinical tests for cannabis-based drugs.
States limit the amount of marijuana that can be grown; it is forbidden to transfer marijuana to another state; and clinical testing on humans is illegal.
Increasingly, US companies prefer to carry out their Phase 1 and 2 clinical testing in Israel because of its favorable regulatory climate. Serious scientific research on medical cannabis facilitates FDA approval, without which the drugs cannot be sold in the US.
Some of Israel’s top physicians are taking part in the clinical trials, and with more than 150 trials already approved, industry specialists are confident that discoveries of new FDA-approved cannabis-based drugs are just a matter of time.
Last year, more than $250 million was invested in Israeli cannabis companies and start-ups – with about half the funding coming from the US. At least 50 US cannabis companies have already established R&D operations in Israel.
THE POTENTIAL for the industry is massive, and once the export of medical cannabis is approved, thousands of new workers are expected to be hired over the next few years, significantly contributing to Israel’s GDP.
Industry insiders have nothing but praise for the role of the government, and particularly ultra-Orthodox Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman who, after studying the subject about which he knew nothing, decided that patients would benefit and gave his full backing to the process of medicalization.
More than 80 Israeli doctors have taken a special course allowing them to dispense medical cannabis, and by year’s end, selected pharmacies should have a variety of medical-grade cannabis products available for sale to patients with prescriptions from these specialist doctors.
Fifty years ago, it wasn’t so simple. When Mechoulam wanted to begin his research into the potential medical benefits of marijuana, he turned to a friend in the Tel Aviv police force, who agreed to secretly give him some of the stash seized in police raids.
Now a professor of medicinal chemistry at the Hebrew University and a consultant for the Health Ministry who collaborates with research groups around the world, Mechoulam has become the guru of the medical cannabis industry.
His illicit cooperation with the Tel Aviv police 50 years ago has already led to medical relief for millions, and all indications are that that number will swell in the coming years.