Wine therapy: The grass is always greener...

Has the time come for a serious appraisal of the medical benefits of marijuana?

Stuffed onion with lamb, raw tehina, date honey, black lentils, celery, purple onion, cilantro and almonds (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Stuffed onion with lamb, raw tehina, date honey, black lentils, celery, purple onion, cilantro and almonds
In January 2014 a stunning event occurred in the world of marijuana users. US President Barack Obama, in an interview with The New Yorker, said that in his view, smoking marijuana was no more dangerous than alcohol consumption, nor was it any different from smoking cigarettes. While medical marijuana was in use in places like California and Colorado, recreational use was still illegal. Yet over the past two years, a slow unraveling occurred as more and more states made the drug legal for purchase for recreational use.
In Israel, there have been advances in the field of medical marijuana in recent years. Up until about a decade ago, few were lucky enough to receive permits for the use of medical cannabis; they were only for extraordinary circumstances.
Today, more than 20,000 Israelis have registered permits and receive monthly supplies of medical cannabis in different forms (flowers, oil, evaporation mixtures, etc.) as part of their treatment program.
Israel is currently, and justifiably, considered a world leader in this field.
However, the system is cumbersome and not readily accessible to everyone. Many patients are unable to acquire a permit and complicated bureaucracy blocks others. In many cases, permits for the use of medical marijuana arrives only after the patient has died.
Shlomi Sandek is a well-known Israeli social activist, and a leader in the public struggle for medical cannabis. For decades, Sandek conducted a very public battle to enable patients to benefit from this plant’s helpful properties. His work included establishing the Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf) party, which in 1999 won 1 percent of the votes in the Knesset elections. He is also very vocal on multiple media outlets, and opposed the government’s blanket disapproval of cannabis.
Due in great part to his personal struggle, the government finally began allowing patients to gain access to medical cannabis.
Currently Sandek is active in the framework of an association he established and to which he devotes his time. This organization helps patients to acquire the necessary permit through consultation and follow-up. In some cases, Sandek will even represent the individual at Health Ministry offices, since it is this ministry that issues the permits.
On the personal level, several people claim that Sandek is truly an angel, who has redeemed them from a life of unremitting severe suffering.
The goal: To understand Shlomi Sandek’s motivations and passion in helping patients to receive medical marijuana.
The means: A gourmet dinner at the Jerusalem Touro Restaurant; accompanied by Petit Castel by the Castel Winery.
How did your ‘affair’ with medical cannabis begin?
It started after I completed my military service. I went to the US and came across the High Times magazine, where I read about cannabis having medical traits, and that in fact we’re being bluffed, as using it doesn’t actually lead to using heavy drugs. I found many conspiracy theories coming to the surface.
Theories of this kind can be found in many areas…
This one grabbed my attention. I read Marijuana Reconsidered by Dr. Lester Grinspoon. The book describes how he began his research confident that cannabis was a harmful dangerous drug that kills, causes dependency, and so on, and over the course of his study he became convinced it holds unique qualities.
This made him switch sides to becoming a supporter of its use.
Books on the subject mention a certain professor who is, by chance, Israeli: Raphael Mechoulam. In 1963 he discovered the active ingredients in cannabis. When I read about this while touring I was still a total skeptic, and the book aroused my curiosity even more.
I decided to try and find Prof. Mechoulam on returning to Israel. I did eventually make contact with him some years later, and he confirmed these facts, adding that new and exciting knowledge was coming to light which, for me was to prove profound.
Can you share some of that?
It turns out that a study was conducted on some 400 children with cancer at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. They were given cannabis in their food to check whether it would reduce their vomiting. Mechoulam said that in all 400 cases vomiting stopped completely. I told him how incredible that was, and that the next step would be to do research on a much large number of patients and bring this amazing information to the world. His answer was that they received instructions to go no further with it, and he had no idea why.
What other forms does your public activism take?
One of my activities with the Health Ministry and with Knesset members is to persuade them that patients who take medical cannabis are able to drive, and there’s no need to invalidate their driving license.
Recently I presented the Health Ministry with studies on this issue. For example, research was conducted in Colorado. Since the state legalized the use of recreational marijuana there, the number of traffic accidents has dropped! I explained to officials here that unlike alcohol, which makes the driver feel “everything is possible” even if it totally isn’t, medical marijuana gives the feeling that “it’s not possible” even when something actually is! What happens is that drivers taking marijuana drive even more carefully.
I try to disconnect the establishment from archaic theories and link them to the daily reality experienced by patients assisted by medical marijuana. There’s really no good reason to make normative people’s lives tougher, even if they are smoking cannabis.
You’re known as a predominant activist fighting for social rights. How did that start?
When I was four years old, I traveled to Africa with my parents. My father worked for the UN. There I saw a white population living at a dramatically different level to that of the black population, which lived in tin sheds. By contrast, the white population had large homes, servants, and all the luxuries associated with their status. It was so odd. I think that’s when my social awareness began to develop.
You can’t help but be in favor of communism when you’ve seen these incomprehensible disparities. My mother told me that when I was about five, she found me purposely throwing my toy cars from our balcony to the dark-skinned kids in the street below. She was angry because they were new toys, and I apparently answered, “I have plenty and they have nothing. We need to share.”
Karl Marx would have been proud of his young disciple…
It really did shape my personality. When I saw the injustice and the huge differences between whites and blacks, I couldn’t help but support the weak. Some years later, when we returned to Jerusalem in the 1970s, despite being a “white boy” at the well-known Rehavia Gymnasia school in Jerusalem, my sympathies actually lay with the Black Panthers [an activist group based in Musrara that was active in the 1970s] and I joined them when I was 15. That’s when I “earned” my first police file. I was caught spraying graffiti. “Long live the Black Panthers.”
The poetic justice is that some years later I became a police reporter!
How old were you when you smoked your first joint?
Seventeen. In those days it was part of the rebellion, along with long hair and ripped jeans.
And what was the norm back then on smoking pot?
It was easy to get, and we weren’t afraid. A joint cost nine lirot, compared to a pack of cigarettes, which cost 1.85 lirot, or 3.60 for a pack of Marlboro.
You’ve got a great memory for someone who’s smoked grass for about 40 years.
Whoever said that cannabis harms memory? Show me another person who remembers the price of cigarettes when he was 17!
What’s your ultimate proof that grass doesn’t harm its smokers?
I’m 56. I’ve been smoking since 1976, my memory is excellent, and I have a four-year-old daughter. Will that do? When it comes to government, grass immediately arouses suspicion. It’s like the plant version of the Dreyfus story – Dreyfus was accused of being a spy when in fact he was completely loyal to France. So to with cannabis: it’s accused of being harmful, that it leads to heroin usage, that it causes a lot of damage, when in fact it’s innocent. It’s medication.
In recent years, cannabis’s image has been on an amazing journey, moving away from being marginalized and heading towards the center. I think the entire world is close to changing its attitudes.
You have developed a name for being one who’s not afraid of the law in humanitarian situations.
The first time I gave cannabis to a patient, I invited an Army Radio reporter along. It was during an election period and he accompanied me in the framework of the “Green Leaf” campaign. The patient suffered from Crohn’s disease and for bureaucratic reasons wasn’t provided with a user’s permit. There, with the reporter alongside, I gave the patient some, and that was the opening item on the news. I remember one of the Shas Knesset members demanding my arrest, while I demanded that he be arrested because I wanted to provide medication and he was trying to prevent that from happening.
Weren’t you afraid?
It’s a mathematical equation: the amount of fear you have equals the amount of faith you’re lacking. If you believe in the justness of your action, there’s no need to be fearful.
How many requests a day do you get from patients to help them receive a permit?
Between 40 and 60.
A very large number. How do you manage to handle it?
Yes, it’s pretty exhausting.
But every time I get a message from someone who has received the permit, it gives me the strength to carry on. These are people for whom life has a clear divide: before the permit, and after receiving it.
Who would you most want to sit and smoke with?
You’re an optimist…
Together with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas].
Optimist forte plus…
It’s a shame they’re not sitting smoking together right now. It’d save us some problems.
So, we can’t let an interview on grass end without some humor.
In 1989 I was stopped coming back into our airport because I brought cannabis and hashish with me from Amsterdam.
That’s a big “oops”!
When the police weighed it, there was 85 grams of cannabis and 50 of hashish.
Some countries would sentence you to a tormented death for that amount.
When the hearing began I realized the claim was only on the cannabis.
The hashish just evaporated. I understood right away. After the court hearing, I contacted the police officer who had arrested me.
You’ve got chutzpah!
I asked him outright, “Where’s the hashish?” He mumbled something and then asked, “What do you want from me?” So I said, “Be fair and give me back half!”
About Touro restaurant
Location: 2 Nachon Street, Jerusalem
Specialty: Chef restaurant, Mediterranean
Kosher, meat
Noteworthy: The restaurant is located in the heart of the picturesque Mishkenot Shaananim neighborhood, overlooking the Jerusalem Old City walls and David’s Tower.
Starter: Beef carpaccio; Leek and potato latkes served with a mustard aioli, with dill, parsley, celery and onion; stuffed onion with lamb, raw tehina, date honey, black lentils, celery, purple onion, cilantro and almonds
Main course: Whole oven-baked fish served garnished with tomatoes, lemon, roasted sweet potato, parsley and mint; Hangar steak served with creamed potatoes with shallots and garlic confit
Dessert: Chocolate Tartufo: chocolate streusel, coffee macaroon, crème patissière, berries and raspberry sorbet Shlomi Sandek’s score of the meal and the wine: 10
This piece has been translated from Hebrew and edited for content and clarity.