With a little help from my Israeli friends

Licensed Canadian ‘ganjapreneur’ MedReleaf is benefiting from Israel’s advanced expertise in the medical marijuana field.

Marijuana plants are seen in a MedReleaf facility. (photo credit: ALEXANDER REPETSKI)
Marijuana plants are seen in a MedReleaf facility.
(photo credit: ALEXANDER REPETSKI)
‘My initial sense was that people were looking for a prescription to get high,” says Neil Closner, CEO of MedReleaf, one of 12 Canadian companies with a license to grow and sell medical marijuana commercially.
The former investment banker, who also worked as a vice president of business development at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, was asked by a group of Jewish and Israeli investors, the MENA Investment Network, to set up a commercial-scale grow operation for medical cannabis in Ontario a few years ago.
But as someone who had never even smoked a cigarette, Closner was very skeptical about the whole business of medical pot. That is, until he took a trip to Israel and visited an old age home served by legal medical cannabis grower and dispensary Tikun Olam (“Repairing the World”). Among the first, and largest, medical marijuana dispensaries, it operates a grow farm in the Galilee.
In 10 years’ time, the number of users of medical cannabis in Israel has jumped from 200 to 14,000.
Israeli influence in Canada It wasn’t the first time in Israel for Closner, a self-professed “good Jewish boy,” but this time he was on a special mission – to see how seniors’ lives could be transformed by using medical cannabis in capsule form.
“I met a dozen patients, some with their knees slapping together so badly from Parkinson’s disease, and all the people I spoke with, including their children, told me how it’s changed their lives,” he tells the Magazine from his facility in an undisclosed location in the industrial zone of Markham, the fourth-largest community in the Greater Toronto area.
Founded in 2013, MedReleaf’s 5,100-square-meter facility began a grow cycle in mid-June when I visited its premises. Presently, they are in the middle of their second harvest, in what is called the “trimming stage.”
The first thing to hit you is the smell. From the lobby to the boardroom to the yet-to-be-furnished R&D facilities along a long corridor – all you smell is pot.
"I love the smell when they are trimming," agrees a personable Helen Hatzis, the PR rep for MedReleaf. She met her boyfriend in Israel and has visited the country many times; she even speaks some Hebrew.
One of the company’s director’s is also an Israeli expat.
The Israeli influence in Canada runs deep: Closner is thankful for the clinical validation going on in Israel as well as its proven know-how, which may give MedReleaf a distinct edge over competitors in Canada and New York State, where it holds a Tikun Olam license.
For Closner and investors in the business, Israel offers more than just validation of the benefits of medical marijuana and research into the ever-growing field. MedReleaf has a business agreement with Tikun Olam to use its varieties, and to license their process of providing private phone counsel with a nurse prior to shipment. Six of MedReleaf’s varieties in production were developed onsite using Tikkun Olam.
Named after dead patients – “Israelis are terrible at PR,” says Closner, though not condescendingly – Israeli strains have real, validated science behind them. This was done using data from 7,000 patients enlisted in the Tikun Olam medical cannabis dispensary program since 2006. Tikun Olam continues to perfect the art of matching individual cannabis strains to illnesses and sub-types of patients, which is being done at hospitals throughout Israel.
When it comes to medical cannabis, obtaining a regular and reliable quality of product is the holy grail.
MedReleaf arranged for special licenses to fly in cuttings of Avi Dekel, which is low in THC, the principal psychoactive constituent that makes one “stoned”; and high in CBD, which is said to provide the therapeutic effects without the euphoria.
Avi Dekel may be used in children, in some rare and extreme cases – such as those with epilepsy.
But don’t get MedReleaf wrong, most of its product offerings do contain enough THC to produce a “high” effect, says Closner.
At an undisclosed location in northern Israel, Ma’ayan Weisberg from Tikun Olam agrees that her company is MedReleaf’s secret weapon. “We are a company that has been able to accumulate so much data. Tzahi Cohen, our founder, was forward-thinking and wanted to find a way to change the system. His greater vision was to help people feel better.”
According to Weisberg, Tikun Olam was the first medical cannabis company to get a license from the Israeli government. She estimates that 14,000 people here now have a license to use medical cannabis, and her company serves a majority of them.
She acknowledges that Israeli legislature and research has pushed the bar ahead of other countries around the world, with research and models now influencing Canadians. “The State of Israel has always allowed us to research it. From day one we have been doing collaborations with leading doctors and scientists, with research on cancer, gastrointestinal illnesses and Parkinson’s, and please God we will start soon on epilepsy. It is in children – so it’s more difficult.”
Israeli medical facilities are now running about 15 to 20 clinical trials in partnership with Tikun Olam, and are working on one for Canada with MedReleaf.
At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Raphael Mechoulam continues his research on medical cannabis, for which he laid the foundations in the ’60s – when using bags of hashish confiscated from locals by Jerusalem police, he isolated the “high” as the THC molecule. He is not associated with Tikun Olam in any way, he says, “but I am aware that they have strains with high levels of THC and low levels of CBD, as well as vice versa.”
His group identified the active component in cannabis, THC, 50 years ago and also what is called endogenous cannabinoids (the chemicals anandamide and 2-AG) in the brain and the periphery, about 20 years ago.
“This made basic studies in the field possible,” he explains, noting that Israel’s main groups are working on treating conditions involving inflammation, pain, osteoporosis and more.
“Israel is considered a leading country in this area.
This is important, as there are diseases better treated with either one or the other. Appetite is stimulated with THC in low amounts, while CBD is anti-inflammatory and anti-epileptic,” he adds.
Closner met experts like Mechoulam while on an investigative mission to Israel. He’s convinced medical cannabis is a good thing, but only as a licensed and controlled substance – a balance he can achieve with measured results on patients from Israel. If the physicians in Canada aren’t warm to the idea, it’s mainly because of this unknown, and the stigma of street pot.
“Getting this product on the streets is risky,” he says.
“You don’t know who grew it, what pesticides they’ve used or if it contains mold.
“That’s why doctors aren’t thrilled.”
Why Israeli-style quality is an edge Unlike in the US, which is governing recreational use and medical cannabis licenses on a per-state basis, Canada is adopting a nationwide stance on standards.
Some people, like medical cannabis investor Nick Di- Pede of Richmond Hill, Ontario, think this is a good thing for the industry.
Eventually the Canadian government will want it taxed, he says, and controlled for quality. He’s invested in licensed medical cannabis businesses, though not MedReleaf, and notes that Canada is in a unique position to exploit the market opportunities.
“The federal government in the US is a disaster,” he tells the Magazine. “People can’t cross borders with medical cannabis. And it is a Schedule I narcotic [criminalized as a controlled substance] in the universities,” says Di- Pede, who is familiar with the work of Mechoulam.
As in Israel, where there are 10 leading university teams on medical cannabis, the eloquent DiPede says, “Thankfully, in Canada research can now take place freely.”
The mandate from Health Canada, he explains, is to facilitate the set-up of factories to grow marijuana from seedling to harvest, so that every batch is tagged and bar-coded by strain, with labels specifying how much THC and CBD they each contain.
“They want to make it as stringent as a pill coming out of the factory,” says DiPede, who tried to get a medical marijuana license in Canada for his problematic knee, but failed. “In the States, it is more like the Wild West.”
Jewish ‘ganjapreneurs’? One of DiPede’s contacts and friends is Neev Tapiero, a Moroccan Jew who runs Cannabis As Living Medicine (CALM), a “compassion club” in the gay district of Toronto. Tapiero started CALM in 1996 as a courier business for medical pot, and it now acts as a medical dispensary for those with either a prescription from their doctor or a license to use cannabis medicinally.
Tapiero’s efforts over the years to legalize cannabis have gotten him arrested, but he continues to advocate the free use of cannabis. I sit down at his other business on Church Street, aptly named Get Melted, as Tapiero openly rolls and smokes a joint in his office adjacent to the vapor lounge up on the second floor.
By chance – or maybe not – an Israeli IT specialist from Haifa was busy fixing a glitch on Get Melted’s surveillance cameras.
Tapiero and his partner Gavin Bryan of CALM invite the Magazine to smoke vaporized pot, and roll joints with us as they enjoy gooey layers of grilled cheese prepared in the kitchen downstairs – food made, obviously, for the munchies.
Quality control over culture? Bryan explains how using cannabis therapeutically is part of a “culture.” Being a user himself, it is much easier for him to help match cannabis to sick patients – because they trust him. They know him, and can therefore inhale together.
The Canadian government, however, is making moves to get rid of the gray areas in cannabis dispensaries, like CALM’s, along with cash payments for pot. Authorities want it produced in licensed facilities, like MedReleaf’s, from where it can be standardized, labeled and shipped.
At Get Melted, I feel like I am talking to my buddies from high school, the ones who’d smoke up while we were drinking beer and listening to Led Zeppelin. If I were using pot medicinally, I would probably want to do it with Tapiero and Bryan. But I might want to buy it from MedReleaf, for quality’s sake.
If over at Get Melted the scene is like a Cheech and Chong movie, complete with a cannabis leaf costume and good fun, at MedReleaf the scene is sterile enough to contain an Ebola outbreak. No cellphones are allowed on the floor as workers put on their scrubs to start their day in the growing rooms. They cluck at their boss Closner when they see me taking a picture of their hallway; all other photos in the facility are off-limits, so as not to reveal security cameras.
Any day now, MedReleaf should be shipping product.
At the moment, the company can serve 10,000 patients.
Tikun Olam-style counseling from Israel is provided over the phone by a nurse, and a cannabis plant is matched to each patient.
A few days later, Canada Post will deliver it by mail – registered, of course, says Closner.