On a crusade for cannabis in Israel

One woman’s mission to make Israel – where medical cannabis is legal and used therapeutically daily – the world’s R&D center for the plant.

Laura Kam (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Laura Kam
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Here’s a little free advice: Do not use the word “marijuana” when talking to Laura Kam. Founder and CEO of Kam Global Strategies, a Jerusalem-based public relations firm, Laura Kam refers to herself as the “queen of cannabis, putting Israel on the map as the world’s leading medical cannabis R&D center in the world.”
“We’re not calling it medical marijuana anymore,” she explains. “I’m working hard to rebrand it. We’re calling it cannabis now.
The reason is that there’s a stigma attached to marijuana in some circles. The truth of the matter is that almost every time I mention medical cannabis to somebody, a smile comes across their face, and people get starry- eyed.
"Most people who have gone through higher education in the US have had some kind of positive experience with marijuana at least once.”
A serious professional, Kam has embarked on a very serious mission to make the State of Israel – where medical cannabis is legal and used therapeutically every day – the world’s center for research and further development of the plant. One thing she knows from the outset is that, for the moment at least, we need not worry about competition in this area from America.
“In the US, cannabis is regulated as a ‘Schedule 1 drug,’ akin to heroin, so there is virtually no research going on with it,” Kam says.
“No institution with ties to the federal government, such as the National Institutes of Health, will do any kind of research on cannabis. Israel has much more liberal cannabis research policies than the US, so investment money has been pouring into Israel for research.
“Cannabis is going to became legal in the US. Medical cannabis is already legal in 23 states; its recreational use is allowed in four states, as well as in Washington, DC. I have no doubt that this is like a domino effect. Cannabis will be legal across the entire US, and throughout the world, in the next few years. Right now, Israel is ‘ground zero’ for medical cannabis research in the world, so just on a business basis, this is a great story to promote.”
Indeed, the numbers alone would suggest that the business potential is somewhere beyond “staggering,” says Kam.
“A British company called GW just came out with a successful cannabis pill for treating kids with a rare form of epilepsy, and the company is now worth more than $1 billion. The legal cannabis and medical cannabis market, valued at about $5.7b. in the US now, is expected to grow to $23b. by the year 2020.
“And that’s just the US. There’s a whole ‘rest of the world’ out there, and other countries often follow the lead of the US. It’s a smaller market here in Israel because we’re a smaller country. It’s a $15 million to $20m. market here; about 23,000 patients are licensed to utilize medical cannabis.”
The business possibilities alone were not enough to convince Kam to devote her time and professional expertise to bringing medical cannabis R&D to Israel.
This New York native – with years of experience in working with Jewish organizations in the US and Israel, head of a prominent PR firm, and wife of Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff, vice director-general of the Foreign Ministry – also has a personal reason for becoming the “queen” of medical cannabis.
“I have a daughter who suffers from epilepsy,” she explains.
“Now 20, she was diagnosed with epilepsy in preschool. She’s been on numerous medications since she was about three years old. Thank goodness, her situation is stable on the medication, but we had to work over the years to get there. Only about 60 percent of people who have epilepsy are controlled by medicine; a full one-third of people who have epilepsy are constantly getting seizures, not controlled by medication, and their lives are hell.
“One thing that we know about medical cannabis is that is controls seizures. Period. In some cases, it completely stops them.”
This evidence, Kam says, is clinical and not merely anecdotal.
Over the past 25 or 30 years, cannabis has also been proven effective against such diseases as glaucoma, as well as a powerful analgesic for patients with cancer.
Right now here in Israel, clinical studies and trials are ongoing for glaucoma, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, pain relief, cirrhosis of the liver, bone fractures and osteoporosis. Says Kam, “It almost sounds too good to be true, that one plant can have an effect on so many ailments, but it seems, davka, that there’s just something about this plant that does.”
The irony here is that the therapeutic properties of cannabis are not really being discovered, but rather rediscovered, after having been forgotten for almost a century. Even the most cursory research reveals that cannabis has a long history.
Hemp was grown in Anglo- Saxon England for both rope and as medicine for coughs and jaundice, and as a remedy for “nodes and wennes and other hard tumours or paines” according to researcher John Mann. An 11th-century herbarium recommends "haemp" as a treatment for sore and swollen breasts. Later, during Tudor times, “water of hempe,” made fresh from the leaves of the cannabis plant, was recommended for headache and for “all heate wheresoe’er it be.”
A century later, Thomas Culpeper, the father of English herbal medicine, lauded cannabis as a treatment for jaundice, colic, diarrhea, rheumatic pain and –“mixed with a little oil and butter”– as a salve for burns. He noted also that cannabis seeds boiled in milk were “good for coughs.”
Cannabis became an especially popular source of medicines in England during the 19th century, following the establishment of the British Raj, the availability of the plant in India, and experiments with cannabis in Calcutta. Thanks to these experiments, no less a personage than Queen Victoria used Indian cannabis for her menstrual cramps. By the early 20th century, cannabis was recognized by doctors in England, other European countries and the US as a legitimate analgesic, anti-pyretic, anti-diuretic, anti-anorectic and anti-emetic medicine, as well as an anti-convulsive muscle relaxant.
And yet by the 1930s it had been declared as having no therapeutic use whatsoever, rendered illegal and thoroughly demonized. It was the subject of such hysterical anti-marijuana movies as Reefer Madness (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937), Devil’s Harvest (1942), and The Devil’s Weed (1949).
There are, no doubt, numerous PhD dissertations waiting to be written that will analyze and explain the reasons why this turnabout occurred, but one explanation attributes the change in attitude to the negative association of cannabis with Mexican immigrants entering the US, often illegally, after the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
Tied up with the prevailing racism of the period, xenophobia and the anger of the Great Depression, cannabis became an outlawed drug, and later inaccessible to researchers as a Schedule 1 substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971.
WHICH BRINGS us back to the present day, the State of Israel, and Laura Kam. Kam says, “Despite what people believe, Israel is a country that is for the most part forward-thinking and liberal. That is why we are known as the start-up nation and why we have a large percentage of the population willing not only to use medical cannabis, but using it recreationally.
“Cannabis use in this country transcends political and ideological barriers,” she continues.
“Israel is not the world leader in cannabis research for nothing. We never had the ‘evil weed’ conservative mentality that conservatives did in the US. Medical cannabis has been legal here for decades – since the early 1990s – and research has been going on long before.
“Because of the restrictions in the US, and because of the sums of money involved in this, Israel is ground zero in the research,” Kam elaborates. “When it becomes legal in the US, companies are going to need to know how best to use it. Now they don’t really know. Doctors send patients to places where they can get it, tell them to buy a bag of it, and smoke some and see how they feel.
“But it’s now becoming medicalized, and in a big way. There are about 27 clinical trials going on in the top hospitals in the country. The Israeli government is giving money for start-ups in the cannabis field.”
In a recent development, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation vote on a bill to decriminalize possession of small quantities of cannabis was delayed by one of its authors, Likud MK Sharren Haskel – primarily due to opposition from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Over the week of June 5, after Haskel met with Erdan numerous times, it was agreed that a team would be formed to explore these issues, comprised of representatives from the Public Security and Justice ministries, and the Israel Anti-Drug Authority.
In about two months, the team will provide recommendations to the government on any changes to the current bill – which has now been temporarily put on hold by the ministerial committee – in terms of decriminalization and enforcement.
IN THE midst of all of this activity is Laura Kam and her public relations firm.
“I believe there’s no other PR firm in Israel dealing with medical cannabis right now,” she says.
“My first client in this field was a medical cannabis delivery system called Syqe, which invented the world’s first medical cannabis metered inhaler.
They started off with a $1m. grant from the Chief Scientist’s Office, and they just got an infusion of $27m. from Philip Morris. It looks like the field is going to be taken over by big pharma and/or big tobacco companies. Whichever way it goes, Israel is in on the ground floor.”
Kam has also worked with such companies as Israel Cannabis (iCAN), which recently organized and hosted a two-day conference called CannaTech, to which hundreds of people came from around the world for a full day of meetings in Jerusalem and another in Tel Aviv.
However, when asked how close she thinks we are to having recreational cannabis legalized in Israel, Kam says, “I don’t think we’re close. There have been discussions recently about decriminalizing the plant, but there are issues within the law-enforcement world where they’re saying, ‘We need to arrest people to get to the dealers.’ I’m really not about legalizing recreational cannabis. It’s not a professional interest of mine. I’m focusing on medical cannabis.”
And she is focusing on this goal with almost missionary zeal.
“It’s a serious medical undertaking that’s happening now,” Kam declares. “Between Israel’s agri-tech and med-tech knowhow, it’s a perfect situation.
“If you think about the kind of calibration that you want to get to have the best way to deal with each of these diseases, and what will work for each person in terms of personalized medicine – which is the way medicine is going – Israel is doing for cannabis what we’ve already done for the tomato. All this genetic work on the plants is happening right now.”