Updated on January 30, 2019.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Over the last 50 years, Israel has become an epicenter of marijuana research — the country is at the forefront of weed technology and its medicinal and cultural evolution. Now, Israel is looking to pass legislation in 2018 allowing companies to export their products to other countries, including the United States.
At least one company — Breath of Life Pharma — is planning to apply to the Federal Drug Administration to allow exports of weed into the United States. While the United States government still considers importing marijuana illegal, companies can find a work-around by getting a drug approval through the FDA. Approval and import is possible if companies meet the agency’s high drug approval standards.
A New Addition to Israel’s Farming Sector
Legalizing pot will expand Israel’s domestic industry and allow growers to meet a large demand in other countries — estimates predict Israel could earn $4 billion in marijuana exports.
Growing marijuana in Israel is now part of the farming sector. Growers in Israel will have access to grants, training, government aid and water quotas, just like other farmers in the country. Currently, there are about eight licensed growers authorized in Israel, with more than 500 applicants from those hoping to begin growing marijuana for export.
As part of the new legislation passed, there is no limit to the number of people allowed to grow weed, or to the number of prescribers. Cannabis products will also be available to patients in pharmacies.
Israel Pioneering Medical Marijuana Research
Israel was one of the first countries in the world to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. It was also one of three countries, including the Netherlands and Canada, to create a government-funded cannabis research program.
As of April 2017, Israel’s government sponsored more than 100 clinical medical marijuana trials. Israel is one of the few countries where scientists can conduct medical marijuana research on human subjects. Scientists are studying how marijuana can help with autism, arthritis, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Researchers in Israel are even looking at the effect of cannabis on killing cancer cells and using micro-dosing techniques to heal brain damage.
Israel’s delve into marijuana research began 1963 with chemist Raphael Mechoulam. Mechoulam began conducting experiments on 11 pounds of Lebanese hashish confiscated by a friend who was a police officer. With his sample. Mechoulam identified, isolated and synthesized THC — the psychoactive compound found in weed — for the first time in history.
In addition to isolating THC, Mechoulam also was the first to discover CBD, the plant’s non-psychoactive element. In 1992, Mechoulam and his team discovered how marijuana triggers the brain’s largest receptor, the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is why users feel a high when using weed.
Thanks to Israel’s progressive attitude towards marijuana, liberal regulatory practices and technological advances, Israel has maintained a leadership in medical marijuana research. Israel’s medical marijuana research is a direct contributor to 29 states and the District of Columbia having legalized either the medical or recreational use of marijuana.
What Does This Mean for the United States?
With Israel’s de-stigmatized view of marijuana, more and more companies, investors and researchers are flocking to the country. American investors are putting money into Israel’s cannabis industry with hopes of transforming operations into a pharmaceutical-level industry.
In addition to added investment opportunities, American companies are now basing a large part of their growing operations and research in Israel. Because marijuana is still illegal on a federal level in the United States, having medical cannabis clinical trials is nearly impossible. The purposefully difficult research restrictions in the U.S. aren’t not present in Israel. As a result, many U.S. companies have already begun setting up their initial or complete research projects on Israel soil. If researchers do receive approval in the United States, there’s only one source for their material: a farm at the University of Mississippi. The entire process can take years.
In addition to American companies finding roots overseas, several Israel-based companies have formed partnerships in the United States. These established partnerships have popped up in Delaware and Nevada, where they’ve opened several dispensaries to sell their Israel-based medicinal marijuana products.
Expanding Cannabis Research in the United States
Now that companies and researchers can begin a bulk of their study in Israel, the United States can make more strides in the field of medical marijuana research. Currently, there are about 50 U.S. marijuana companies performing research in Israel through partnerships, joint ventures or by hiring researchers. Many of these researchers are focusing their efforts on conducting clinical trials and developing dosing and forms for pharmaceutical-grade marijuana-based drugs. Over 120 clinical trials are currently underway in Israel — more than any other country currently.
One U.S.-based company is working on clinical trials, testing the effects of a topical marijuana cream on psoriasis. Other researchers are developing a pill for the treatment of chronic pain with plans to conduct clinical trials on patients with multiple myeloma.
Federal Drug Administration Work-Around
Because the United States government still views marijuana as an illegal substance, companies are having to use the FDA as a workaround for exporting weed products into the country. The FDA will never approve plant-based cannabis as medicine, since it can’t be controlled as a consistent drug with each use.
What researchers and companies are working on to get around these concerns is to have weed presented as capsules, lotions, inhalants, creams and oils to demonstrate consistent usage of the cannabinoids. By demonstrating this, companies could possibly be granted FDA approval.
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