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Despite regulatory road bumps, Israeli cannabis entrepreneurs ‘in it for the long haul’

A current ban by the Netanyahu government on the export of medical cannabis is not stopping those in the industry from moving ahead with research and development.

Yona Levy, Saul Kaye, Maayan Weisberg, and Avihu Tamir at CannaTech 2018 
Credit: Eliana Rudee
Yona Levy, Saul Kaye, Maayan Weisberg, and Avihu Tamir at CannaTech 2018 Credit: Eliana Rudee

At Israel’s annual CannaTech conference—one of the biggest events in the medical cannabis field—iCAN Israel founder Saul Kaye announced that despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s export ban, Israel’s medical cannabis entrepreneurs are “in it for the long haul.”

This year’s CannaTech, which took place on March 19-20 in Tel Aviv, brought together more than 800 industry leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, investors, scientists and medical professionals from approximately 40 countries from around the globe.

A large portion of the discourse surrounded Netanyahu’s ban on medical cannabis exports, with many speculating that U.S. President Donald Trump influenced his decision.

According to Kaye, Netanyahu’s pronouncement to ban exports is “stupidity.” He estimates that this year’s investment in the Israeli medical cannabis field will amount to a billion dollars in 2018, compared to 187 million last year.

“We have the agriculture, Intellectual Property [IP] and best research environment in the world,” he told JNS. “But the government is missing out on a massive opportunity to become a world leader. It’s not only a shame, but also a disgrace to the country. Medical cannabis is a global, burgeoning industry that could go away,” he said. “Money will go elsewhere and expertise will go where the money is, but we can prevent that. Regulators need to let us do what we are doing and stop impeding on us.”

Maayan Weisberg of Tikkun Olam, a vertically integrated global leader in medical cannabis, also expressed her disappointment in the new regulations, saying “we are approached by many governments and companies from all around the world interested in our exports.”

She said “it’s a shame that the government is not seeing the potential. This industry could provide so much work and income for the country. We are trying to help legislation and regulators come to the right decision by telling them the potential and truth of the industry.”

Yona Levy, CEO of Alvit Pharma, a cannabis-based pharmaceutical company, maintained that Netanyahu’s decision was a strategic, political one based on not upsetting voters before elections. “If the court forces him to go with exports, he’ll take the credit, but if it fails, he won’t take blame. This is about not being brave enough,” Levy told JNS.

Levy further argued that Israel “does not look serious” because of the ban. “We have enough IP and money in creating an industry. But when someone looks at us from outside, they see a country that is not serious. This is causing us to lose the ability to be a leader in the industry,” he said.

Netta Covalski, a medical-cannabis patient and founder of the Purple Shades Association, dealing with rights promotion of fibromyalgia patients, argued that the prime minister is afraid of losing money from pharmaceutical companies that monetarily benefit from treating the sick with traditional medicines. “It’s very, very easy to regulate and reschedule cannabis as a traditional medicine, but they don’t want to make us heal, and they don’t want to save us. It’s neither human nor ethical,” she explained to JNS.

Netta Covalski, founder of the Purple Shades Association, dealing with rights promotion of fibromyalgia patients. Credit: Eliana Rudee

Whatever the explanation, many remain optimistic that legalizing exports is just a matter of time. “Good regulation is inevitable,” stated Weisberg.

Levy added that “reality pushes people to the right decision at the end of the day.”

Similarly, Kaye told JNS, “I am confident that exports will be allowed within the year. Elections are a driver for change, and the CannaTech conference is a driver for change. Patients are using medical cannabis whether it’s illegal or illegal,” he said, adding that Tel Avivians are able to receive a cannabis delivery faster than a pizza delivery.

“People are sick and tired of government and bureaucracy,” he said. “The slow down on the regulatory level is a road bump, but we’ll get over it,” Kaye told JNS. “It’s going to take time, but we are in it for the long haul.”

In the mean time, Kaye argued, Israel should continue to invest in what Israel excels in—medical-cannabis agriculture, IP and research.

Indeed, Israel became a hub for cannabis research when Professor Raphael Mechoulam of the Weitzmann Institute of Science discovered Tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of cannabis. Since Mechoulam’s discovery, Israel has trailblazed the research and development of medical cannabis, becoming the leader in the number of clinical trials of medical cannabis in treating various diseases.

Montel Williams, an Emmy Award-winning television personality who has become an advocate for medical cannabis since he was prescribed it for multiple sclerosis in 2001, visited Israel to interview Mechoulam nine years ago when the industry was still young. “I was impressed with the research and what was going on in Israel,” he told JNS.

Montel Williams, Emmy Award winning television personality and medical cannabis advocate. Credit: Eliana Rudee

At CannaTech, which brought Williams to Israel for his third visit and his second on the topic of medical cannabis, he spoke about the need for patient-focused research and legislation of medical cannabis.

“The goal is faster access for patients,” agreed Kaye.

When asked in a press conference whether CannaTech will continue next year despite the road bumps, he replied confidently: “We have all seen the future and are scaling up for that point. We are not going anywhere. CannaTech will occur every year in Israel.”

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