Israel is high on rule bending for medical marijuana

Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Professor Raphael Mechoulam, who is known as “the father of medical marijuana.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Professor Raphael Mechoulam, who is known as “the father of medical marijuana.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Eliana Rudee/

Google CEO Eric Schmidt believes Israeli entrepreneurs succeed because they challenge authority, question everything, and don’t go by the rules.

“The impact of the Israelis on science and technology is immense, so that’s why I’m here and why I’m investing here,” he told a large crowd at Israel’s Weizman Institute in 2015.

Schmidt’s statements not only apply to Israel’s high tech businesses and start-up companies, but also to Israel’s budding medical marijuana industry. From organic chemists to entrepreneurs, nearly everyone in Israel’s field of medical marijuana attributes at least a part of their success to Israel’s culture of rule bending and not taking ‘no’ for an answer.

In 1964, Professor Raphael Mechoulam of the Weitzmann Institute showed up at a nearby police station, asked for a bag of hashish for academic research. Mechoulam left that station with a five-kilo bag of marijuana stuffed in his sack and took a public bus back to the lab, confusing other bus goers with the fragrant smell coming from his case.

“It turned out we had broken the law because it was the Minister of Health that had to approve these things,” said Mechoulam, now 85. He went to the Ministry of Health, apologized, had coffee with some of his students there, and went on with his research. The incident was dismissed, and with that original bag of hashish, Mechoulam discovered Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis.

This culture of Israeli rule bending continues today, as Israel leads in the science, technology, and agriculture of medical marijuana. Israel’s success in the field can partly be attributed to the increasing ease at which scientists study and test the drug. “In the lab, we have no administrative problems and we have no problems of hashish going in and out of the laboratory. As an academic, nobody tells me what to do,” explained Mechoulam. “A professor does what he thinks is important for science and medicine.”

But the freedom Israeli scientists enjoy doesn’t necessarily extend to other countries. Mechoulam clarified that in the U.S. and Israel, the laws used to be the same when it came to studying marijuana. But technically speaking, it was easier to study cannabis in Israel where rules could bend. Often, rules are more fluid in Israel because of “protexia,” a cultural norm allowing Israelis to use their inner networks of family and friends to gain the trust and acceptance of others, whether it’s getting a job, avoiding a parking ticket, or even obtaining a five-kilogram bag of marijuana. For Mechoulam, protexia explains how he was so easily provided with the marijuana. “The head of the Weitzman Institute knew someone in the police force, so he called them and told them that I was reliable.”

The professor signed some paperwork, saying he got the cannabis from the police station, and then went on his way.

In the U.S., red tape discourages scientists from even studying marijuana, a Schedule I drug (under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act). Even if one follows procedure, Mechoulam argues, studying cannabis in the U.S. is essentially impossible because they need permits from agencies and the government, which often disapproves. To Mechoulam, this is no environment for academics. “One cannot have a policeman standing at the door looking at the students, no professor will allow that. So at the moment, there isn’t a single major American company with a cannabinoid drug on the market,” explains Mechoulam. (However, some 24 U.S. states have legalized medical marijuana and recreational marijuana is legal in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia.)

As a result of Israel’s rule bending and subsequent research, Israeli lawmakers are beginning to understand the copious benefits of studying and testing medical marijuana. Last week, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel announced plans to export medical marijuana which comes two months after Israel’s Health Minister Yaakov Litzman approved a deal to ease restrictions on growing medical marijuana. Litzman’s plan will make medical cannabis more readily available to the 23,000 patients in Israel who suffer from cancer, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, AIDS, Tourette’s syndrome, and multiple sclerosis. The bill also removes restrictions in the growing, prescribing, and dispensing of medical marijuana in Israel. To most, this is a welcomed move that will result in less stigmatization and more clinical trials of the drug that is yet to be standardized.

With such potential for growth in the field, investors are taking notice. At the March 2016 CannaTech conference in Israel, Saul Kaye, CEO of the private cannabis research hub, iCAN, announced that since 2014, over $50 million has been invested in licensing Israeli medical marijuana patents. “I expect it to grow to $100 million in the coming year,” he declared.

Last week, another international medical cannabis conference, “Cann10,” brought together industry experts to learn about research, technology, cultivation, and business opportunities in the field of medical marijuana. It is no coincidence that this conference marks the second Israeli summit highlighting cannabis in just six months. As long as Israelis preserve their “don’t take no for an answer” attitude and lawmakers follow suit, Israel will continue to flourish as the mecca of medical marijuana for years to come.

Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of “Israel Girl” column for Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her columnon

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