Israeli Research on Weed: World’s Best “Pot Scientists?”

How this small country is leading the way
Nicole Richter Nicole Richter / Updated on June 13, 2019

Weed Research

When you think about marijuana, your mind doesn’t automatically drift towards the nation of Israel. After all, weed remains illegal for recreational use in Israel, although there has been a shift in attitudes in recent years. July 19, 2018, was a big day for cannabis lovers in Israel. The nation’s legislative body, the Knesset, approved a bill for the decriminalization of the herb.

The bill went into effect on April 1, 2019, but it is only partial decriminalization. According to the law, possession of small amounts of weed in private homes is no longer classified as a criminal offense. 15 grams is set as the upper limit of ‘personal use.’ In other words, you can safely smoke half an ounce at home with no fear of arrest.

It is good news for users in general and is another step forward for a country that first legalized weed for medicinal use in the early 1990s. It was initially allowed if you were a cancer patient or had a medical illness such as multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s, or PTSD. Today, you can possess marijuana in a public space if you can produce a medical marijuana license. Apparently, it was possible to apply for a medical marijuana permit back in the late 1970s, but very few people did so; perhaps due to a lack of information about the program.

You may be shocked to learn that Israel has the highest consumption of cannabis in the world in ‘percentage of population’ terms. A 2017 survey found that 27% of Israelis in the 18 – 65 age group used weed in the previous year. The United States is next with 18%! In December 2018, the government allowed the export of medical marijuana in a move that could earn the country well over $250 million per annum.

With this in mind, perhaps it is no surprise that Israel has been a global leader in marijuana research for over half a century. In fact, the Israeli Ministry of Health spends over $2.2 million per annum on marijuana research. It is one of only three countries in the world where the government sponsors cannabis research.

Over a dozen American marijuana companies have moved their entire Research & Development operations into Israel, and at least 50 U.S. companies are performing research into weed in Israel. It is certainly nice to be able to perform studies without worrying about potential prison time!

While marijuana is not yet legal for recreational use (the decriminalization plan will be in effect for a 3-year trial period), Israel is fairly liberal on the issue of the herb compared to most countries. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Israeli scientists are among the world’s best when it comes to studying pot. Indeed, it was an Israeli who is widely regarded as the grandfather of modern marijuana research.

Israel – Pioneering Medical Marijuana Research Since 1964

Raphael Mechoulam is still with us today; going strong as he moves toward his 89th birthday later this year. He was born in Bulgaria to a Sephardic Jewish family in 1930, and his family moved to Israel in 1949. After years of study, he earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry at the world-famous Weizmann Institute. After spending a year in New York, he returned to Weizmann in 1960.

It was there that he made a stunning breakthrough in the field of marijuana research. In 1964, he isolated THC, the most abundant psychoactive compound in weed. He had only started researching cannabis earlier that year. Mechoulam knew that morphine had been separated from opium in the early 19thcentury, and realized that no one had tried to understand the psychoactive and non-psychoactive properties of the marijuana plant.

Mechoulam and his team used themselves as test subjects and began to gain a greater understanding of the plant’s ingredients and medicinal qualities. He applied for a grant from the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH). After being shot down initially, the NIH acquiesced at the behest of a member of Congress who was worried about his son’s use of the herb.

After receiving a promise of NIH funding, Mechoulam sent 10 grams of synthesized THC; the entire global supply at the time! The NIH was able to use this sample to conduct many of the first marijuana experiments in America. It is also a fact that the NIH has funded Mechoulam’s research for the last 50+ years. One estimate suggests that the body has sent an average of $100,000 per annum – a figure that equates to well over $5 million in total.

Mechoulam wasn’t just aided by America. To conduct his experiments, he needed marijuana, which was extremely difficult to get hold of. He asked the director of the Weizmann Institute if it was possible to get weed from the police. Mechoulam was summoned to Tel Aviv and received five kilos of Lebanese hashish for his trouble. After moving to Hebrew University in 1966, Mechoulam was able to get hashish from the Israeli government for the next 40 years without many issues.

Becoming a Global Leader

While American scientists were finding it next to impossible to conduct serious research into weed, Mechoulam and his fellow researchers in Israel were having a far better time. By the early 1990s, medical marijuana was legal in the country, which made it even easier to complete research.

In 1988, researchers at the St. Louis University Medical School overcame America’s research difficulties and discovered a receptor to which the compound THC binds. This indicated that the body had an endogenous system set up to respond to molecules that resembled cannabinoids. It was later called the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).

In 1992, Mechoulam was involved in another major breakthrough. With the aid of researchers such as Dr. Bill Devane, he found anandamide, the first endogenous cannabinoid to be discovered. It was given the name ‘anandamide’ because it comes from the Sanskrit word for bliss.

Mechoulam and his team found that the ECS is involved in numerous biological systems, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, and nervous systems. The ECS works to keep the body in a state of homeostasis (balance) with regards to body temperature and other processes.

There are also several homeostatic processes in place to keep emotions in check. For instance, if you are involved in an argument, exercise intensely, or are otherwise placed in a stressful situation, your levels of anandamide will increase. It is now believed that an increase in the bliss molecule helps reduce the emotional or physical pain you may be feeling in a bid to bring our emotions and bodies back to a state of balance.

The ECS plays an integral role in human and animal physiology. It is believed to affect functions such as appetite, motor coordination, pain, and inflammation. In theory, then, marijuana could interact with the cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) in the body, and help the ECS in its quest to keep the body in a homeostatic state.

The work of Mechoulam and other scientists in Israel has helped countless researchers around the world. To date, over 120 cannabinoids have been isolated from the marijuana plant. The United States finally began catching up as medical marijuana was first legalized in California in 1996. However, Israel was gearing up for another step into the brave new world of marijuana.

The Medical Cannabis Revolution and Beyond

2006 is said to have been the beginning of Israel’s medical marijuana revolution; even though it had been legal for some time beforehand. It was in this year that an NPO named Tikun-Olam was granted permission from the Israeli Ministry of Health to grow 100 cannabis plants. The company’s goal was to provide medical marijuana to qualifying patients for free.

It opened up the medical marijuana market in Israel, and by 2013, the nation was home to eight different growers. The nation’s lawmakers got around its status as a signatory to international anti-weed acts by creating a Medical Cannabis Unit; an agency dedicated to medical marijuana in Israel.

This rapid growth in permit holders also led to a marijuana research boom in Israel. Hundreds of studies were written within a few years, which led to clinical trials studying the effects of the herb on conditions such as Crohn’s Disease, autism, cancer, epilepsy, and many more. These studies were and still are, conducted using strains donated by Israel’s legal growers. Such collaborations have led to a situation where growers are creating specific strains to treat specific conditions.

In 2017, Hebrew University’s School of Pharmacy founded its Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research. When it opened, the Center employed 27 researchers who focus on the plant’s effects on cancer, pain, immunity, stress management and inflammation, and metabolism, among other things.

In 2018 alone, Israeli scientists were studying marijuana’s effects on epilepsy, autism, cancer, and Crohn’s Disease. The Technion is another huge player in Israel’s academic arena, and it also has a dedicated marijuana research center. These educational institutions are freely able to conduct clinical trials and are clearly reaping the rewards.

The nation’s attitude toward marijuana has changed to the extent that marijuana startups are popping up seemingly everywhere. Young entrepreneurs are offering useful growing tools which help reduce the expenses associated with growing, not to mention innovations to increase yields.

In summation, Israeli researchers richly deserve their status as the world’s best pot scientists. Many of the most important marijuana discoveries to date have either taken place in Israel, or were made possible by Israel. As talented as Israel’s researchers are though, their cause has been helped by government assistance. Their American counterparts enjoy no such luxury and continue to lag behind despite their best efforts.

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