Last week, NBC’s Today Show giddily announced an exclusive: Privateer Holdings, the Seattle marijuana company long acclaimed locally for its straight, corporate image and Ivy-League-educated bosses, was launching “the first global pot brand” based on the legacy of Bob Marley. The company is likely to start selling pot overseas, says Privateer public-relations director Zack Hutson, previously a spokesperson for Starbucks. “We’re in discussions with a distributor in Israel” – a country with a federally legal medical-marijuana system. Hutson also cites Uruguay and the Netherlands as potential early markets.
Israel's Health Ministry has expressed opposition to granting general practitioners the right to prescribe medical marijuana. Instead, the ministry will certify 10 doctors during the first half of 2014, allowing them to prescribe medicinal marijuana to the growing number of patients who currently use it. These 10, newly certified doctors will join the 20 doctors currently permitted by the Health Ministry to prescribe the drug.
More than 10,000 patients who have official government permission consume marijuana in Israel, a number that has swelled dramatically, up from serving just a few hundred patients in 2005. The medical cannabis industry is expanding as well, fuelled by Israel’s strong research sector in medicine and technology – and notably, by government encouragement. Unlike in the United States and much of Europe, the issue inspires almost no controversy among the government and the country’s leadership.
Half a century ago, Hebrew University Prof. Raphael Mechoulam isolated and synthesized THC, the main psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant. By 1963, Mechoulam and his research partners had revealed the structure of cannabidiol (CBD), a key ingredient in cannabis. By the following year they had isolated THC for the first time, established its structure and synthesized it.
Marijuana is illegal in Israel, but at a government-approved medical marijuana farm at a secret location near the city of Safed, is at the cutting edge of the debate on the legality, benefits and risks of medicinal cannabis. When Zach Klein, a former filmmaker, made a documentary on medical marijuana that was broadcast on Israeli television in 2009, about 400 Israelis were licensed to receive the substance. Today, the number has risen to about 11,000.
Israel’s inroads into legalizing cannabis for pain relief and managing terminal illness rest on the seminal research of Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem’s Center for Research on Pain. Back in 1964, working from bags of hashish seized by the local police, Mechoulam isolated the active compound from cannabis, THC. He came to be a trusted consultant on the topic to governments and individuals and urged that derivative compounds called cannabinoids be legalized for medical purposes in Israel.
An estimated 1,000 Israelis attended a rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night to support the legalization of marijuana. As the crowd chanted phrases like "The people demand legal marijuana," the speakers at the rally sought to frame pot smoking as part of Israel’s national culture, as a unifying factor among the country’s disparate groups and even as a security issue. Medical marijuana, which is hard for patients to receive permission to access, was central to the rally. (See also: Cabinet approves Health Ministry rules on medical marijuana)
A study by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies showed that if marijuana were legalized and taxed at a similar rate to cigarettes, it would yield about NIS 950 million (268 million USD) in taxes, while it could save the state the NIS 700 million (198 million USD) on enforcement every year. In a public opinion survey on marijuana legalization whose results are analyzed in the paper, only 26% of Israelis support legalization, while 64% opposes it. A large majority (75%) believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses.