Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Medicinal Marijuana On the Rise in Israel

Israel’s MECHKAR program, responsible for the distribution of medicinal cannabis, has increased exponentially, at six times its size since its inception in 2008

By: Graham Sigurdson

Published: January 20th, 2014 in Health » Israel

Since it began as a small program in 2008, Israel’s MECHKAR program, responsible for the distribution of medicinal cannabis, has grown substantially, now distributing cannabis to 12,000 patients across the country, and increasing nearly six times in size since its small beginnings. Coincidentally, a recent study confirms medicinal marijuana in the country has risen by 30% over the last year.

Despite increasing efforts to decriminalize and regulate the use of the drug in the United States, marijuana remains under strict regulations. Conversely, in Israel, medicinal marijuana has continued to thrive as a $40-million-per-year industry. Where the American DEA works to hinder the drug’s use and distribution, Israel’s government has continued to fund and support breakthrough research.

MK Haim Katz from the Likud party, Chair of the Knesset’s Labor, Social Welfare and Health Committee, said in January that, by the end of the year, the number of doctors permitted to prescribe medical cannabis would double from 9 to 20.

Speaking to AlterNet, Mimi Peleg, who coaches and introduces people to cannabis therapy (read our exclusive interview with Peleg on the medicinal properties of MDMA here), says that this has already happened in Israel. That said, some doctors are restricted to the prescribing of cannabis oil.

Israel’s long history of hash-smoking underculture remains strong, but the use of cannabis for recreational purposes is nowhere near as common as in the United States. “There was always hash here, but not a pot culture so to speak,” Peleg said. She cited common misconceptions as among the reasons for this, noting how students would arrive in her office fearing hallucinations of that they would lose their minds.

“For them [getting high] is an adverse effect,” she said. “So I tell them what to do if they get too high, how to lower their senses a little bit, how to relax, things to expect, and how long they should expect it to stay in their body—which I tell them is between 45 minutes and two hours—before they’ll have to smoke or vape again.”

Israel, unlike California or other American states, restricts the medicinal program to more severe illnesses. Where a Californian doctor could prescribe marijuana for headaches or anxiety, prescribing it in Israel sometimes only occurs at the end of a patient’s life. Even then, patients must exhaust all of their pharmaceutical options and complete drawn out bureaucratic processes before they will be permitted access to cannabis.

Peleg indicated how Israel lacks a “stoner” history with the drug, indicating that, while Israel has a strict drug policy, its relationship to the drug is nowhere near as storied as America’s. In Israel, there was no stigma regarding the use of cannabis for medicinal reasons, and as such, there was “never any question” that it could be viewed as “strictly medical.”

Peleg is responsible for instructing patients in the use of cannabis – be that smoking, consuming, vaporizing or many other methods – and spoke of how many patients lacked any experience in the use of cannabis.

Boaz Wachtel, a politician from Ale Yarok known for campaigning for the decriminalizing of cannabis, spoke of the role Peleg plays: “These patients have never smoked cannabis before, medically or recreationally, and they think they will see flying elephants in the room if they do that,” he said. “Mimi will give them a few strains to check on which strain fits them better. That’s why patient education must be a part of any successful cannabis program.”

Current Israel studies into the use of medicinal marijuana look at its applications in the treatment of post-traumatic stress, fibromyalgia, and Crohn’s.

Wachtel spoke highly of the work he and others have done, but lamented that cannabis is not a first-line option for many patients.

“The cannabis medicalization movement, which I am proud to be a member of has a lot to do with changing the public’s and decision-makers’ perceptions of cannabis and reversing government’s propagandistic and false descriptions of what cannabis is in reality,” Wachtel said. “The success of cannabis medicalization on national levels in countries such as Israel, Canada, Netherlands, is pointing to the fact that medical cannabis programs help the sick and the dying.”

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