How Israel Became the Global Leader in Cannabis Research

Israeli researchers have explored the plant’s seemingly limitless beneficial uses for decades while the US remained stubbornly in a prohibition dark age.

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As the United States struggles with the basics of cannabis research, such as providing proper cannabis to researchers, other countries have leapt ahead. One of the foremost is Israel, where many in the marijuana field believe the most innovative research is happening.

“Israel isn’t just at the forefront of medical cannabis research,” writes Swiss medical cannabis company Cibdol. “It is out in front by some margin.” U.S. News and World Report referred to Israel as “The Holy Land of medical marijuana.”

That’s due in large part to Raphael Mechoulam, a biochemist and professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He played a major role in finding the basic chemical components of marijuana.

Marijuana research in Israel.

Mechoulam began research on medical marijuana in the 1960s. Part of a family that left Eastern Europe for Israel in 1949, Mechoulam earned a doctorate in Israeli and did postdoctoral work at the Rockefeller Center in New York. In the 1960s, he picked cannabis as a research topic after getting a junior faculty position at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.

Asked in a 2007 interview published in Addiction magazine why he chose to study cannabis, he said that “on reading the old literature on cannabis I was surprised to note that from a modern point of view the field was ripe for a reinvestigation. In the early 1960s it was almost totally neglected.”

Looking back at older research, he was surprised to learn that no one had every isolated the active constituents of cannabis in pure form. He set out to do just that, even though marijuana was illegal at the time in Israel.

Related: Canopy Growth Is Likely Just the First Big Player to Bet on US Ending Prohibition

Ignorance, Networking Spark Groundbreaking Weed Research

Part of the reason Mechoulam moved forward with his plan to conduct cannabis research is because he didn’t know any better. In the interview, he said he was blissfully unaware that marijuana was a taboo research subject.

He went to the administrative director at the Weizmann Institute and asked if he knew anyone with the police. The director, after realizing that Mechoulam “was not trying to settle some minor traffic ticket but was requesting starting material for research,” called the head of the investigative branch at police headquarters.

That’s because the two had served in the Israeli Army together. The administrative director assured the head of investigations that Mechoulam was “reliable.” Based on that alone, Mechoulam was called to Tel Aviv and given five kilograms of “superb, smuggled Lebanese hashish.”

It was only later the professor realized both he and the head of investigations “had broken quite a few laws,” Mechoulam said in the interview. “Luckily, being ‘reliable’, I just had to apologize.”

It’s hard to imagine that happening today, and unimagineable in the U.S. Mechoulam moved to Hebrew University in 1966. He said for 40 years he has received hashish from the Israel Ministry of Health with no difficulties, adding that working in a small country “certainly has its positive aspects.”

Related: How the Green Rush Is Accelerating the Revolution In Smart Farming Technologies

Israel today

What happened next is well-known in the marijuana industry. Mechoulam and other researchers isolated CBD and THC in marijuana, leading to more research on the psychological and physical impact of both on humans. By the 1990s, there was government-backed research in Israel, decades ahead of most other countries.

In 2017, the School of Pharmacy at Hebrew University founded the Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research. The center, which employs 27 cannabis researchers, lauds Mechoulam’s early work, which “heralded in a new age with a promising new vision for humankind.”

The center focuses marijuana research into these areas:

  • Cancer
  • Pain
  • Inflammation and stress management
  • Immunity
  • Metabolism
  • Drug delivery and nanotechnology
  • Pharmaceutical chemistry
  • Neuroscience
  • Plant science and genetics

While not the only country ahead of the U.S. in research, Israel is certainly considered the one that is the farthest ahead. And with the European Review of Medical and Pharmacological Sciences reporting advances in marijuana research in Italy and other European countries, the U.S. runs the risk of falling even farther behind.

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