ISRAEL: It may come as a surprise that the THC — the active element in cannabis — that has been used for investigations by the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC, was imported from Israel at a time when no American scientist could hope to receive funding for research involving marijuana.
In a 2010 book, Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, who first synthesized THC, recalls how it all began: In the mid 1960s, after a US senator inquired about the safety of his son’s pot habit, Dr. Dan Efron, the National Institute of Mental Health’s head of pharmacology, flew to Israel and “took with him the ‘world’ supply of tetrahydrocannabinol [THC] … Much of the early work in the United States in the cannabis field was done with the material that Efron presumably smuggled out of Israel into the United States.”
For serendipitous reasons — such as premiere research facilities and leniency toward scientists — Israel has long been at the forefront of cannabis research.
For the last 30 years, it has also been on the leading edge of countries that legally dispense medical cannabis.
The diagnosis of an array of medical miseries such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain grants any citizen the right to buy and use medical cannabis. (Tourists, take note: Recreational marijuana is illegal in Israel. You will not find pot cafés lining the pretty boulevards of Tel Aviv.)
Out of a population of 8 million, slightly over 11,000 Israelis hold prescriptions. Since the early 1990s cannabis has been grown in regulated farms and distributed via registered dispensaries, where each patient can choose among capsules, cookies, extracts, meticulously weighed dried leaves or pellets to be vaporized.
Inbal Sikorin has become one of the unlikeliest advocates for medical cannabis. For many years the head nurse at Hadarim, a nursing home that houses mostly catastrophic cases at Kibbutz Naan, an hour from Tel Aviv, she is famous here for successfully using cannabis to treat geriatric patients.
Sikorin, 44, is a chain smoker who sports a short, spiky head of jet-black hair. For many years, she never thought of medicating her patients with cannabis. In fact, the idea troubled her. She was raised in a home where marijuana was “something other people did — misfits, homeless people. It was nothing I ever had anything to do with, or wanted to,” she says.
Then she encountered a severely disabled patient, tethered to a feeding tube. The woman screamed constantly in pain and was unresponsive to people or medications. Science’s arsenal of medicines — antipsychotics, L-Dopa drugs and analgesics — had no effect.
The patient’s family asked Sikorin to investigate whether cannabis could help, and drew her attention to “Prescribed Grass,” a documentary on the medical uses of the drug, by Tel Aviv University researcher Zach Klein.