When Israeli plant researchers Nirit Bernstein got a call five years ago from a research institute requesting if she had be interested in working on the cultivation of medical cannabis. But then a thought quickly crossed her mind.
Bernstein studies whole-plant cannabis at Israel’s state-run Volcani Institute and was one of several experts in various fields, including science, medicine and business, who met in San Francisco May 1-2 for the inaugural CannaMed/Tech Summit, produced by the California Israel Chamber of Commerce.
While there is much hope and optimism about healthcare cannabis, there are also many questions – and businesses and investors in California and the U.S. are relying on Israel for some of the answers. It’s easier to learn about the multifaceted plant in Israel, which not only allows research but also funds it, unlike in the U.S., where strict federal laws are an impediment to clinical studies.
Hebrew University’s Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoids Research, for example, is studying possible applications for drugs targeting cancer, migraines, inflamed tissue, stress, pain and renal disease.
At Volcani, Bernstein is focusing on how to use light, heat, fertilizer and growing conditions to standardize the compounds in cannabis. (The best-known are usually THC and CBD, both first isolated by Israeli pharmacologist Raphael Mechoulam in the mid-1960s.) She said growing cannabis on a large scale is much more difficult than raising a conventional farm crop.
In cannabis grown by small farmers, the active substances are not always consistent – they can be stronger at the top of the plant, or vary from plant to plant. Bernstein stated it would be like giving a patient different amounts of aspirin and never telling the person the dosage.
Further complicating the issue of dosage is drug delivery, or how the active elements of cannabis get into the body, whether taken intravenously, orally or through smoking, said Professor Simon Benita from the School of Pharmacy at Hebrew University.
A host of factors makes it especially difficult to study these issues in the U.S. While the use of recreational and medical cannabis is legal in California, researchers who want to conduct medical trials still have to deal with restrictive federal rules, mentioned Donald Abrams, an oncologist at UCSF Medical Center and SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA General Hospital.
So far, the FDA has approved only one drug using cannabis compounds: Epidiolex, which treats epilepsy. The rest of the products sold in California and other states where healthcare marijuana is lawful are handled more like vitamins or supplements, subject to fewer regulations. What manufacturers and sellers promise may be heavy on the marketing and light on the science. But patients and doctors alike are still turning to the plant for its reported healing properties.
The demand for medical cannabis makes Israel an important partner for businesses wanting to join the green boom, one of the goals of CICC’s executive director Sharon Vanek, who initiated the conference. Attendee Boris Shcharansky, chief operating officer for wellness company Papa & Barkley, said his company had turned to Israel to conduct product research without all the red tape of the U.S.
Until U.S. regulations and attitudes change, companies and health professionals will continue to seek Israeli expertise on the eco-friendly plant, partnerships that the California Israel Chamber of Commerce is encouraging.
Already, many see Israel as the place to go for advanced information on medical marijuana.