By Sarah Zadok, Director of Content and Community for iCAN

Israel has contributed the first and largest bulk of research on medical cannabis, dating back to the 1960’s, and has produced great strides and developments in the field. Like much of the world, cannabis’ legal status in Israel is as a Schedule One Illegal Substance. However, because it was never federally illegal to grow or study cannabis as a medicine, we have been able to conduct the scientific studies that give evidence to support – if not all out prove – that cannabis benefits many patients with a wide variety of conditions.

The groundbreaking work of Israeli research scientists like Professor Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni provided much of what the world now knows about cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system. Based on that work, approximately 30 years later, in the 1990’s, Israel began her first medical cannabis program.

Initially the program was developed to treat cancer patients and other patients with pain-related related issues. Slowly the program expanded to include gastro patients (Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis), psychological disorders like PTSD, and Neurological Disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s Syndrome, Epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis.

Today, Israel boasts over 30 clinical trials on cannabis and recently the Israel National Health Institute for Health Policy Research released the findings of the first ever clinical study of its kind on the effects of cannabis from the patient experience. It is Israel’s unique regulatory environment that allows for some of the world’s brightest minds to do what they do best: discover. The government-sanctioned research has led and continues to lead towards evidence-based healthcare in medical cannabis that has a huge and rippling impact on healthcare worldwide.

Relative to other countries, even relative to many states in the US, one might go so far as to call Israel’s medical cannabis program “progressive.” We currently have upwards of 24,000 licensed patients in this country (making Israel one of the highest rates of users per capita, worldwide). And while it is true that we have made huge strides where other countries have stalled, we are still a long way from full access to medical cannabis.

This is one of iCAN:israel-cannabis primary functions: to advance research and develop in every vertical of this market.

It is important to note that a new system of licensing and distribution is currently under discussion/construction in the Knesset that is expected to be brought up for vote in May of 2016. Essentially the idea is to maintain the current legal status of legalization for medical purpose only – not for recreational use.

Here, iCAN has a unique position of influence on government policy and lawmakers who are still hammering out the nuts and bolts of new policies. iCAN’s CEO, Saul Kaye sits on the advisory board at the Knesset for the medical cannabis lobby.

“As a knowledgeable resource I felt it fundamentally important to get involved with grassroots organizations looking to make change, that is when we started working with the epilepsy group in Israel along with working with leaders like Sharren Haskel (Likud) and Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) in order to influence policy that makes sense for patients in need -right now- for medical cannabis.”

The proposed Health Ministry reform has medical cannabis set to hit pharmacy shelves with a focus on standardization in cannabis via medical legislation. The idea is to treat cannabis medicine as any other medicine and allow the pharmacists to distribute and advise on dosage and delivery. This will be the first true medical cannabis program of its kind – worldwide. In the words of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman:

“We’re working to reorganize the field of medical cannabis in order to lighten the process for those who need it and, on the other hand, to make it harder for the material to trickle into the regular market… There is no reason to make things difficult for whoever really needs it, just because there’s someone who exploits it illegally.”

Through our iCAN initiatives, CannaTech, an annual international summit designed to accelerate cannabis innovation, our joint venture with BOL Pharma, and the creation of The Bridge, an R&D incubator for cannabis- related innovation, and a few others we are working on, we are very excited and grateful to be a part of work that will have impact on medical cannabis patients and policy worldwide. International regulatory bodies would be wise to look at the strides and developments in Israel and join us here to learn how to apply similar strategies in their countries.