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Will Israel Retain its Title as the World’s Cannabis Research Leader?


Two significant marijuana announcements were recently made by the U.S. government. First, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) indicated that it would not reschedule marijuana from its current Schedule 1 classification under the Controlled Substances Act.


Earlier this year the DEA indicated that it would make a decision on rescheduling marijuana this summer.  Over the past few months, many proponents of marijuana legalization assumed that if the DEA was considering rescheduling, that rescheduling was definitely going to occur, especially with President Obama’s statement that “I don’t think it (marijuana) is more dangerous than alcohol.”


The manner in which DEA’s announcement that it was considering rescheduling was generally reported by the media and discussed online resulted in many Americans, including many owners and employees of state-licensed marijuana businesses to assume that rescheduling was essentially equivalent to legalization.  If rescheduling had occurred, legalization or anything close to legalization wouldn’t have been the result.  The bottom line is that rescheduling of marijuana would have had no effect on state-licensed marijuana businesses.


Currently no marijuana-derived drugs have been approved by the FDA. If marijuana had been rescheduled to a Schedule 2 substance the result would have been that marijuana-derived drugs, that were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), could be sold. These FDA approved drugs would not have been able to be purchased from budtenders in state-licensed dispensaries or retail stores, but instead only through traditional pharmacies such as Rite Aid and Walgreens.


While the failure of the DEA to reschedule marijuana was big news, the other marijuana announcement by the U.S. government was, I believe, more significant. The U.S. indicated that it would allow universities to apply to grow marijuana for medical research purposes.


As it stands today, obtaining the necessary regulatory approvals for marijuana research in the United States is incredibly difficult, if not essentially impossible. This is due to the continued illegality of the plant at the federal level, and the onerous  bureaucratic procedures and approvals that are necessary to conduct marijuana research.


Currently, the only official U.S. source of  marijuana is from the University of Mississippi, where it is grown under a U.S. government contract.  Even with this announcement from Washington, it is unlikely that  additional Universities, beside the University of Mississippi, will be growing marijuana anytime soon.


Israel, unlike the United States, has a long history of marijuana research. Israel’s role as the world leader in cannabis research started with the research done by Professor Raphael Mechoulam, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, going back almost 60 years.  Professor Mechoulam conducted studies that established the foundation for the entire field of cannabis research. He is widely-acknowledged as the father of cannabis research.


In 1964, Professor Mechoulam was the first scientist to isolate tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main physiologically active compound in cannabis, which is responsible for the plant’s consciousness-altering effects, and many of its medical benefits.


Twenty years later, Mechoulam and his team discovered what they named the endocannabinoid system, which is believed to be the largest receptor system in the human body. The existence of the endocannabinoid system is why cannabinoids, the chemical compounds unique to the cannabis plant, affect us.  


The use of cannabis-based medicine has been part of the Israeli healthcare system since the early 1990s. Today, over 25,000 Israeli patients use cannabis-based medicine, supplied by eight government approved growers, for numerous diseases and conditions.


With the full support of the Israeli government, cannabis research in Israel is increasing at a very fast pace. Israeli startups and early-stage companies are at the forefront of medical and cannabis research. Israeli companies and research institutions are researching cannabis-based medicine based on international research protocols. Research into the plant and its genetics is also taking place in Israel. The common objective of most of the research is to develop real cannabis-based medicine based on real science.


I commented at the CannaTech cannabis conference in Tel Aviv in February that Israel was at least ten years ahead of Europe and the U.S. in cannabis research. This is due to numerous factors, including the ease of obtaining approvals to conduct clinical trials and cannabis research in Israel.  Every major hospital and university in the country is to some extent involved in cannabis research. These include the Technion, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Haifa University.  

Because of the announcement by Washington allowing universities to grow marijuana, I've repeatedly been asked over the past few days whether Israel will retain its role as the leader in global cannabis research, or whether America will become the world's leader.


I believe that Israel is in no danger of losing its title as the world’s cannabis research leader anytime soon.

The growing of marijuana at other U.S. universities, in addition to the University of Mississippi, is likely years off. These universities and their researchers will then be significantly behind the Israelis, and will have a significant amount of catch-up to do.


One of the chief complaints about the official U.S. government source of marijuana from the University of Mississippi is the poor quality of the plants and the genetics. Will universities seeking to grow marijuana have to acquire their seeds or plants from this mediocre to poor source?  Alternatively, will they be able to obtain their plants or seeds from state-licensed marijuana growers, or from overseas sources? I think it’s highly unlikely that the DEA will allow U.S. universities to obtain their plants or seeds from anywhere other than the official U.S. source of marijuana in Mississippi. If this is the case, it will take years for these new university growers to have the genetics that today exist in Israel and in many U.S. states by state-licensed growers.


Another tremendous challenge for U.S. universities contemplating marijuana research will likely be funding. Universities will have to allocate funds to establish research protocols and construct facilities that meet the government’s security requirements. This is not likely to occur quickly.


Regardless of the announcement that U.S. universities are now permitted to grow marijuana and conduct research, the bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining approvals for marijuana research in the United States have not decreased.  Researchers will have to receive approvals from the DEA and the FDA.  In some cases, approvals from the anti-marijuana U.S. government agency, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), will also be required.


In conclusion, while Washington’s enabling universities to grow marijuana is an important step, it doesn’t place into jeopardy Israel’s status as the world’s leader in cannabis research.  


Copyright 2016 Jeffrey O. Friedland


Jeffrey Friedland is the author of Marijuana: The World’s Most Misunderstood Plant.


Author’s note: Cannabis and marijuana are botanically the same plant. I’ve used marijuana to describe the plant as it relates to the United States, because that is what it is typically referred to in the U.S.  I’ve used the word cannabis, to refer to the plant as it relates to  Israel, since it’s known as cannabis in Israel and most of the rest of the world.


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