The strongest, most influential medical cannabis economy in the world is not where most would think. Cue Israel, which is an agricultural superpower already and has a great green thumb for cannabis cultivation. Why? Mainly because Israel is leading the globe when it comes to legitimate cannabis research on medical applications for serious illnesses. While the U.S. dabbles with adult-use cannabis markets and state specific medical cannabis enclaves, we seriously lag when it comes to cannabis research and data, especially on the medical side. Israel, on the other hand, is leading the way in high-level studying of cannabis and its medical effects. This has led to a large amount of foreign investment into Israeli cannabis companies and research labs, and it’s also led to Israeli cannabis companies and labs bringing their talent, knowledge, and data to the U.S. — typically via intellectual property licensing agreements and joint ventures.
Israel’s relationship with medical cannabis goes way back. The country first allowed patients with qualifying conditions to use cannabis in the early 90s. According to Wikipedia, “there are eight government-sanctioned cannabis growing operations in Israel, which distribute it for medical purposes to patients who have a license from the Ministry of Health and a prescription from an authorized doctor, via either a company’s store, or in a medical center.” Perhaps most importantly, Israel does not have the same sticky federal law prohibition we have here in the States. Israel’s prescient willingness to allow for medical cannabis and medical cannabis research has opened the doors to allow top scientists there to conduct research without the mountains of federal agency red tape or political blowback that comes with cannabis research here.
The Israelis are also pretty fearless about their medical cannabis know-how and getting their products to consumers in other countries. In early 2017, after a joint committee of Israel’s health and finance ministries recommended allowing exports of medical marijuana based on predictions that such exports would likely bring in as much as $4 billion in yearly revenue, Israel moved to authorize the export of medical marijuana. Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended this reform earlier this year (pending additional reviews and economic feasibility studies of the new laws), the country’s health, finance, and agricultural ministries are determined to ensure medical marijuana exports are eventually permitted.
If, as expected, Israel goes through with allowing cannabis exports, access to Israeli medical marijuana strains would be a huge boon for U.S. cannabis researchers. For years, the only cannabis our country’s marijuana researchers can use has been controlled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at a licensed facility at the University of Mississippi (see here for more on Ole Miss pot). This has been a problem because NIDA’s Mississippi marijuana is widely viewed to be of inferior quality (would you expect the U.S. government to grow the good stuff?), and many research projects have ground to a halt because the NIDA facility simply didn’t have the type of marijuana needed. In August of 2017, the DEA announced a new policy that would potentially expand the list of permitted facilities for cultivating cannabis for research, but at the same time used the Single Convention on Narcotics to provide it some cover for continuing to limit cannabis growing for research. The primary limitation for those permitted by the DEA to cultivate marijuana is that they must first receive written permission from the DEA each time they distribute marijuana.
The DEA continues with these limitations for a number of reasons (see here and here), but its best arguments are based on the U.S.’s obligations under Articles 23 and 28 of the Single Convention. These provisions require countries that allow cannabis cultivation for research purposes to ensure their research marijuana is not diverted to the illegal market. This is only a problem for the DEA when the cultivation is in the United States, though. If the DEA licenses importers, only a limited quantity of marijuana comes into the United States, and protection against diversion from the grow operation is ultimately the problem of the exporting country.
This helps explain why the DEA sometimes authorizes importing cannabis. In December 2015, it granted a Missouri company registration to import “finished pharmaceutical products containing cannabis extracts in dosage form for clinical trial studies.”
Israel’s medical marijuana cultivators have a strong reputation around the world and researchers here are eager to run trials with high quality Israeli cannabis strains they cannot get anywhere else. So don’t be surprised when U.S. cannabis researchers start applying to the DEA for import permits and start getting their medical-grade cannabis from Israel.