Why Israel is the hub of global cannabis research

While Governments across the world have debated the pros and cons of legalising medical cannabis, Israel has been quietly turning itself into a world-leading medical marijuana research centre. Described by Dr. Sanjay Gupta as ‘the marijuana research capital of the world’, Israel has been conducting research into marijuana since the 1960s and is home to the world’s largest medical marijuana production, research and development facility.

The Breath of Life Pharma (BOL) grow-house and research center is a one-million-square-foot facility where each cannabis plant is monitored by software that remotely controls its biochemical parameters. The facility is expected to produce 80 tons – more than 175,000 pounds – of medical marijuana a year. 

Israel’s position at the forefront of global research may have something to do with the man widely credited as the grandfather of medical marijuana research, Raphael Mechoulam, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who was the first to isolate, analyse and synthesise the major psychoactive and non-psychoactive compounds in cannabis, and develop a number of marijuana-related treatments. 

After realising that no one had tried to understand cannabis and its psychoactive and non-psychoactive ingredients, Professor Mechoulam started researching cannabis and its effects in 1964.  According to a report in the Jerusalem Post Mechoulam and his colleagues, using themselves as test subjects, discovered the cannabis plant’s two core substances; tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the psychoactive ingredient and cannabidiol (CBD) and how to test its medicinal properties. 

He later went on to co-discover the brain’s own endocannabinoid system, which plays a key role in mood, memory and the sensation of pain, discovering that cannabinoids bind to receptors in different areas of the brain and vital organs to trigger different reactions. It’s an area the scientific world is now studying in detail as it seeks to gain a greater understanding of the relationship between cannabinoids and human physiology.  

Mechoulam’s contribution to the study of medical cannabis and its benefits has been praised by the deputy director of the Washington-based National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws as having ‘opened the door to making the study of cannabis and cannabinoids a legitimate avenue for more conventional scientists’

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Professor Raphael Mechoulam, the first to isolate, analyze and synthesize the major psychoactive and non-psychoactive compounds in cannabis

 Mechoulam told the Jerusalem Post that he believed that doctors themselves could be the obstacle to wider acceptance of medical marijuana because they’re unfamiliar with a drug that for many years has been classified at the same level as cocaine and morphine. He believes that this isn’t fair and that whilst all drugs have side effects, ‘one has to know how to use them’.

Cannabis-based medicines are already being used to reduce the side-effects of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, but another Israeli scientist breaking new ground, is Dr. David Meiri of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology with his research into how different compounds of cannabis can effectively destroy specific cancer cells.

In the Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Cannabinoid Research, Meiri and his team of researchers have been identifying the exact chemical composition of different strains of cannabis and then systematically applying those strains to different cancer cell samples and has been able to determine which cannabis strains kill which cancer cells. 

Meiri was inspired by the revelation that as well as eliminating the vomiting and nausea caused by chemotherapy, scientists had observed that cannabis was also actively reducing or stopping the spread of the cancer cells themselves. Using sophisticated machinery, Meiri managed to identify the exact composition of compounds such as cannabinoids and terpenes in every single strain of cannabis grown in Israel. 

If we find five, six, or seven types of cancer that cannabis can help, it’s huge.
— Dr Daivd Meiri, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology

The Israeli government’s backing of research into medical marijuana has played a key part in cementing the country’s place as one of the leaders in global research into cannabis for medicinal purposes. According to the Ministry of Health, in 2017 there were more than 110 clinical trials taking place in Israel, more than any other country and many of the studies are funded by the Israeli government. 

It’s not surprising and a sign of Israel’s importance that other funding comes from countries including America, Canada, Australia and Germany.  Some American companies are even outsourcing their research to Israel as given the size of the country, it’s quicker and is one of the few countries that uses humans in its research. 

In a world where cannabis-based medicines will continue to develop and grow, with its dedication to research, we’re likely to see Israel maintain its position as the top player in global medical cannabis research.