On March 5, the Israel cabinet officially decriminalized marijuana use, a move that once again puts the Middle Eastern nation ahead of the United States in terms of cannabis policy, technology and research.
The first medical cannabis research in the world began in Israel in the early 1960s when Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a chemist now known as the “godfather of marijuana research,” isolated THC for the first time. He’s studied cannabis and other natural products for more than 50 years, published over 350 scientific articles and won many awards, including the NIDA Discovery Award in 2011. Mechoulam’s research led him and his colleagues to also discover CBD, CBG and the human body’s own naturally occurring endocannabinoid system.
It’s no coincidence that Mechoulam, now 86, made these discoveries in Israel. In fact, he first asked the U.S. National Institutes of Health for a grant to study marijuana in the ’60s, but they weren’t interested, in part because researching cannabis in the U.S. was, and still is, next to impossible. “It couldn’t have happened in the United States, because the laws were too strict,” Mechoulam has stated.
To study cannabis in the U.S., scientists have to go through a multi-agency review process involving the FDA, DEA and National Institute on Drug Abuse, each with their own approval system that create substantial pot holes for anyone motivated enough to travel down the road of federal grants for research. This process can take years, if the project is approved at all. It all comes back to marijuana still being classified as a Schedule I substance in America with “no medical benefit and high potential for abuse,” the same as heroin and LSD.
The U.S. is currently the largest cannabis industry in the world; it’s expected to surpass $20 billion by 2020 and reach $50 billion by 2025. Perhaps that’s why, in February, Israel approved the exportation of cannabis. In the U.S., DEA approval is required for any cannabis imports and exports, which is hard to get. In order to sidestep approval, some Israeli cannabis companies have already set up shop within the U.S. with their own cultivation and extraction labs.
Israel is “putting people before politics,” an almost inconceivable concept in America, with even greater concern under our new administration. Israel isn’t being held back by stigma and dated “reefer madness” that haunts American policy and benefits big business, and ultimately impedes research.
About Dr. Aseem Sappal
Dr. Aseem Sappal is Provost and Dean of the Faculty for Oaksterdam University.