(Jerusalem, Israel) — Ira Gazit often wakes in the middle of the night to the sound of his 8-year-old son Eyal screaming in pain.
“Smoke on me! Smoke on me now, please!” Eyal screams.
Eyal has been battling neuroblastoma, a deadly brain cancer, for more than four years. Doctors tried everything to treat him, including sending him to Germany for experimental treatment.
Two years ago, the Gazit family, discovered medicinal marijuana.
“He has so much medicine, but when there is a crisis he wants this (marijuana),” Gazit says, explaining it works best when he lights up a joint and blows the smoke over his son’s face.
Eyal’s medical bill has climbed to more than $5 million so far. Ironically, the one thing that has helped Eyal the most is nearly free. It costs adult patients only 100 NIS, or about $28 U.S. dollars, a month to use medical marijuana in Israel.
It has been only six years since Israel decided to legalize medical marijuana, but in that short period of time, the country has already developed into one of the leaders of the world’s medical marijuana industry. The Ministry of Health’s head psychiatrist was put in charge of organizing the program and assembling a group of doctors who would be able to prescribe the drug.
There are now 11,000 Israelis using medical cannabis. Meanwhile, Israel has become home to groundbreaking research on the medical benefits of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the chemicals in marijuana that have medicinal benefits, as well as producing new strains of marijuana that can help people in new ways.
Ester Azulay-Tangi, who works for Tikun Olam, Israel’s leading producer of medical cannabis,, has seen the incredible effect of cannabis on terminally ill children. She spoke of a patient who doctors had taken off chemotherapy, thinking she was about to die. After using cannabis, she was still alive weeks later. Medical marijuana was the only treatment she had left.
“Children undergoing chemotherapy often become skeletons because they don’t eat,” said Azulay-Tangi. “Due to many of the treatments, they are always throwing up and have nausea. For the kids who aren’t on cannabis, it is like a fight for existence all around their food consumption. But all the patients on medical cannabis just automatically gain weight because it makes you hungry and takes away the nausea, and the digestive system comes back into action.”
Doctors, nurses and even some parents are not easily sold on this treatment however; many of them think it too risky. Azulay-Tangi argues that it is not a risk and that the results have been consistent with all the children she has treated; it makes them eat.
Tikun Olam, whose name is taken from the Jewish concept of healing, or repairing, the world, claims that the biggest challenge to the industry is getting doctors to accept the herb’s medicinal properties. Once they do, physicians must figure out the correct amount of marijuana to prescribe so that the patients get enough to last them all month.
Gazit says that his son Eyal gets 60 grams of cannabis a month. Each joint is between half a gram and a gram. He says the supply often runs out before the month is over.
“We have a problem because the doctor said 60 grams is too much for him, but I say how much is too much? If I need morphine, I just ask and you give me a prescription but if I ask you for this you say, ‘No, it is too much,’” Gazit says angrily. “With other drugs they say it’s OK, you can get as much as you want but no, something that helps you, you cannot get!”
So what happens at the end of the month when Eyal has none of his most helpful painkiller left?
“I’m forced to buy it from outside!” Gazit exclaims.
He says he worries about the cannabis he buys on the street.
“I spoke with the doctor about it, I said why? Why do I need to give him something that I don’t know what it is. I really hope this will be solved because for me as a parent, it makes me nervous, you know?”
Tikun Olam used to provide the children’s hospice at the Tel Hashomer Hospital with marijuana cookies that the nurses could give to children to test their effectiveness. The Ministry of Health however, forced them to stop.
Tikun Olam, Israel’s largest medical cannabis provider, started out with just 50 plants for 250 patients. Now, the company has grown to the point where it is trying to be one of the first to sell the medical herb internationally.
The company has developed strains that are not available anywhere else, including one called Avidekel. It has many of the same health benefits as other strains of the plant, but users do not get high. Avidekel has high concentrations of the chemical CBD, which helps with inflammatory diseases and anxiety, and has almost no THC, the chemical that produces the high.
“We have requests from all over the world, especially for our CBD strains,” says Ma’ayan Weisberg, a spokeswoman for Tikun Olam. “Every illness and disorder has different symptoms; you have pain, nausea, insomnia, epileptic attacks, ticks, inflammation, and re-occurring surgeries for things like bowel diseases. We have 12 different strains in order to treat the different symptoms.”
Marijuana may have other uses, too. A recent study at Tel Aviv University conducted by professor Yosef Sarne found that mice who were given a very low dose of THC either before or quickly after receiving a brain injury recovered more fully then the group of mice that did not receive any THC.
The study led Sarne to the hypothesis that THC can protect the brain against acute damage, or even chronic illnesses and neurological diseases.
In another study Sarne used THC to protect the hearts of mice. This study found that THC may prove beneficial as a chronic treatment for individuals who are at a high risk of heart attacks or other forms of cardiac disease. The study also suggests that THC could be an effective treatment following a heart attack and could help as a pre-conditioning agent for cardiac surgery and coronary angioplasty.
Israel’s Health Minister, Yael German, is skeptical about medical marijuana.
“Cannabis is not a medical drug. Its effectiveness has not been proven empirically, yet there’s evidence that it helps alleviate pain,” German said in May in a public statement.
This statement came at a time when the Ministry of Health tried to pick and choose which diseases the medical herb could be prescribed for. German was worried about how quickly the industry had grown and may be under pressure from pharmaceutical companies that are losing money to medical cannabis. Insurance company Maccabi Healthcare Services published a study that found users of medical cannabis reduced their other medications by more than 30 percent.
Yedidya Knopf, a 26-year-old who uses marijuana to help relieve the pain of a spinal cord injury he received after being struck by a car when he was 14, had this to say to the health minister or people who doubt the effectiveness of the herb:
“I’m personally researching it for six years and it is better then any Percocet or opioid drug that I ever used.” Knopf said he believes that much of the strong lobbying against medical marijuana comes from the fact that it is a natural herb and cannot be patented.
Knopf is a prime example of someone whose life has changed for the better thanks to medical cannabis, which is now the only drug he takes to deal with constant pain his accident left him with.
Knopf originally had to take drugs like Percocet and opioids that came with many side effects, and as his tolerance to the drugs went up; the doses kept getting bigger and his nervous system began to break down. After the legislation allowing medical marijuana was passed, he decided to try it. Knopf hasn’t looked back since.
“Marijuana helped me in several ways,” Knopf said. “Before I started using it, I didn’t have so much appetite, I didn’t sleep well at night and I was depressed. Now I take it and it elevates my mood, I have an appetite and most importantly it takes away the pain.”
Knopf is from an Orthodox Jewish family. While most rabbis oppose recreational use of marijuana, there is a growing acceptance of its medical uses.
Tikun Olam helps observant Jewish families work around religious strictures. Yedidya normally takes his marijuana through an electric vaporizer, but using this would not be permitted during Shabbat. Tikun Olam makes edible options for THC consumption and pills so that clients can keep the sabbath. Yedidya says he normally uses THC-infused honey on the sabbath.