Sitting outside of a recent conference on medical cannabis in Israel’s capital, Gil Luxenbourg took a pull from a marijuana cigarette and exhaled a fragrant cloud.
The lanky redhead is the chairman of the Israel Medical Cannabis Association, a patients’ organization, and also alleges to be the seventh medical cannabis patient in Israel — he uses it to treat Crohn’s disease, an intestinal condition. He was hardly the only one medicating.
The second annual CannaTech conference was in full swing on March 8, by all accounts Israel’s largest business gathering on medical cannabis. Outside the hilltop campus of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, where the event was held, just a short walk from the Knesset, attendees stood alone or in groups, busily testing their product.
Israel’s medical marijuana sector operates on a profound contradiction.
On the one hand, tough control over the drug creates significant hurdles for would-be patients, and recreational use is a criminal offense punishable by jail time.
On the other, the country is noted for its cannabis science: In 2013, CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta called Israel “the medical marijuana research capital.”
Far from putting a damper on research, stringent laws are “the reason we’re considered the leading country with regards to biomedical cannabis,” Luxenbourg said.
Luxenbourg, 37, is not in favor of the strict laws against marijuana use, saying they create an atmosphere of stigma and confusion for patients.
But there is a flipside.
“Stronger regulations, they push the market to prove — with the same tools as they prove that normal Western medicine works — that cannabis works on patients,” he said.
The conference had the exuberant atmosphere of a festival, pumped up by Israel’s startup-nation bravado and the certainty that Israel could lead this emerging tech field as it does so many others.
Israel Cannabis (iCAN), the industry group that organized the conference, trotted out some of the country’s industry leaders.
Raphael Mechoulam, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem chemist widely credited with discovering delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the main psychoactive compounds in marijuana, headlined the event on its first day in Tel Aviv. His work is Israel’s principal claim to fame in the industry.
“Without this man, we would not have an industry,” said Cheryl Suman, a cannabis marketing icon who runs the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club, who also spoke on the first day of the conference.
The cannabis economy in Israel is markedly different from the American market.
In the United States, medical marijuana is governed on the state level, and, where the law allows, grown and distributed by a multitude of private businesses.
In Israel, eight farms have licenses from the government to grow medical marijuana. For those businesses, the state provides strict oversight, but also the same type of support it lends to growers of other crops, according to Baruch Louzon, an official of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development who attended the conference.
Louzon is the director of the Regional Extension Service in the Arava district of Israel’s Negev desert. His job is to advise Israeli farmers on how to grow five crops: dates, grapes, mangos, dragonfruit — and cannabis.
The Israeli government’s embrace of pot farmers means that even while patients have difficulty accessing the drug — Luxenbourg said doctors sometimes forgo prescribing marijuana because of the hostile government bureaucracy even when they know pot can help — researchers can access it with relative ease.
As a result, Israel has even begun to export its industry knowledge: Breath of Life, one of the eight Israeli growers, specializes in clinical products, sending cannabis-based pharmaceuticals and research products to other countries, though it declined to say which ones.
By contrast, United States law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug — defined as highly addictive with no known medical use.
Presenting in Jerusalem, medical researcher Suzanne Sisley said she was dismissed from the University of Arizona College of Medicine when she began looking into marijuana as a potential treatment for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the drug’s stigma.
Undaunted, she continues her research with the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. But she still struggles to overcome bureaucratic hurdles set by the U.S. government to pursue her research.
For example, a government organization called the National Institute for Drug Abuse maintains a monopoly on marijuana as a research product, she said.
As a result, even after she had full government approval for her PTSD study, she had to wait to obtain a research product that is inferior to what would be available in Israel.
“We had to wait 20 months for marijuana that any other expert grower here in Israel could produce in three months according to spec for us,” she said.
Speaking earlier at the conference, Sharren Haskel, a Likud Knesset member who chairs the Lobby for Medical Cannabis, lamented that Israel maintains a draconian approach to marijuana use, even while speeding ahead with research.
She said the country spends 600 million shekels ($157 million) each year enforcing laws against recreational use of marijuana, and that doesn’t include what’s spent fighting sales and trafficking.
“The law today creates this perception, creates this stigma, not just on the drug but on the people who use it,” she said.
Earlier this year, Haskel introduced a bill to decriminalize cannabis in Israel.
“It’s a good step, whether it passes or not,” Luxenbourg said of the legislation. “It gets the government to acknowledge there’s an issue here that’s not just for stoners.”
There are other signs of a legal thaw in how Israel treats cannabis use.
At the conference, Yossi Tam, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem School of Pharmacy, announced the university would create a full-blown research center on the medical use of cannabis, called the Multidisciplinary Center of Cannabinoid Research.
But as at many conferences, this one’s main action arguably took place offstage, as growers, distributors and a range of industry professionals shared knowledge and talked business.
Outside of the conference hall, overlooking rolling hills of Jerusalem stone buildings, the air was thick with industry jargon — from cannabinoids to concentrates — and pot smoke.
“We really, truly brought in the top caliber of the cannabis industry internationally,” said Saul Kaye, founder and CEO of iCAN. “We knew deals were going to be made at Canna-Tech, and I’m hearing whispers of everything going on.”