Rachel Neiman
November 21, 2010, Updated November 12, 2014

Medical marijuana is a hot button topic: Will those permitted to use it abuse that right; is it harmful; and above all, is it truly effective? After legalizing it in 1999 for medical use, for the past several years medical cannabis has been prescribed and used in Israel. Now a Health Ministry committee is recommending that the drug be covered by the national health basket.

There are 14 Israeli farms licensed to grow medical marijuana, but only three are operational. Most prominent among them is non-profit organization Tikun Olam, which in March 2007 became the first official medical cannabis supplier to the Ministry of Health.

Adding it to the basket

Israel’s Ministry of Health has already authorized five hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana to patients suffering from chronic pain, including patients with fibromyalgia, cancer, HIV/AIDS, neurological disorders, multiple sclerosis, asthma and glaucoma, as well as to Israel Defense Forces veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now a health ministry committee headed by the ministry’s deputy director General Boaz Lev has recommended that it be one of the drugs covered by the health funds. The committee also recommends expanding the number of doctors authorized to prescribe the drug to patients.

So far, about 4,000 prescriptions have been written for medical marijuana, a number that is expected to rise to around 5,000 by the end of this year, according to a report in Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz. If the new recommendations go into effect, that number could rise to 40,000.

Thirty strains being cultivated

Currently, Tikun Olam supplies products to more than 500 patients through dispensaries manned by staff trained in the use and treatment of marijuana as a medication.

The organization – whose founder prefers to remain anonymous – does not receive any payment for its services and was distributing products for free until recently, when with the approval of the Health Ministry it began charging patients a small monthly fee to cover the costs of administration.

Tikun Olam’s core product is the dried, mature, resin-packed female flowers (flos). The product was tested and found to have an unusually high concentration (23 percent) of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active principle of cannabis. Tikun Olam says it is currently cultivating an additional 30 different strains for specific medical conditions.

Locations classified

Testing was carried out at the laboratories of Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a pioneering researcher famous for his work in the total synthesis of THC, major contributions to the chemistry of cannabinoids and discovery of endocannabinoids.

Tikun Olam maintains two secured growing facilities in the north of Israel whose locations are classified. The organization is not free of controversy. Last year, its growing license was revoked due to pressure from neighboring farmers. It was later reinstated but under temporary terms.

Photographer Abir Sultan from the Flash 90 agency was invited to visit one of the facilities, as well as the dispensaries, and to document the patients who gain relief from the drug.

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