From ‘Father of Cannabis’ to Today, Israelis Are at Forefront of Medical Cannabis Industry

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Michael Alexander, director of regional affairs at Israeli Consulate General in New York; Neil Cooper, executive partner at Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld and president of Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce; Kevin Provost, CEO of Greenhouse Ventures; Ambassador Dani Dayan, Israel consul general in New York; and Vered Nohi, executive director of the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce
From left: Michael Alexander, director of regional affairs at Israeli Consulate General in New York; Neil Cooper, executive partner at Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld and president of Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce; Kevin Provost, CEO of Greenhouse Ventures; Ambassador Dani Dayan, Israel consul general in New York; and Vered Nohi, executive director of the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (Photos courtesy of the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce)

“What is the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity?” asked BOL Pharma CEO Tamir Gedo, who called in from Israel for the “Innovation in the Cannabis Industry” conference’s opening panel.

“What is it?” responded moderator Kevin Provost, Greenhouse Ventures co-founder and CEO.

“Jesus had better marketing managers, and it didn’t change throughout the past 2,000-something years!” Gedo said to laughter from the audience. But, he added, “we’re very good in this country at coming up with the best technologies.”

On May 22, people in professional attire headed to the University of the Arts’ Levitt Auditorium, where they networked and attended panels that covered topics like investing, taxes and international commercialization.

On the surface, it may have seemed like a standard business conference, but the attendees had come to learn about a product not usually associated with suits and ties — cannabis.

Greenhouse Ventures and the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (PICC) co-hosted the conference, which addressed some of the issues facing the medical cannabis industry, including companies being unbanked, protecting the medical side of the industry when recreational cannabis becomes legal, and getting cannabis to be taken seriously as a medicine by health care workers and the public at large.

Though this was not the first year Greenhouse Ventures held the conference, it was the first time that PICC served as co-host. PICC Executive Director Vered Nohi said that PICC was invited to participate because Israel is at the forefront of the industry.

Some of the panelists, like Gedo, were Israelis or represented Israeli companies, such as iCAN: Israel-Cannabis Special Projects Director Hayim Raclaw and WonderLogix LTD CEO Gonen Ziv. Ambassador Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York, also stopped by to give a brief speech.

Israel’s history in the industry stems from Raphael Mechoulam, a chemistry professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is considered by some to be the father of medical cannabis research. He was the first who succeeded in isolating some of cannabis’ active ingredients in the 1960s.

Nohi noted that some of the companies involved in PICC are related to this industry, and there are already companies in the area who are collaborating with Israeli companies on this topic, so it made sense for the chamber to get involved.

During the conference, Nohi said that PICC could help forge joint ventures between companies in the region and in Israel. The chamber can even help provide funding for U.S.-Israeli joint ventures.

Kevin Provost moderates a panel with Stephen Dahmer, Debra Borchardt and Hayim Raclaw. Tamir Gedo also called in to speak on the panel.
From left: Kevin Provost moderates a panel with Stephen Dahmer, Debra Borchardt and Hayim Raclaw. Tamir Gedo also called in to speak on the panel.

“Hebrew University of Jerusalem was a leader in studying the cannabis and advancing the research, and the industry evolved,” Nohi said. “Of course, you also have the Technion and other institutes right now, but Hebrew University was a leader of that in the world. From that, it came to developing the seeds, developing the medicine side, developing the technology, the ag-tech, to grow it.”

Right now, the medical cannabis industry is focused on making medicine out of two of cannabis’ active ingredients — cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved of cannabis as an effective drug for any treatment. However, the FDA has approved of several cannabis-derived and cannabis-related medicines made of cannabis’ active ingredients or out of synthetic versions of those ingredients.

According to the FDA, these include one drug containing purified CBD to treat seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome, and three drugs containing synthetic versions of THC or ingredients similar to THC to treat nausea or lack of appetite associated with chemotherapy and cancer medications or AIDS.

“I’m a physician, first and foremost. I’m a healer,” said Debra Kimless, a panelist and medical director at ForwardGro, who is Jewish. “What attracted me to the industry is that I saw a systematic problem with our health care system here in the United States, with looking at pharmaceuticals as being the answer to everyone’s problems, and yet we’re getting sicker and sicker and sicker.”

Health care workers at the conference noted that the medicines derived from cannabis are not as effective as cannabis itself. They’re missing the “secret sauce,” said Mitchell Glass, a panelist and chief medical officer at Tikun Olam, a leading medicinal cannabis company. Glass is a drug developer, and he is working on learning more about those other active ingredients.

“Marijuana is made up of over 400 different compounds,” said Glass, who is Jewish. “It’s a plant. So is a daisy made up of more than 400 different compounds. One hundred thirty-five of those compounds minimally, though, are active in biological systems including people, so trying to extract any just one or two of those is probably not adequate.”

Glass attributed Israel’s involvement with the country’s substantial agricultural technology industry, the fact that the country is an engine for intellectual property and the government’s cooperation in developing medical cannabis. The population is also small yet heterogeneous, which makes it a good population for clinical trials. In addition, Israel has the climate to grow the crop.

While most agree that Israelis are well-represented in the industry, the feeling is more mixed when it comes to American Jewish participation.

In the next few weeks, there will be several opportunities in the Jewish community to learn more about medical cannabis. These opportunities include “Faith in Cannabis: Religion, Science and Justice” at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on June 2 at 2 p.m. and “Shatter the Stigma” at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel on June 12 at 7 p.m. Golden Slipper Gems will also have a program on this topic on July 17 at noon.

“I’ve never seen the data, but I have a very strong bias to suggesting we are an enriched population of people,” Glass said. “And, of course, anything that’s going to stimulate your appetite is probably, maybe unnecessary, but certainly welcome.”

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