“But after I found this, everything has been better,” said the 80-year-old, as he gingerly packed a pipe with marijuana.
Rute, who lives at the Hadarim nursing home outside of Tel Aviv, is one of more than 10,000 patients who have official government permission to consume marijuana in Israel, a number that has swelled dramatically, up from serving just a few hundred patients in 2005.
The medical cannabis industry is expanding as well, fueled by Israel’s strong research sector in medicine and technology - and notably, by government encouragement. Unlike in the United States and much of Europe, the issue inspires almost no controversy among the government and the country’s leadership. Even influential senior rabbis do not voice any opposition to its spread, and secular Israelis have a liberal attitude on marijuana.
Now, Israel’s Health Ministry is considering the distribution of medical marijuana through pharmacies beginning next year, a step taken by only a few countries, including Holland, which has traditionally led the way in Europe in legalizing medical uses of the drug.
Marijuana is illegal in Israel but medical use has been permitted since the early 1990s for cancer patients and those with pain-related illnesses such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients can smoke the drug, ingest it in liquid form, or apply it to the skin as a balm.
In stark contrast, medical use is still hotly contested in the United States, with only 17 states and Washington, D.C. permitting medical marijuana for various approved conditions. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says smoked marijuana is not medicine, and “has not withstood the rigors of science.” In Europe, Spain, Germany and Austria have allowed or decriminalized some degrees of medical marijuana use.
The numbers of patients authorized to use marijuana is Israel is still far lower than those in the U.S. states where it is legal. Colorado, for example, has 82,000 registered users in a population of 5 million, compared the 10,000 in Israel, a country of 8 million people.
But Israelis seem enthusiastic about moving the industry forward.