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OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD— Israel: Science and Alchemy in the Real World’s Emerald City

OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD— Israel: Science and Alchemy in the Real World’s Emerald City

It shouldn’t be surprising that the People’s Medicine began in the Chosen People’s land. In 1964 Israeli biochemist Raphael Mechoulam discovered CBD and THC within the cannabis plant; soon after, his studies proved that humans have their own bodily endocannabinoid systems and that the plant’s molecules work with our own to provide healing interactions. Dr. Mechoulam’s findings sparked an unprecedented investigative frenzy, and Israel became a global leader in the cannabis industry. Today the nation is one of only three countries with a government-sponsored medical cannabis program, its knowledge and facilities second to none.


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“We have the greatest minds and technologies here, with very powerful facilities,” says Dr. Inbar Maymon-Pomeranchik, founder of the Israeli biotech firm BioDiligence. “In Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, we have 17 labs that research the endocannabinoid system. The [Agricultural Research Organization] Volcani Institute has two big labs that the government is paying to research the plant itself. You have everything – research on the plant, endocannabinoids, cannabinoids. You have Professor David (Dedi) Mieri’s Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Cannabinoid Research at Technion University [Israel Institute of Technology] in Haifa. Every day we discover something new and it’s amazing. It won’t be fast, but in a few years we will know so much more about cannabis and then it will be the magic that we are all waiting for.”

Maymon-Pomeranchik, a PhD in Plant Science and Microbiology and a former student of Dr. Mechoulam’s, has had a unique experience in the cannabis industry. After more than fifteen years as a molecular, genetics, and biotech researcher, she switched to the corporate side when investors asked for her expertise in navigating the “Green Rush.” She created her company BioDiligence as a consulting firm to help point them in the right direction.

“There is a big gap between what you think you know and what you really know,” she cautions. “Worldwide, the cannabis companies arose like mushrooms after the rain. You’re just flooded with companies and if you don’t know where to start, you can go down. People speak all the time about due diligence, and [in cannabis] the main thing is the technology. You can look at the numbers and the Profit & Loss and the cashflow, and it looks nice, but if the technology is bad… I’ve met with so many companies that really believe in what they’re doing. But they believe in it so much that they don’t see their own mistakes. So I do biodiligence – scientific due diligence – and I put a mirror up so they can see and understand. I help investors find the right companies for them; it’s like matchmaking. You have to understand the technology and future of cannabis, and to hook up with the good people that understand it also.”

Industrially, cannabis has evolved differently from anything else modern science has seen. It all goes back to the research, as Maymon-Pomeranchik points out: “Usually we start with a molecule, we go to a petri dish, to a mouse, to a monkey, and then to a person, and we know what we’ve done. In cannabis, it’s vice-versa. Somebody will tell me, ‘It cured my pain,’ so then I need to understand, ‘What did it take and how did it do that?’ We have to go back, analyze it, find the molecule, and start again. This is what many researchers in Israel are doing right now.”

Above all, she notes, it’s important for scientists to figure out the plant itself. The cannabis plant contains over 400 known compounds (Israeli researchers speculate there are at least 1,400 different molecules), and aspects associated with growing conditions, lighting, and specific strains among other elements can cause its effectiveness to vary. For example, Maymon-Pomeranchik relays the story of a mother who gave cannabis oil to her autistic daughter. Studies have shown that cannabis can help regulate communication difficulties and social behaviors in children with autism, and for a while, the daughter’s medicine worked perfectly. But when the first bottle ran out and the mother tried a second, she found that her daughter suddenly unresponsive to the new oil. The woman contacted Dr. Mechoulam, who analyzed the bottles and discovered that, although they were from the same grower, strain, and harvesting conditions, the oils had turned out completely different.

“It’s the Entourage Effect,” Maymon-Pomeranchik notes. “This is the main thing we need to research right now. It’s not like an Advil where we know the exact dose and what’s inside. We have no idea. But we need to start with education, and people in Israel are doing exactly that – all the genetics of the plant, how you maintain it, how to standardize it. It’s beautiful and super interesting.”

She explains that the international lack of precise knowledge is what’s most dangerous for both patients and investors. “When you say that cannabis helps cancer, it’s like the magic word. We can’t say that cannabis kills cancer, but we can say that there’s something there, and in a few years we’ll know how to do it. Investors want to believe just like we all do. When the investor comes and says, ‘Okay, there are five companies telling me they can do this and that,’ it can be very hard to discern who’s really doing the best thing. I try to explain, ‘Go to this company. They know what they’re doing and will do things the right way.”

Interestingly, Maymon-Pomeranchik feels that cannabis branding in the U.S. is generally better than in Israel, but that many American businesspeople are approaching Israeli companies for their growing practices and research facilities. She’s observed numerous investors who want to benefit from the industry’s potentially huge profit, but who often lose money because they’ve made decisions without the right information. “Once you understand cannabis is a medicine, you realize you don’t understand anything yet,” Maymon-Pomeranchik laughs. Americans may have the sizzle, but to play in this market we need their steak.

And there’s no time like the present to invest in Israel. Maymon-Pomeranchik calls it “a startup nation” because it’s home to both the most innovative research and one of the smallest pools of patients. Strict regulations ensure that only eight Israeli farms can grow and sell cannabis, 181 doctors are licensed to prescribe it, and approximately 28,000 patients can use it medically. The whole country is essentially a testing ground. (It’s also the site for a strange marriage between Big Pharma and Big Tobacco – this year Teva and Philip Morris have an agreement to invest millions of dollars in an Israeli cannabis company. If you can’t beat ‘em, build ‘em.)

The unknowns abound, but hope is flourishing. Based on Israeli research, we now know that cannabis can provide treatment for epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, inflammatory disorders, and so much more. According to Maymon-Pomeranchik, new experiments being done by Professor Mieri in Haifa are showing that certain cannabis strains are actually killing cancer cells at the petri dish level.

“So many people that I know use cannabis for fibromyalgia and it helps,” she adds. “It’s a horrible disease and there’s no normal medical [treatment] that you can use, but they take it and now they have life where before they only had pain. I rest my case.”

Hard to predict how much longer the rest of society will drag its feet before catching up to the Promised Land, but Maymon-Pomeranchik encourages everyone to bet on Israel. “Even if five percent of what we know about cannabis is true – and I can tell you that it’s more – we’ve got the jackpot here.” Let’s hear a universal amen for the land of milk, honey, and magic plants.