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Israel is making progress toward becoming the world’s third national exporter of medical cannabis. In an announcement this week, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel said that within two years Israel will join the Netherlands and Canada as global cannabis suppliers.

Israel has long been an international frontrunner in the field of medical cannabis. In 1964, Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam became the first person to isolate THC in a lab. In 1992 Mechoulam and his colleagues isolated and described anandamide, a endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter in the human brain. The country is a world leader in cannabis research, and it was the third country after the Netherlands and Canada to establish a national medical cannabis agency as mandated under United Nations drug treaties.

“The Agriculture Ministry has set up specific areas for the research and trial of growing cannabis, a plant whose foremost use is the medical treatment of patients around the world,” Ariel, the agriculture minister, told Israel Radio.

Israeli medical cannabis activist Boaz Wachtel welcomed the news of exports as a step forward but not yet a breakthrough. Wachtel, chairman of the board for CBD neutraceutical company Creso Pharma, served as a representative on a 1995 parliamentary committee that examined the legal status of cannabis. “The export option has been denied a number of times by the authorities,” he told Leafly. “Here we have one minister who makes a supportive statement — which is progress — but the final decision is at the hands of the full cabinet. And there are some ministers, such as the minister of interior affairs, who oppose this move.”

Leafly caught up with Wachtel to discuss the state of cannabis in Israel.

Leafly: What’s the situation for medical cannabis patients in Israel like at the moment?

Boaz Wachtel: Around 25,000 patients receive medical cannabis from eight growers. The government recently decided to move from licenses for patients to prescriptions and to supply the medical cannabis via the pharmacies. The number of doctors who can prescribe will be expanded, now it is limited to a small number of expert physicians. The health ministry has compiled a comprehensive book on cannabis for both doctors and patients, The Green Book, that forms the basis for doctor’s education that is a prerequisite for joining the prescribing doctors. We’ve had problems with pain doctors because people who wanted medical cannabis came to them, because pain is a subjective, self reported symptom, as opposed to other illnesses. So many patients chose this route to have access to medical cannabis — at a monthly cost of a hundred U.S. dollars, regardless of quantity. There is some leakage from patients to recreational users, mainly because medical cannabis is 10 times cheaper than recreational cannabis.

Do you think home growing for patients will be decriminalized or legalized anytime soon?

No. The minister of justice recently talked about replacing criminal prosecution of smokers with civil penalties, a good but insufficient move. There are a few members of Parliament who support one-plant home growing, but it did not advance as a law yet.

How is the situation for recreational cannabis consumers in Israel?

Many people smoke. There are over 22,000 arrests a year for cannabis smoking and dealing, but most of these people are released and not prosecuted. This is a waste of money and resources by the police and the judicial system, not to mention all the other disadvantages of cannabis prohibition.

Do you see any downside to the agriculture minister’s plans should they go through?

Not really, no. It may help local growers become more professional and help maintain or reduce the price for local patients.