SAFED, Israel — In a greenhouse in the mountains of the Galilee, a technician in a lab coat is coddling a marijuana seedling that is coveted for life-saving medical benefits for epileptic children, doctors say — without the high.
Named “Rafael,” for a healing angel called upon by Moses, this varietal of cannabis is for people who don’t want to be under the influence, and it is available in oral doses in Israel.
Israel has become a world leader in science on the medical uses of marijuana, and its producers could become major exporters of medical cannabis, experts say. But so far, the government has allowed them to export only their knowledge — not the actual product.
Michael Dor, the senior medical adviser in the Israeli Health Ministry’s cannabis unit, said that in ongoing government talks, agricultural officials support the export of Israeli medical cannabis, but top officials in the police force, army and executive branch oppose it. Exports face stringent international legal requirements, Dor said, adding that those officials “don’t want Israel to be seen all over the world as a country that exports weapons and cannabis.”
Even without being exported, Israel’s medical cannabis research and development is drawing global interest. PhytoTech Medical, an Australian medical cannabis venture that just raised $6 million in a public offering, announced a deal last week with Yissum, the technology transfer arm of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, to develop precisely dosed pills for the mainstream pharmaceutical market.
On Thursday, Israeli producers will hold a Jaffa investors conference, called Canna Tech Israel. It will feature Colorado doctor Alan Shackelford, whose patient Charlotte Figi experienced a dramatic decrease in her severe epileptic seizures after being treated with a medical cannabis, dubbed “Charlotte’s Web,” triggering a wave of American interest in the medical potential of marijuana.
“Israel is a bastion of cannabis research,” said Shackelford, who is now the chief science officer for One World Cannabis, publicly traded as OWC Pharmaceuticals.
Another participant, Syqe Medical, has developed a metered-dose cannabis inhaler — with the help of a $1 million state grant.
“It could be huge,” said Aharon Lutzky, the chief executive of Tikun Olam, a leading medical cannabis producer whose Galilee greenhouses spawned Rafael and other strains. “There is demand all over the world.”
A recent headline in the Israeli English-language newspaper Haaretz asked, “Can Israel Lead the World in Weed?”
For now, the inability to export is setting limits on the industry’s ambitions. When the health minister from the Czech Republic visited last year, he was unable to get a deal to import Israeli cannabis.
If Israel does not export, there is a risk that “the knowledge will leak outside Israel, and the knowledge is worth a lot of money,” Dor said. “We would like to stay in the forefront.”
A government spokesman declined to comment on the export restrictions.
“Israel is truly at the forefront of medical marijuana,” said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington. “Why would Israel want to forgo its leadership?”
Several American states are pushing ahead with marijuana legalization for medicinal and recreational use, but U.S. laws make clinical research difficult or impossible. Israel, on the other hand, began cannabis research 50 years ago and studies its medical uses in a growing public-health program, although it has not legalized recreational use.
Shackelford, a Harvard-trained physician, said he is conducting research in Israel after seeing U.S. drug laws block clinical studies, even into promising applications for illnesses, such as ALS, that conventional medicine cannot help.
This year, he will lead studies in Israel on pain, skin disorders, seizure disorders, several types of cancers, migraine headaches and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I went to Israel because I was frustrated,” he said. “Israel is the one place in the world that combines the scientific expertise, world-class universities and scientists. It’s so exciting.”
Israel first approved medical cannabis for a patient in 1992, for severe asthma. In 2007, the Health Ministry implemented a comprehensive medical cannabis program, and now 20,000 patients are permitted to use cannabis — a number expected to rise to 30,000 by 2016.
Israeli doctors use it to treat ailments including Crohn’s disease, basal cell carcinoma, psoriasis, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and PTSD in Israeli military veterans, and the pain of cancer patients and the elderly. Its doses are available in cookies, caramels, chocolates, oils, and leaf form for smoking or vaporizing.
One of Canada’s leading producers, MedReleaf, is tapping Israel’s expertise, in a partnership it signed in May 2014 with Tikun Olam, whose name means “Healing the World” in Hebrew.
MedReleaf now produces strains including the non-intoxicating varieties, with high concentrations of cannabidiol, or CBD — a powerful anti-inflammatory with no narcotic effect — and low tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which creates the “high” typically associated with marijuana.
“Tikun Olam shares their 10 years of data, so we can say, ‘Our Israeli partner has treated 817 patients with Crohn’s or colitis or Alzheimer’s, and they know that this variety, with this dosage, is the optimum,’ ” said Neil J. Closer, the chief executive of MedReleaf.
For the past year, Dor has collected clinical data from Israeli doctors, hospitals and universities to develop national cannabis treatment guidelines, which he said he has shared with the Jamaican health ministry, among other interested parties.
One contributor was Timna Naftali, a gastroenterologist at Meir Hospital, who said she was skeptical in 2011 when she prescribed cannabis to 30 patients with Crohn’s disease.
But “the results were dramatic,” she said. “They didn’t need steroids or surgery or hospitalization.”
Neurologists who have been monitoring 67 children with intractable epilepsy at four medical centers reported “promising” results last week at an epilepsy conference in Tel Aviv.
Avigael Ka’atabi said her 15-year-old epileptic son, Eden, once suffered continual seizures so severe that he needed a helmet. After Eden’s neurologist prescribed cannabis oil in May, his seizures dropped by half, she said.
“It’s like a whole new life for us,” Ka’atabi said at a Tel Aviv clinic.
Researcher Ruth Gallily, a professor emerita of Hebrew University, said there also are indications that cannabis can lower the incidence of diabetes and can reduce permanent damage following heart attacks.
“In the right hands, it could really help a lot of people,” she said.