Going to Pot

Going to Pot

written by Sheera Claire Frenkel

Published in the Jerusalem Post
on 9 April, 2007

The first time D. smoked marijuana, he decided to make it a family
affair. His wife, cousin and grandson sat with him as the 75-year- old
Tel Aviv native carefully tucked the leaves into a Jamaican-accented
pipe and lit up.

“They left as soon as I started smoking. That was important, that is
part of the rules,” said D. “I never thought, never in a thousand years,
that I would be a marijuana-smoker… I also never knew what marijuana
really did.”

One year ago, D.’s cancer resurfaced after a long period of remission.
His doctor recommended aggressive chemotherapy that took a toll on his

“I was so dizzy, I felt really nauseated all the time. I lost a lot of
weight and that was worse than anything else,” said D. His grandson, who
was studying to become a pediatrician, told him about the benefits of
medical marijuana and encouraged him to discuss it with his doctor.

“The first time I remember thinking, ‘This is not bad enough, the
cancer? I will also become a drug addict the last years of my life? God
forbid,'” said D. “I had to read a lot. And truly, my grandson convinced
me a lot, before I could even talk to my doctor about the option.”

D. now credits marijuana with extending and improving the quality of his
life. He grows the plants in a small room adjacent to the kitchen,
watering them with the same canister that his wife has used for years to
cultivate the lush tangerine and kumquat trees in their backyard. They
like to argue about who is the better gardener.

According to Dr. Yehuda Baruch, the head of the Health Ministry unit
which approves licenses for medical marijuana, there are currently 88
active licenses for cannabis. Marijuana was first prescribed here in the
1990s, and he estimates that since then it has been prescribed to more
than 150 patients.

Baruch is not sure how many requests he receives each year, but said
that roughly 40 percent of the people who apply for cannabis are

“Many of the applications we get are not really legitimate. They are the
applications of private people asking on their own behalf,” he said.

Several years ago, the Health Ministry established an application
procedure for medical marijuana.

The unit in charge of fielding the applications only accepts requests
from recognized doctors.
Chemotherapy, the AIDS cocktail, chronic pain, glaucoma and Crohn’s
disease are currently ailments that qualify patients for marijuana. If
the doctor is applying on the basis of one of those ailments, the
application is generally approved as long as the patient has no criminal
record. Occasionally, doctors will also apply for marijuana for the
treatment of less serious ailments. In those cases, they must provide
published medical research qualifying the use of marijuana as treatment.

“For the people that apply on their own behalf, most never try again
through a doctor. Most are not serious,” Baruch said. “Of those that
apply through a doctor, however, 80 percent are approved.”

Once a patient is approved, he is given permission to grow up to 10
plants or possess up to 250 grams at a given time. He must notify the
Health Ministry and the police of the exact location where the plants
will be grown and consumed.

GROWING OR consuming the plants at just any address is illegal.

“One of the biggest problems facing us is the growing of the plants, the
production. Many of the patients who receive permission for medical
marijuana often don’t have the ability to grow the plants,” said Boaz
Wachtal, a public health activist who has spent the past 15 years
working on marijuana legislation.

On March 20, the Health Ministry’s panel for medical marijuana convened
and approved one long-time grower for large-scale production. The Tel
Aviv resident has provided approved patients with free cannabis for the
past several years. The panel’s decision will enable the grower to
cultivate high-grade, organically grown marijuana for medicinal
purposes. However, there are several hurdles left to overcome.

“The issue is now with the police, who are dragging their feet [and]
even once he gets approved, there is the problem of raising enough money
to actually make it happen,” Wachtal said.
He is currently looking for donations, both here and abroad. In addition
to the building and planting material, the greenhouse would need
round-the-clock security and supervision.

Last month’s meeting to approve a grower is a “positive step,” said
Baruch, although he stressed that drastic changes in the laws relating
to medical use of marijuana were not needed and the current system met
the demands of patients.

“I don’t think that it is so pressing for legislation for change on
this. There is a lot of work being done on a political level. I am not a
part of that,” he said. “Of course there is also always a need for

OVER THE past decade, three MKs have introduced legislation to legalize
marijuana possession. Two of them, Naomi Chazan and Roman Bronfman, were
from the left-wing Meretz party. Last month, however, MK Aryeh Eldad,
from the religious right-wing National Union-National Religious Party,
also proposed a bill for legalization, marking a milestone in the slow
crawl of religious/right-wing ideology toward marijuana legislation.

“We have had a lot of success convincing the right-wing and religious
parties to support legalization,” said Michelle Levine, a spokeswoman
for the Alei Yarok party which advocates legalizing marijuana. “We have
already been assured that if the issue comes to a vote, the right-wing
religious parties will vote in favor… A big part of our argument
actually stems from the Torah and mentions of cannabis there.” [The
Jerusalem Post could not confirm any such specific reference.]

As activists such as Wachtal are working to create laws to allow for
broader medical marijuana usage, debate over the use and efficiency of
cannabis is being waged in international forums.

There are six other countries in which people can currently take
marijuana for various ailments. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the
purchase and possession of small amounts of cannabis is legal, but
cultivating and wholesaling it are not. Spain and Switzerland have
decriminalized the consumption and home cultivation of cannabis, but
buying or selling it remains illegal. In 2001, the UK announced that the
possession of small quantities would not be prosecuted, but the drug
remains illegal. In Canada, the drug is legal only for medical use, but
its use is broadly tolerated. The situation is most complicated in the
US, where certain states have legalized marijuana within restricted
parameters, while others still prosecute its use as a criminal offense.

“Marijuana could be of a huge medical benefit to hundreds of people in
Israel, but years and years of the US-adopted prohibitionist policy have
created a lot of misconceptions,” said Wachtal.

“There are many people who could be applying, or at least exploring the
medical benefits, but they do not because of the negative propaganda
surrounding marijuana… Part of the problem is the perception of
cannabis in general society.

People don’t know what it really is; they think that th
ey are going to
see flying pink elephants because of all the government propaganda.”
D. also thought that he would be having elaborate hallucinations while
on cannabis. Instead, he said, he has only been feeling “happy and

“I was scared, but also excited to maybe see these things. But I never
see anything imaginary or fantastic. I just see the world as a happier
place,” he said.

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The Jerusalem Post published “Going to Pot” — an article about the medical use of marijuana in Israel, for which there is growing political and medical support.