- He travels between his secret grow site, where he caresses gently every bud with his own hands, and his living room, where he distributes the pot to tormented AIDS and cancer patients.
- Funerals add to his busy schedule. "I stopped counting them," he says.
- The only person in Israel who is licensed by the state to grow and distribute Medical Marijuana, is not yet thirty years old. He sees his work as a mission: "If I won't help them, nobody will."
- Allowing a private entrepreneur to do this does not seem to a problem, says the Israeli Health Department: "It's the best solution possible today."
By Ariella Ayalon, Oded Shalom and Gideon Meron
Published in Yedioth Aharonoth, Hamoosaf Le'Shabath (The Saturday Addition)
on December 28th, 2007
The smell hits you first. The sweet heavy scent. Then comes the sadness. The room, soaking with soft light, typical for an Israeli winter morning, is filled with pain. Wherever you look, you see torments of pain. A woman stands at the door. Her face is pale, it is evident she is under chemotherapy. Embarrassed she greets us with a short "Hello", lowers her eyes, takes a tiny bag, and hurries outside.
The door is open and the traffic of people never ceases. From morning till night, patients and their family members come in and go out, most of them have met each other in former visits. Cancer, AIDS and Tourette patients. They come from all over the country, mostly twice a week, sit on the couch and chairs, exchanging treatment and hospitalization stories. Some of them are at the end of the road, their doctors are helpless. All they can do is try to ease the pain.
They come here for compassion – it's the only distribution point for Medical Marijuana in Israel, and this is the first time it's being exposed to the public. It's the last stop for many of the people who enter this door. They yearn for the drug dosage that would save them, they reach out to as if was a magic potion, handed to them by an ancient Medicine Man.
Last April the Health Department produced for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, "A license for growing, conveying and supplying a dangerous drug (Marijuana) following chapters 6, 7 of the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance," for a private non-patient entrepreneur. That "private entrepreneur" is the only person in Israel who grows and distributes medical quality Cannabis, under the Health Department license and with its blessing. The man to whom the Health Department handed the job of relieving terminal patient's pain is a single man, under thirty years old, whose eyes are shining with religious fire when he talks about his life mission.
The people who knock on his door can only reach him through a referral authorized by an expert doctor. The location of the house where he distributes the drug to the patients, as well as the location of the farm where he grows the plants is secret, so that criminals wouldn't be able to put their hands on the exquisite drug. Only patients get his phone number – from the Health Department. They call, make the appointment, arrive hesitantly to the secret "clinic" and leave it with an opaque bag with 5-10 grams (0.17-0.35 oz.) of excellent marijuana.
The "Pharmacist's" hands are busy at work. He stands above a large tray, laden with green cannabis buds and fills bag after bag with pot, which is still considered a dangerous drug in Israel. He is so young and fragile looking, but he already knows every kind of pain that exists in this world. He is a believer – he believes in God and in Cannabis. For him, marijuana is a gateway for a better world, calmer and more peaceful, that can change a terminal patient's life totally, relieve their pain and sometimes heal the pain.
The patients' pain goes deep inside his soul. They feel that his heart is open and open up to him, confess their agonies to him, and he does his best to lend them a non-judgmental ear, to listen, say a warm word, and in most cases, to comfort them. "Since I started distributing pot, I absorb more and more pain," he says, "I'm now on the edge of my capability to witness human suffering."
"I can't count the number of funerals I attended. I have to go, these people opened their soul to me. SO I stand there, absorb all the pain and sadness, then gets back here and the phone rings again, patients ask me when should they come." Several times during our conversation he couldn't hold himself. His eyes are full of tears.
"It saves me"
The TV set in "The Pharmacist"'s reception room is on, turned to the fashion channel, where beautiful healthy people project from the screen. A tray with cannabis buds is on the table, and the bookshelves contain the Zohar (A kabbalistic book, of Jewish mysticism) books and books of prayer, alongside books by K.Zetnik, the Holocaust survivor author who wrote about his experience when he was treated with L.S.D, the hallucinatory drug that helped him quiet his nightmares from the concentration camps.
Yossi Boozaglo, 49, an AIDS patient, sits on the couch. "Do me the favor," he pleads to the 'pharmacist,' with a choked voice, "help me with this mucus." The "pharmacist" treats him to a joint soaked in cannabis oil he produced. The cannabis oil enhances the drug's affect on the body. "the Cannabis saves me, just like that," says Boozaglo. "Thanks to the Cannabis I can eat. I gained some weight and I look more or less like a human being. It helps me take my medication. I don't vomit and I'm more relaxed."
About 60 patients in Israel hold a license for using Marijuana. In some cases they are permitted to grow it, i.e., to produce it, by themselves, for no more than ten plants. But most of the patients don't grow them by themselves. Many tried and gave up, some because they didn't manage to grow anything, or because the low quality of the drug. People tormented with dying pains don't have the energy to garden.
Boozaglo was the first patient in Israel who received a license to grow, keep and use Cannabis. It happened in 2000, following a campaign that Boaz Wachtel from Alé Yarok party (Israeli Legalization party) held for him. Even prior to that, Boozaglo had a recommendation for Cannabis usage for four years, and each time he needed it, he had to go to a dangerous criminal neighborhood to get it. He paid a hefty price for these trips: 25 police records of dealing dangerous drugs.
"On the one hand they gave me permission to use, on the other hand they told me to get it on my own, that is, obtain it illegally," says Boozaglo. "The growing license I got didn't make sense either. I take the cocktail for AIDS, 20 pills, twice a day. That's torture. The pills make cause me nausea, degeneration, legs paralysis, lack of appetite, most terrible suffering. Who has energy to look after the seedlings?"
"I couldn't wait until something would sprout in my pots. I'm a hairdresser, I used to design haircuts. What did they think? That I would turn into a farmer in one day?! Now, when we have the "Pharmacist" here, I don't need to meet criminals, I don't need to spend the little money I have, it's a very heavy burden that's off my back now. Truth is, without the "Pharmacist" I wouldn't have made it this year."
In many cases, the family members are those who encourage the Cannabis usage. A cancer patient's daughter we met at the "Pharmacist" told us that her mother wasn't willing to hear about smoking pot. "My mom used to smoke a cigarette a week maybe, and had many years when she didn't smoke at all. For her pot was a hard drug, just like Heroin. It took me two years to convince her to smoke Cannabis. She didn't want to hear about it."
"After a radiation treatment, she couldn't leave her bed for two weeks. She suffered terrible fatigue, constant nausea, emotional 'downs'. She had non-stop pain in the abdomen and the back. She felt like shit most of the time. An absolute catastrophe. Two weeks ago she received her medical Marijuana license and she is a different person now. It reduced her nausea radically, eased her pains significantly. It relieves her. She can breathe and eat. She started whining recently that she was gaining weight."
A regular client is a father of a fourteen year old cancer patient. He comes to pick up a cannabis bag for his son. "Ten month ago he was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor," he shares. "After radiation and chemotherapy he lost his appetite. The boy couldn't eat anything. Every week he lost two pounds. Except for water, he couldn't put anything in his mouth. He wanted to eat, he said he missed his grandmother's cooking, but he wasn't capable of eating. Four months ago his ward director gave him a recommendation for Cannabis usage."
Q: how did the boy react?
A: "He was very surprised. He didn't get it at first, but we convinced him it would help him."
Q: You didn't have any problem with it?
A: "Not at all. Life saving demands adjustment sometimes. Since he started smoking his blood test are fine, his weight is stable and he has gotten his appetite back. I will never forget the first night he smoked. I came home with the bag I got from the "Pharmacist", and I rolled him a joint for the night. Who would believe I'd do such a thing? After a short while he asked for Dulmas. Seeing him eat and enjoy his food after all these month was amazing, and very very thrilling.
The "Pharmacist" tells us about parents of small children for whom this is the last hope. They take the buds to their kids, whose suffering is immense, and blow the smoke into their faces to relieve their pain a little.
The Forbidden Garden of Eden
The patients see him as their angel, and he makes the best medicine for them. He redeems them, and seeks redemption himself, while seeing his occupation as a merely spiritual one. When we drove with him to the growing site, somewhere in Israel, he noticed a holy place suddenly, and asked us to stop, "to bless the whole world, my patients, me, and you too." He encircled the place seven times until he clamed down, after which we continued.
The growing site is secured and surrounded by a high fence. The "Pharmacist"'s facility is one of the most advanced ones in the world: Exquisite seeds, organic farming, a special lighting for the fifty plants, a highly efficient irrigation and an extremely accurate air conditioning – all these give the plants an opportunity to grow in a five star environment. The green potted plants, arranged in lines, bloom beautifully, and the whole place is charged with the intoxicating smell of the Cannabis flowers. A forbidden Garden of Eden, that is permitted here, with a special license from the Health Department.
He knows every plant, cares for each bud like a baby. Touches, pets and checks the leaves. Caresses with his hand and puts to his nose. The smell tells him all about the bud. A woman in a white robe is the gardener. A devoted student of the "Pharmacist", she is a biologist who sees the growing as a mission, a Mitzva (a religious duty).
"The Pharmacist" shows us a diploma from a Dutch medical institute for growing Cannabis, that confirms he indeed studied how to grow Cannabis. Turns out he was a very good student. The guy grows Cannabis of an incomparable quality. 23% active ingredient, according to the laboratory of Prof. Raffi Meshulam, who won the Israel Prize for his life long study of medical Cannabis. The Cannabis distributed by "The Pharmacist" to his patients is the best organic quality that has been ever examined officially in a laboratory.
For example, the Marijuana that is grown by Bedouins in Sinai and smuggled into Israel, the rate of the active ingredients is not more than 4%. Marijuana that is grown by drug dealers in Israel it might get to 12%, the same as the pot one can purchase at the coffee shops in Holland. It takes 165 or more of active ingredients to make a Cannabis bud into a medical one.
The expenses are enormous: Electricity, water, organic farming and all the rest. The Health Department supplies him with a license, sends people to him, but does not pay a penny, and does not participate in the growing expanses. "The Pharmacist" doesn't ask the patients to pay either, he gives the drug for free. It sounds dubious, but "The Pharmacist" claims he does it for love, because he needs to help people.
"This is the way I was brought up," he explains. "I grew up with parents who gave and gave. For me, money is only on the fanfare, although I live on the overdraft the bank lets me have, and my expanses get bigger and bigger."
Q: how come you took charge of the whole thing, including growing and distributing? You took a role that should be taken by the state.
A: "It didn't happen in one day. A few years ago I lived in California, where 600,000 patients have a license to use Cannabis. I knew a patient there, who had a license and took me to a compassion club, where the stuff was distributed. When you visit such a place and see the patients who go there, in which state they are and how they sit and smoke and suddenly smile, relieved a little from the pain, you can't remain indifferent to it."
Q: And still, why did you take charge?
A: Because when I returned to Israel I had to make a decision. Do I take the path of ordinary life and work, or do I do something significant? When I returned to Israel it I already had a passion for it. I researched the topic briefly and realized there was nothing here. That the very ill people have nowhere to go. Even if they have a license, they can't obtain high quality Cannabis. And for that matter, only medical quality Cannabis can relieve pains and improve the quality of life for the chronically and terminally ill.
"So I went to Holland to study how to grow, knowing that I am going to return to Israel, to grow for patients. When I got back I started going to the cancer wards of the big hospitals in Israel. I talked to patients, and told them about the Cannabis and its benefits. In some places the doctors threw me out, claiming that I came to drug the patients.
"You go looking at the hospitals and realize that the state deserts people when they get sick. You see people in pain who continue suffering. You try to help, but you can't do much. If I won't give them a hand, nobody will. People at the end of their life, at the last stop on their journey, need compassion. I took charge of that mission.
Pot with a police Certificate
The official connection between "The Pharmacist" and the Health Department started about four years ago. The young "Pharmacist" turned to Dr. Yehuda Baruch, who heads currently the mental hospital Abarbanel, and formerly the head of healthcare services in the Health Department and the person who is in charge of producing the medical Marijuana licenses in the last six years.
"The Pharmacist" introduced himself and asked to take part in the department's activities. "I came out of Dr. Baruch's office with a permission to help the Medical Cannabis association. It was a small non-profit group of patients who tried to grow it themselves, but with the treatments and their own problems, they couldn't afford to do that seriously. Working with them was hard and we lost touch, but I continued to visit the hospices in the hospitals regularly."
Last January the cooperation between him and the Health Department was upgraded to a new stage. "The Pharmacist" initiated, produced and organized a medical Cannabis conference in Abarbanel hospital in Bat Yam. With Dr. Baruch's permission and blessing. The conference features talks by the Health Department's CEO, Dr. Boaz Lev, Prof. Raphael Meshulam and other experts from Israel and abroad. AIDS, cancer and pain patients talked about the improvement that occurred in their life following the usage. After the conference "The Pharmacist" submitted an official application for a growing and supplying license.
Dr. Baruch discussed the application with the members of the consulting committee, who recommend giving licenses to qualifying patients. The discussion included other high officials form the Israel Police and other units of the Health Department. After the consultation they decided to allow "The Pharmacist" to grow and supply medical Marijuana, on one condition: The approval of the Israel Police.
"They let the Police run a check on me, and they researched my past thoroughly," says "The Pharmacist", but of course I have no criminal record. Since that time, every six months I am obligated to send the Health Department a confirmation from the Police that states that I don't have any criminal record.
Ever since it became official, Dr. Baruch's office refers all the licensed patients to "The Pharmacist". His office manger, Hannah Daniel, is the one who refers the patient to the distributor. Dr. Baruch doesn't see the fact that the Health Department has handed the task of relieving terminal patient's pain to a private entrepreneur. He doesn't find the fact that in a socialized medicine country such as Israel, the state does not fund the Cannabis problematic.
"In the original license we produced, we decided to allow the patients to produce the drug for their own needs," he explains, "however, since the patient found growing difficult, and the number of Cannabis patients grew larger, the State had to come up with a solution."
Q: So, is it the best possible solution?
A: "There are too many issues and problems we have to solve before we completely settle it officially. The main factor here is the best interest of the patient. If somebody is willing to grow and supply, I'm willing to give him a license, after I checked him."
From that point of view, "The Pharmacist" is a godsend to the Health Department. "The Health Department won't fund him, because apparently there's a legal problem here," elaborates dr. Baruch. "Look, it's a complicated situation. We acknowledge him, and therefore we gave him a permission to works with the government, and we let the Police know about it."
Q: What do you know about "The Pharmacist" and his capability?
A: "the Police confirmed that he has no criminal record and this is all I know about him. My job is to make sure the patients get a service, and I need to find a legal supply of the stuff, and I don't have a problem with it. Everything is done in the light of day . It's none of my business if he served in the military or if he is mentally fit."
Having said that, Dr. Baruch admits that "in a way, I feel uncomfortable. I don't avert my eyes, and I'm aware to the fact that he wants his business to grow, and have a status of an approved supplier for the USA."
Q: Did you look for other resources?
A: "Nowadays the Health Department is negotiating with another entrepreneur who might get a license for growing Cannabis, because the state can't depend on one supplier only."
Until about a month ago, the Police supervised "The Pahrmacist""s grow facility. Once a week a police officer used to come to count the plants and make sure he obeyed the license restrictions, that he didn't grow more than he is allowed and that he didn't sells the surplus. A few weeks ago the supervision was transferred to the County Pharmacist. "The Police didn't like this job. On the one hand they chase Marijuana dealers, on the other, supervising a growing facilty. In cooperation with them, we decided to take charge of the supervision."
The Police reports: "The Health Department is the one that can permit growing medical Marijuana by law. The department chooses the grower, set the terms, and it's the Health Department that supervise the extent of the growing, the number of the patients and their free supply by the grower."
"The Pharmacist" swears that all the plants he grows by permission go to the licensed patients only. "I have never sold Cannabis for money. Never in my life."
Doctors for Smoking
Despite the problematic procedures, the medical community agrees almost unanimously about the benefits of medical Marijuana. Dr. Itay Gur- Arie, who is the head of the Department of Anesthesiology at the Sheba Medical Center and the head of the Israeli Pain Association is an ardent supporter. "Many patients, some of them terminal, take all kinds of Morphine to deal with the pain, but in many cases, in spite of the high dosage, it doesn't affect them. In addition to that, these substances have dangerous and serious side effects. In some of these cases, mainly when the Morphine treatments has failed, the medical Marijuana does a perfect job."
"Some conservatives still oppose treating patients with this drug, that unlike Morphine, that is produced from Opium, wasn't approved legally. Those opponents stick to a common notion, that is not necessarily progressive, that says: 'Give the patients Morphine, anything but Marijuana.' That's like saying: 'Don't give your kids pot, give them Heroin'. In the recent years, there's a new understanding of this matter, and surprisingly enough, it comes from the regulator, the Health Department. It doesn't come from the HMOs or the companies. It shows that they are open. It's enlightened and right."
Prof. Raphael Meshulam of the Hebrew University, chairperson of Natural and Medicine Sciences in the Israeli Science Academy, who supervises the Israeli universities, supports the usage of pot for medical purposes, but also points out that such usage is not problem-free. "In nature, there is no problem-free substance, not even vitamins, and the same thing can be said about medical Marijuana, that is produced from Cannabis."
"A high dosage of medical Marijuana can cause changes in the emotional, perceptual systems and in a person's judgment, AKA 'High'. Nevertheless, when it is taken through the mouth, by smoking or inhaling, it is absorbed well and is highly effective. Therefore we have found that taking it naturally is much more beneficial than the processed version. That is to synthesize it in a laboratory and make it into a pill."
In the meantime, "The Pharmacist"'s enterprise is threatened due to lack of funds. "I don't know how I'll be able to continue growing and supplying the Cannabis to the patients, when the costs are growing bigger, and I'm too busy to have a proper job that brings a regular salary. I received $5,000 from the www.maps.organization that promotes using drugs as medicine and used it to build the fence around the facility, and I'm negotiating with them for a possible regular financial support. Support comes through my own personal connections. The Health Department is not involved in this."
"Even if I have permission to sell Marijuana to patients for money, that's not the answer. Patients who come to me can't purchase the medicine themselves, because they can hardly afford the treatments costs. I'm willing to get the funds for the patients from the state or medical insurance companies. In any case, the patients must be able to receive the medicine free and safely. After all, they are the ones who really suffer."
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