Article by Yardena Schwartz, Rolling Stone
Standing on the rear balcony of a gray factory building off the side of a highway, Tamir Gedo shields his eyes from the blazing sun. He points to the 23 acres of agricultural fields spread out before him. “We’ll be able to produce more cannabis here than the entire state of Colorado,” he says. Minutes later, walking past the 8,000 square-foot storage room, he adds, “We can store enough in this warehouse to supply medical marijuana for the whole United States.”
With one million square feet of cultivation fields, a 35,000-square-foot production plant, and 30,000 square feet of grow rooms and labs, Gedo’s company, Breath of Life Pharma (BOL), is about to open the world’s largest medical marijuana production, research and development facility. According to Gedo’s estimates, BOL will produce 80 tons – more than 175,000 pounds – of cannabis per year.
A tour of BOL’s new facility feels like a walk through the medical-marijuana version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. With its patented extraction and purification equipment, grow rooms and germination labs, BOL will be pumping out pharmaceutical-grade cannabis tablets, capsules, inhalers and oils that are customized to treat certain ailments, with specific and controlled consistencies.
And no, this isn’t happening in Colorado, California, or anywhere near America for that matter. This medical weed wonderland sits in what might be the last place you would imagine finding the world’s largest facility for medical marijuana: Israel.
Over the past 50 years, Israel has become the epicenter of medical pot. Home to Raphael Mechoulam, the pioneer of marijuana research, Israel is where THC and the endocannabinoid system were first discovered. And with the world’s largest number of clinical trials testing the benefits of medicinal cannabis, Israel has become the global destination for medical cannabis research and development. Now it is becoming the offshore greenhouse for American cannabis companies seeking to overcome the federal roadblocks standing in their way.
Israel was among the first countries to legalize medicinal use, and is one of just three countries with a government-supported medical cannabis program. Though recreational use remains illegal, support for legalization is a bipartisan issue, with some of the most outspoken proponents coming from the right. Until now, Israel’s role in this multi-billion dollar field has been limited to R&D. Yet now that the Israeli government has approved the export of medicinal cannabis products, companies there are hoping to gain a larger piece of the market. While importing cannabis into the United States is illegal under federal law, companies can get around that ban by receiving drug approval from the FDA – and that is exactly what Israeli companies hope to do. According to the FDA, nothing is stopping them, as long as they meet the agency’s arduous requirements for drug approval.
While the FDA has approved three drugs containing synthetic cannabinoids (Marinol, Syndros and Cesamet, which treat symptoms of AIDS and chemotherapy), it has never approved a product derived from botanical marijuana. According to the agency’s guidelines, “Study of marijuana in clinical trial settings is needed to assess the safety and effectiveness of marijuana for medical use.” Yet initiating clinical trials on U.S. soil is difficult to the point of being nearly impossible. So, American companies are increasingly taking a shortcut: beginning phases 1 and 2 of their clinical trials in Israel, after which they will complete phase 3 in the U.S., speeding up the process through which they can apply for FDA approval of the botanical cannabis drugs they are developing.
Though this level of American R&D in Israel is new, Israel’s impact on the American cannabis industry is not. The very fact that medical marijuana is now legal in 29 U.S. states and counting, is a direct result of Israeli research, which essentially legitimized the study of cannabis in the international scientific community that had long stigmatized it. Without this research, “We wouldn’t have the scientific interest we have now around the world,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “That really opened the door to making the study of cannabis and cannabinoids a legitimate avenue for more conventional scientists and researchers.”