Hunger strikes and protests forcing medical marijuana reform in Israel


Israel Minister of Health Yael German.

Facing increasing opposition from doctors and patients who support and depend on the use of medical marijuana, Israel’s Minister of Health, Yael German, has seen her Facebook page dominated by dissent, and a full-scale hunger protest form on her front lawn.
The protests spawned from a recent increase on the regulations that govern the country’s blooming medical marijuana program, specifically on what illnesses would be eligible for treatment with some Kosher Kush.

Approved by the Knesset Health Committee in Israel’s legislative branch of government, the restrictions would still allow patients who were either in the process of chemotherapy, or less than one year removed from it, to use medical marijuana. The new procedure would also recognize Crohn’s disease, certain intestinal infections, extreme weight loss or low blood cell counts due to HIV, multiple sclerosis, and terminally ill patients with less than a half a year to live as being eligible for treatment with cannabis. Additionally, patients with neural diseases and associated pains may be eligible for medical marijuana use, but only after undergoing at least one year of more “traditional” treatment at a recognized health care clinic without signs of improvement.
The list of eligible ailments is definitely short, and neglects those suffering from illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma, and psychiatric disorders. Protesters of the new law say that it severely limits the availability of medical marijuana permits, even denying access to patients who would have previously been eligible.
They argue that the list of applicable illnesses is “arbitrary and discriminatory”, and that patients should not be obliged to try powerful and addictive pharmaceutical drugs, like those containing opiates. They accuse German (who may have the most unfortunate last name in all of Israel) and the Ministry of Health of protecting the high-powered lobbies of the pharmaceutical drug companies, a charge the Israeli government denies.
The Ministry of Health pushes back against those claims with statistics showing that the number of medical marijuana permits issued rose dramatically from 1,800 in 2009, to over 11,000 this year. They also claim that cannabis use has nearly quadrupled from 100 kilos a month, to 370 kilos a month.
Adding fuel to the fiery debate, German was recently quoted saying, “Cannabis is not a medical drug. Its effectiveness has not been proven empirically, yet there’s evidence that it helps alleviate pain. It’s defined as a dangerous substance, and therefore a permit is needed to use it.”
Perhaps German didn’t get the memo.
Since instituting the nation-wide medical marijuana program in 2011, the duty of issuing the exclusive permits on a case-by-case basis fell upon the Ministry of Health, and their Medical Cannabis Unit. Soon thereafter, eight oncologists from various Israeli hospitals were approved by the government to prescribe medical marijuana to cancer patients, in an attempt to cut down on unrealistic waiting periods.
In response to the outcry and public protests over the newly revised list of applicable illnesses, German and the Knesset met again yesterday in an attempt to quell the protesters. The result of the meeting was an announcement that 11 additional doctors would be approved to prescribe medical cannabis, bringing the total number to 19, effectively doubling patients’ access to the permitting process. In addition, German has ordered the labeling committee to begin discussions regarding the possible expansion of the list of applicable ailments.
A group of more progressive Israeli politicians, led by Dov Khenin of the Hadash party, are drawing up legislation that would toss out the existing criteria altogether, and allow every licensed doctor in the country to decide whether cannabis is best for their patients.
The Ministry of Health opposes such lax regulation, warning of a Pandora’s Box effect when it comes to the prescribing of medical marijuana as some sort of “cure-all” drug. They say that over 70% of the current permit holders use cannabis to treat chronic pain, and that looser restriction would see that number skyrocket if everyone with a sore back was given a bag of weed.
Ultimately, according to German and the Health Ministry, the Israeli government just wants to ensure that those who truly need medical marijuana can get it, while minimizing illicit drug abuse at the same time. “On one hand, we will make sure the law is observed properly, and on the other, we will ensure that those who need treatment receive it,” German said in defense of the latest round of regulation.
Patients and doctors alike point to statements like those as proof that German is nothing but an out-of-touch bureaucrat. The tighter laws and pared down list of applicable illnesses, they say, will force patients who are no longer eligible for government ganja to turn to the streets for their herbal medication.
A nation all too familiar with the fog of war, Israel may soon have a new front line within its own borders as the battle over medical marijuana intensifies.