iCAN founder and CEO Saul Kaye tells HEQ about the Israeli cannabis landscape.
Israel has been at the forefront of medical cannabis research since the seminal works of Dr Raphael Mechoulam in the 1960s. Today, with growing numbers of states and medical professionals endorsing the clinical benefits of cannabis, ecosystem incubator iCAN is working to build relationships between industry professionals and promote cannabis research and communication.
Saul Kaye, iCAN’s founder and CEO, tells us about the future of Israeli cannabis.
What is the role of iCAN within the Israeli cannabis landscape?
We are an incubator of cannabis technologies. We operate a conference platform called CannaTech, which provides a B2B ecosystem for the whole cannabis sector both here in Israel and abroad: we have been very successful at creating that ecosystem so that everyone can tap into it and become part of a global cannabis environment. It really is an ecosystem that we’ve built. We do not grow cannabis ourselves, although I dispense cannabis in my position as a pharmacist; but the role of iCAN is to sit above the industry and enable people to connect and create business relationships. It’s a platform that allows people to access B2B connections through its activity.
What is the current medical and legal status of cannabis in Israel?
Cannabis has been legal for medical purposes in Israel since 1996, with broader prescription programmes being adopted in 2011. It is a robust local scene: there are now around 80,000 patients in Israel who are directly prescribed cannabis, up from 20,000 patients three years ago; that is much faster growth than most other countries at the moment.
Ultimately, the Israeli reforms to drug policy provided a route for patients to receive medicine in pharmacies – not in a drugstore, not in a cannabis dispensary, but in the place where you buy your other prescription medication – it was a revolution of sorts. That has been very successful legally speaking; and policymakers are now looking at a Canadian legalisation model: we should know more on that by August. There is real support right across the political spectrum, from ultra-orthodox Jewish parties to the Arab parties to the centre-left and centre-right – they all agree that this is something that needs to happen.
Israel is well-known for cannabis: its population smoke a lot of cannabis; it is decriminalised at this point, though you will still get a fine if you are caught with cannabis. All of that is in process of changing – not as quickly as we would like; it is crazy that there is still prohibition here. We have been conducting clinical research on cannabis longer than any other country in the world, but we have been among the slowest on legalisation.
Israel as a whole, and iCAN in particular, are at the forefront of research and innovation with regards to cannabis. Can you tell me about some recent developments or innovations within the cannabis sector? Are there any particular fields where you would like to see more targeted research?
We have been seeing some trials with very positive initial results for cannabis treating COVID-19: we know cannabis is anti-inflammatory we know it can maybe stop the inflammatory cascade which occurs in patients with the virus.
iCAN has partnered with Technion university to research ocular therapy: we have a method which allows us to bind cannabinoid compounds to a carrier vehicle which is delivered directly into the eye, much like eye drops; and that enables us to treat a whole range of different diseases.
We have had successful trials for Crohn’s disease, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and irritable bowel syndrome. One thing we have found is that when cannabis is dispensed alongside patients’ other medication, we can see how much less of their prescription medication they need when it is augmented with cannabis. We’ve seen amazing results there, with an average of 25% less prescription drug use in patients who take cannabis.
There are 150 research grants available from the government in Israel, and the universities and research facilities here are robust. The largest problem currently is COVID-19, which has had a massive impact across the board on clinical trials, patient access and the ability of researchers to go into work – it has definitely slowed things down.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic had a substantial impact on the Israeli cannabis sector as a whole?
For the most part, the impact has been positive. Steps which make care and treatment more convenient, like home delivery and telemedicine, have become more acceptable now; and that has trickled down to the cannabis sector, where it was previously a little more difficult. On the other hand, the impact on bureaucracy has been horrific: the government is not focused on cannabis or cannabis licences; it has taken so long for me to get a cannabis licence in my pharmacy – and this is a pharmacy that dispenses opium and methadone.
As the government begins to look towards how to recover some of the deficit which has occurred as a result of COVID, cannabis is certainly a new sector which shows a lot of promise both in terms of job creation and taxable revenue; I think that will have a major impact going forward.
How do you foresee the medical cannabis landscape in Israel evolving in the next year?
I think the medical cannabis system will remain robust. We are expecting to add around 100,000 new patients into that system, even before any potential legalisation happens. Even if legalisation is enacted according to the timeline that the government has projected, the attendant logistics and regulations on licensing and distribution are likely to take another year or two to write, so I think medical cannabis will remain the focus for at least the next 18 to 24 months. After that there may be a shift to the recreational markets, so in that 24-month interim we will need to create an ecosystem which can continue to be sustainable alongside legalisation. Medicalisation does not disappear when adult-use cannabis is legalised: people will still want their health insurance to cover cannabis as a medicine, irrespective of whether they also drink a cannabis beverage for recreation. Different products have different outcomes and there needs to be a new focus around how best to have medical cannabis work alongside legalisation – it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Founder and CEO