Israeli booming cannabis industry

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A Marijuana farm

On the northern end of Tel Aviv’s harbour is a chic events hall where young Israelis often celebrate their wedding right on the edge of the bright blue Mediterranean. On a recent sunny day, however, sweet-smelling smoke pointed to a different kind of visitor.

“Last year we still were banning consumption at our CannaTech conference,” noted Saul Kaye, organizer of a two-day conference on medicinal cannabis. This time, he didn’t even bother.

In Israel’s party metropolis of Tel Aviv, one can catch the whiff of cannabis on almost any street corner, with the drug now a firm fixture in Israel’s nightlife scene. Start-up-oriented Israel is also in the vanguard of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

At the recent CannaTech 2018 conference, some 800 representatives gathered to map out the future of their rapidly growing industry.

Among the firms was pharmaceutical giant Tikun Olam, which now supplies 20,000 patients with cannabis medications. The company aims to expand into Europe in 2018, and many others plan to follow suit.

But Israeli laws have cast a shadow over the industry’s plans.

Despite declaring an intent to change the export regulations for medicinal cannabis, the government put the draft bill on hold in February. Media reports say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed on the brakes for fear of angering US President Donald Trump – who opposes legalisation.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked reacted with bafflement.

“We cannot let the train leave without us,” she warned on Twitter after visiting a cannabis plantation. “Today we are the locomotive. But if we hesitate, then we will be just the rail cars.”

She said that medicinal cannabis products worth up to 1 billion dollars could be exported by Israeli producers.

Industry representatives are trying to stay calm.

“We will be getting permission in the course of this year to export our products,” Kaye predicts. The government’s hesitation was just a small obstacle, he added, though he doesn’t hide his irritation: “It’s a scandal. The government is letting a giant chance get away.”

Last year, Israeli firms like Tikun Olam racked up sales of between 250 and 300 million dollars with medicinal cannabis. Kaye sees billions of dollars’ worth of business ahead for Israeli industry and the state, predicting a situation “like back in the dot-com era.”

Asked what would happen if exports remained forbidden, he said: “Then we will continue to operate abroad.”

Most Israeli firms are involved in the research and development side of cannabis medications, which could be produced abroad, Kaye noted.

But this would mean fewer jobs created in Israel and the loss of tax revenues. The Israeli Health Ministry says that around 30,000 people are permitted to use medicinal cannabis to ease their suffering.

Among them are Holocaust survivors, with the marijuana meant to help them cope with the effects of their traumatic experiences.

The delay in passing the new cannabis legislation has caused a shaking of heads not only among the pharmaceutical and agricultural concerns in Israel – members of the kibbutz movement are upset with the government as well. The utopian agricultural movement has been putting its hopes on growing cannabis for medical products.

Since the economic crisis dating to the 1980s, the kibbutz movement has had to battle with financial problems. Around 110,000 people live in 273 kibbutzim communities, less than 2 per cent of Israel’s total population. It sees a chance in agricultural technology.

“A great deal of experience has been collected in the kibbutzim in virtually every area of cultivating and processing plants,” notes Sharon Schulleiter, an expert on the kibbutz movement.

The kibbutzim only need to decide for themselves what fits their needs the best. This view is also held by Nira Dgani, a lawyer who advises the kibbutz movement. “At the moment we are waiting to find out what the government wants,” she said.(dpa/NAN)


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