Israel's Health Ministry to Begin Regulating Medical Marijuana

Health Ministry committee to expand criteria for marijuana prescription eligibility; new directives allow oncologists to prescribe marijuana to all cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

The government has for the first time taken steps to regulate the use of medical marijuana, which has been in use for about a decade now.

The Health Ministry has issued a circular detailing which patients are entitled to use the drug, and it has also banned growers from selling pot cookies as of June 1.

For the past decade, permits to use medical marijuana have been approved on an ad hoc basis by a single doctor: Yehuda Baruch, director of the Abarbanel psychiatric hospital, who was authorized to do so by the Health Ministry.

The new directives, which take effect immediately, allow oncologists to prescribe the drug to all cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, in the first six months after finishing chemo, or otherwise in need of pain relief.

Also entitled to the drug are people with Crohn’s disease; certain colitis patients; HIV carriers suffering sharp weight loss or a very low level of CD4 white blood cells; multiple sclerosis patients suffering muscle spasms; and any terminally ill patient with a projected life span of six months or less.

Currently, the main complaint for which medical marijuana is prescribed is neuropathy, and sufferers will still be able to obtain the drug − but only if they have been treated at a recognized pain clinic for at least a year without success, and if the clinic recommends it. This rule was drafted because doctors at such clinics say they are often pressured by patients to prescribe marijuana quickly.

Other patients on the approved list will also be prescribed marijuana only if conventional treatments have first been tried and proven ineffective.

In addition, prescriptions can be written only by specialists working in a recognized medical facility, such as a hospital or health maintenance organization clinic. Doctors at independent clinics won’t be able to prescribe the drug. Prescriptions will then have to be approved either by Dr. Baruch or by the ministry’s new medical cannabis department.

Finally, doctors who prescribe marijuana will have to examine the patient at least once every three months thereafter.

The ministry also set up a professional committee to approve use of the drug for other diseases that aren’t currently on the list.

Today, some 10,000 Israelis have a permit to use medical marijuana. The ministry predicts the new rules will increase the number of patients using the drug.

There are 12 licensed fields that grow medical marijuana, and growers are entitled to charge patients NIS 370 a month for the drug. The medical marijuana business is currently estimated to be worth some NIS 44.4 million a year.

The ministry has also ordered these growers to stop selling marijuana cookies as of June 1. From now on, the drug will be distributed only in smokable form or as marijuana oil, so as to better regulate the quantity of THC and other active ingredients that patients consume. The ministry’s deputy director general, Dr. Boaz Lev, explained that when marijuana is baked in cookies, some of the active ingredients are lost.

Daniel Tchetchik