In a move that should make medical marijuana more easily accessible to patients, the Health Ministry plans to train and authorize 100 additional physicians to dispense prescriptions and licenses, nearly triple the number that are currently authorized to do this. Some 23,000 Israelis have permits to use medical marijuana and it is thought that many thousands more might benefit from it. However, today there are only 36 physicians authorized to issue such permits — 18 belong to the ministry’s medical cannabis unit, while the others are oncologists at various hospitals across the country. Unless one is a cancer patient, receiving a permit is a long drawn out process.
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The training of more physicians — which is set to being after the holidays in the fall — is expected to help patients in two ways. First, it broadens the circle of doctors who recognize the effectiveness of medical cannabis and are willing to use it, thus making an ideological statement. Practically, it will save patients a lot of bureaucratic hassle because these doctors will not only be able to prescribe cannabis, but also issue permits for it, something which until now has been done through the Health Ministry.
The ministry is to issue an announcement shortly calling for volunteers to be trained and certified. The announcement will be aimed at doctors in relevant specialties like pain specialists, neurologists and geriatricians. According to the head of the ministry’s medical cannabis unit, Yuval Landschaft, the doctors chosen will be given four weekly training sessions after the fall holidays in four groups of 25 doctors each, to be followed by an exam.
The move is the latest undertaken by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to make medical cannabis more accessible to those who require it. If, in the past, the ministry was adamant in its stance that marijuana is not medicine, today the tone has changed as the ministry speaks more frequently about the “medicalization of marijuana.”
The new government plan for dispensing medical marijuana does not grant it the status of an approved drug like those manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, but it will allow the authorized doctors to prescribe it in accordance with the regulations for prescribing “dangerous drugs.” Under the reform, patients with a prescription will be able to fill it at one of the pharmacies authorized to dispense medical cannabis. The guidelines also set standards for cannabis products, which will make them available as generic products that come in fixed and regulated concentrations.
“The key term is ‘medicalization of marijuana,’” said Health Ministry deputy director general Prof. Arnon Afek, who heads the ministry’s committee which determines for which medical conditions cannabis can be prescribed. “It’s true that today there’s a more liberal approach toward patients who are helped or who are likely to be helped by cannabis. But along with that, the discussions in the committee are in-depth medical discussions attended by expert physicians in the specific field in question.”
The list of conditions for which medical marijuana is considered helpful has grown over the years, with additional conditions discussed in response to doctors’ testimonies.
Although the committee discussions are professional there is latitude for interpretation and a more liberal mindset seems to be reflected in the committee’s work. For example, it was recently reported that the committee was examining whether it was necessary to categorically stop cannabis treatment when women become pregnant if they had been getting such treatment beforehand. The committee is expected to rule that instead of a blanket prohibition, each case should be examined on it own merits.