In About-face, Israeli Health Chief Now Opposes Medical Marijuana Exports

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is now at odds with the finance, agriculture and justice ministers

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel inspecting medical marijuana plants, February 2018.

When CNN did a special report on Israel’s emerging medical-marijuana industry nearly two years ago, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was featured as a leading advocate of reforms that would clear the way for exports.

“I’m not sure that my people, my voters are so [happy] about what I did,” the ultra-Orthodox politician told the news network. “If I have to look strictly at how I can help sick people who need this cannabis, I think I did the right thing.”

But on Tuesday, Litzman – now formally the deputy health minister – made a complete turnaround. “It’s a shame for Israel to be exporting cannabis because it’s a drug,” he told Army Radio.

Litzman was a strong advocate of making medical marijuana available to Israelis who needed it – and today some 32,000 of them use it regularly to help them with cancer, epilepsy and post-trauma syndrome. But regarding patients elsewhere around the world, or the Israeli growers counting on exports, he’s not interested.

Litzman told Army Radio he will reconsider his stance if he’s convinced there are clear economic benefits to exports and there are adequate safeguards to ensure the cannabis isn’t used for non-medical purposes.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman
Ilan Assayag

His remarks put the issue of cannabis exports into the political arena for the first time.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon supports exports, as does his director general, Shai Babad. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel does as well; last week he joined Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on a tour of a medical-marijuana farm, complete with photo ops and remarks about how Israel should employ its comparative advantage in the sector to launch exports.

A week and a half ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting of the relevant ministries to discuss marijuana exports, including a study by the Public Security Ministry about the risk of cannabis leaking out of the system and finding its way to recreational drug users.

At the end of the discussion, Netanyahu announced he was delaying a decision for another two weeks until Prof. Avi Simhon, the head of the National Economic Council, investigated the economic potential of exports one more time while the finance and agriculture ministries worked with the Public Security Ministry to address the leakage problem.

“As we see it, it’s important to approve medical-cannabis exports both to help people all over the world who are suffering and to contribute to government revenues,” Ariel said Tuesday. “The industry has the potential to generate billions of shekels for the country and help develop Israeli agriculture.”

The problem, Ariel said, remains establishing rules to prevent marijuana reaching the wrong users. The police, for example, say they will need more manpower to monitor the farms. One way to solve that, he added, would be to authorize growing in certain parts of the country.

Another way, he said, was to authorize exports on a trial basis and limit them to a certain number of countries. “That way we can conduct a pilot of the reform for a year or two and see where we want to go from there,” Ariel said.