Medical marijuana advocate Montel Williams was speaking recently in the basement of Washington, DC’s Israel Baptist Church to a group of 150 residents of the neighborhood. The mission of the popular former US talk show host and sufferer of multiple sclerosis? To gain the support of the residents for his plan to open a medical marijuana facility on a nearby street.
Williams, who was diagnosed with MS in 1999, has since been an outspoken advocate of medical marijuana to relieve pain caused by the disease, and uses the drug on a daily basis.
“I had heard from trusted colleagues and advisors that Israel was far ahead of its counterparts in areas of study critical to my condition, from new medicine development to novel treatments using ultrasound technology to medicinal cannabis,” said Williams after his weeklong visit to Israel in October, 2011. “I was extremely impressed with what I saw, so much so that I plan to seek the advice of some of the practitioners I met as I continue the daily struggle against this disease.”
The 55-year-old Emmy Award winner added that, as a result of what he learned in Israel, his US-based medical cannabis initiative, Abatin Wellness, will create a global medical and scientific advisory board, starting with top physicians and researchers from Israel.
Williams discovered that some of the world’s foremost research into the medical benefits of cannabis is taking place in Israel. “Some of the leading science on where and how the chemicals [in the cannabis plant]work is being done right here in this country,” Williams told the Associated Press during his visit, during which he met with physicians and researchers at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer (http://eng.sheba.co.il/), Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem (www.hadassah.org.il/English), Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (www.huji.ac.il/huji/eng), the University of Haifa (http://www.haifa.ac.il/index_eng.html) and Shaare Zedek Hospital (http://www.szmc.org.il/Default.aspx?alias=www.szmc.org.il/en).
Israel has integrated this critical treatment into hospitals and other medical facilities, such that it is controlled and dispensed by qualified doctors throughout the patient’s course of treatment. The government-run medical marijuana program has demonstrated that, in addition to its multiple accepted medical uses, properly dispensed medicinal cannabis has a low potential for abuse and can be administered safely under medical supervision.
Israel’s medical marijuana program was based on the recommendations of Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, a kind of international superstar in researching marijuana and its ability to help specific ailments and diseases. In 1964, the scholar was the first researcher in the world to isolate THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, and in 1993, he headed an Israeli-Scottish team that succeeded in identifying, isolating and synthesizing a previously unknown substance in the brain that functions much as THC itself. The researchers named it anandamide, from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning inner joy.
Mechoulam was a member of a Knesset committee on medical marijuana, which in 1994 recommended the development of a program to provide suitable patients with marijuana. The program started off modestly, but began expanding in 2002, when Dr. Yehuda Baruch, the director-general of Abarbanel, took control and began overseeing a committee to determine which patients would be eligible for the program. Today, approximately 6,000 Israelis are being treated with medical cannabis. Most suffer from chronic pain and terminal illnesses.
Cannabis eases five conditions
Baruch explained that there are five broad categories that are officially recognized in Israel as being helped by marijuana.
“One is cancer or patients with malignant tumors who are in one of two stages — either during chemo to ease nausea and promote appetite, or those with a final-stage tumor, terminal patients who have a prognosis for living for no longer than six months,” he said.
Other categories are HIV patients who attend one of the country’s eight HIV centers; chronic pain patients being treated at pain clinics or by a certified pain physician; patients with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis being treated by gastroenterologists; and MS patients, specifically for their spasticity symptoms, upon recommendation from an MS treatment center or a neurological specialist.
Patients with post-traumatic stress disorder are also being tested with the drug on an experimental basis, Baruch added.
“We try to work directly with the doctors, and ideally the patient has nothing to do with us. But usually it’s not that way. Often, the patient contacts us, he obtains the permission slip from the doctor and he sends it to us,” said Baruch.
Recently, Sheba Medical Center became the first Israeli hospital to start a pilot program in which patients obtain the necessary government permit and then are provided with cannabis.
“Those patients, if they do not get cannabis, will get morphine-like drugs and other harmful drugs,” Dr. Itay Goor-Aryeh, the head of the hospital’s pain management unit, told the AP. “I think that, in many ways, cannabis is better tolerated and less addictive that morphine-based drugs.”
One Israeli who has benefited from the country’s medical marijuana program is Sylvia Sheinbaum, an immigrant from New York who suffers from several ailments as a result of a traffic accident many years ago — emotional stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
“They gave me all sorts of psychiatric medication — which I was not happy about. I wanted to live a different lifestyle — not going from one pill to the next, with each pill having its own side effects,” Sheinbaum told the Jerusalem Post. Four years ago, a friend suggested that she apply to Baruch to receive medical marijuana and after a stringent screening process, she was accepted. Today, she said, her life is totally different.
“I’ve reduced the number of pills I was taking for my heart from three to two. Next month, I’m going to the doctor and I expect that he’ll take me off another one. My lung capacity grew from 30% to 65% over the last three years. The problem with my lungs is that it’s progressive — it should be getting worse. And it’s getting better,” reported the 63-year-old Tel Aviv resident.
“And my mental and emotional well-being is much better. Cannabis helps me get in touch with my feelings.”
Sheinbaum said that the amount she smokes — or whether she smokes at all — depends on how she feels on a given day.
“There are some days I can’t stand thinking about it, and there are some days when I wake up and I need to have a puff, or three,” she said. “What it does, first it gives you an overall good feeling. Sometimes when I have a physical ailment, I also have all these emotions and feelings that are tied up in it. And the marijuana helps me deal with those feelings and not try to run away from them, or panic and have to take a pill. Once you can face the feeling, it slowly dissolves, and that’s part of the healing process.”
Health Ministry to grow medical marijuana
Until now the cannabis has been supplied by private growers sanctioned by the Health Ministry, under Baruch’s supervision, including a non-profit organization based in Safed called Tikkun Olam. However, in August, the Israeli cabinet approved medical marijuana guidelines that will govern the supply of marijuana for medical and research purposes. In so doing, it explicitly agreed that marijuana does indeed have medical uses.
“This is in recognition that the medical use of cannabis is necessary in certain cases. The Health Ministry will — in coordination with the Israel Police and the Israel Anti-Drug Authority — oversee the foregoing and will also be responsible for supplies from imports and local cultivation,” according to a statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office
The cabinet decision came following the Health Ministry’s decision the week before to deal with supply problems by setting up a unit within the department to grow medical marijuana. That unit is due to begin operating early this year.
Members of the Israel Pharmacists Association have been pressing for permission to distribute medical marijuana to authorized patients through their pharmacies. Although the Israel Police had urged that supplies be imported rather than locally grown because customs agents could minimize their reaching illicit users, the Health Ministry decided that, in the near future, no imports will be allowed.
The success story of Israel’s medical marijuana program has apparently inspired Montel Williams in his continuing efforts to tout the benefits of its medical use.
“I am leaving Israel with new information to fight my MS, and also with greater resolve to continue my advocacy for patients back in America. After meeting with the world’s leading researchers in the field of medicinal cannabis, I am inspired to redouble my efforts to ensure this necessary medication is accessible to patients in America.”