Back in the day, people who smoked marijuana did so to get high, but it turned out the cannabis plant possessed some beneficial side effects as well. It could reduce nausea, it was an anti-inflammatory, and it helped people suffering from spasticity.
The medicinal use of marijuana, or marihuana, has a pedigree that goes back thousands of years across a variety of cultures, from China to South America.
Although marijuana-use is illegal in Canada, there are exceptions. Permission has been granted for those with medical needs to grow their own or to hire someone to grow it for them.
The cultivation of cannabis became something of a cottage industry, a mom- and-pop-scale operation, but recently the government of Canada opened the doors wider to better serve the tens of thousands of patients who are helped by the substance and to control the quality of the product.
Enter MedReleaf, a Canadian corporation which operates a 55,000-square foot cannabis cultivation facility in Markham.
Inside the pristine facility, branches are clipped off a “mother plant,” nourished for a short period and replanted in greenhouses where temperature, humidity and lighting are controlled. To enter the high tech grow op, you need to don a surgeon’s gown and get daubed in alcohol, to prevent you transmitting any foreign substances that might taint the weed. “We’re operating the facility at the level of sterility akin to a hospital operating room,” said Neil Closner, CEO of MedReleaf.
Adding an interesting twist to the brand new enterprise – MedReleaf started growing its first plants in February and will make its first deliveries in June – is the involvement of an Israeli partner, Tikun Olam.
In fact, said Closner, six of the company’s 12 varieties of marijuana originate in the Holy Land. The partnership along with the exclusive Canadian rights to the plants gives MedReleaf a leg up on its competition, said Closner. There are a dozen Canadian companies currently licensed by Health Canada to sell medical marijuana as of April 1, plus a host of small scale mom-and-pop operators who grow it for personal use or for a handful of others.
Tikun Olam has been operating for some time and has developed a unique expertise in tailoring varieties of marijuana for specific illnesses, said Closner.
For instance, its Avidekel variety is low in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical agent that makes users high, but is loaded with CBD (cannabidiol), which is an anti-inflammatory. It works best with people suffering from conditions such as arthritis.
Another, Erez, has been shown to be effective for addressing nausea and is often dispensed to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Ma’ayan Weisberg, director of public relations and marketing for Tikun Olam, said the company grows its cannabis in a state of the art greenhouse near Safed, in Israel’s north.
It’s guarded like a military facility and its product is delivered in Brinks-like trucks.
Altogether, Tikun Olam produces a dozen varieties of cannabis, she said.
Tikun Olam, which is Hebrew for repairing the world, operates its own clinic in Hadarim, north of Tel Aviv. Patients who are prescribed cannabis by their doctors consult with Tikun Olam intake workers, who are trained nurses. They are interviewed and matched up with the best marijuana for their illness, Closner said.
Follow up calls to check on the patient’s progress come a month and six months later. Doctors are kept informed about the specific marijuana that was employed.
Canadian regulations prevent MedReleaf from offering a retail service of that kind, Closner said. Instead, patients, once they’ve got a physician’s document, similar to a prescription, send in the original document. They later visit the MedReleaf web site, register, and receive a user ID. They place their order online and a MedReleaf staffer, who is a nurse, contacts them to discuss their case. Based on their condition, and relying on the expertise developed in Israel, the appropriate variety is sent to the patient via courier.
Like its Israeli partner, MedReleaf follows up with patients.
Israel’s Ministry of Health granted its first license to cultivate cannabis in 2007, and in 2010 it set the maximum price that a patient could be charged at 370 shekels ($117) a month. (In Canada, licensed producers charge between $5 and $13.50 a gram, though some offer lower prices in compassionate cases.)
Tikun Olam went into business shortly after that. It opened the first store in Israel for the sale and distribution of medical cannabis on Ibn Gabirol Street in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s more liberal laws permit Tikun Olan to dispense dosages in the form of capsules, in a vaporizer or as drops of oil. In Canada, only the leaves can be used, requiring patients to roll their own marijuana cigarettes, hardly the healthiest way to ingest the product, Closner said.
Closner, who has been involved in health-care businesses and startups for 20 years, said he first heard about Tikun Olam through MENA Investment Network, which “looked to export Israeli technology outside of Israel.”
He admits he was skeptical at first, but a visit to Israel changed his mind.
He visited the Hadarim Geriatric Home where he saw medical marijuana put to use.
Israeli patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, dementia and chronic pain were being helped by cannabis. In one case, he saw an elderly Holocaust survivor, who loved to paint but who suffered from uncontrollable shaking, regain control of his limbs and enjoy his hobby once again.
“I left after a few hours in complete awe at what I’d seen. I left feeling this really is legitimate,” he said.