Israel’s Highless Marijuana
by Daniela Enriquez
A new oxymoron is born. After non-alcoholic beer and decaf coffee, the world is finally ready to welcome “highless” marijuana. Israeli scientists working at Tikkun Olam–the first and largest medical cannabis cultivator in Israel–created a new variant of the plant capable of easing patients’ pain without getting them high. All of this happened recently near Tsfat and, let me say, there couldn’t have been a better place for it. Located in northern Israel, Tsfat is the birthplace of kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.
Two questions arose in my mind when I read about the news. How did they do it–and why?
Let’s start with the second question. Like many, I thought that the high produced from cannabis was the reason why it is used with terminal patients and people suffering from terrible pain. Apparently, this is just partially true. Cannabis has more than sixty constituents, called cannabinoids, two of which are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiolol (CBD). In spite of their extremely long, highly scientific-sounding names, their goals are quite simple.
THC is the component that affects the brain’s receptors and thus, is responsible for the well-known “high” effect caused by smoking marijuana. On the other hand, CBD is the component with anti-inflammatory effects. Scientists at Tikkun Olam realized that, by taking out the THC from the cannabis plant and enriching it with CBD, they could obtain a “highless” marijuana, also known as Avidekel.
I talked to Zach Klein, head of development at Tikkun Olam, to find out more; below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
When did your team start its work on Avidekel?
About three years ago. The work we do is based on agriculture and cross fertilization of plants—that is the basic process we are working on. One reason why we started to work on medical highless marijuana was the pressure we received from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They really wanted the CBD plants.
Can you explain in a few words the different uses of CBD and THC?
CBD can be used much more as a medical instrument for therapy; THC is also therapeutic, but has an immediate effect on symptoms, which CBD doesn’t have. So, there is a big difference.
Why bother creating a marijuana plant without the high effect?
When I heard about the idea of creating Avidekel, a CBD plant without THC, I thought, “Why?” Since then, I followed the scientists’ research–for example, now I am in Germany waiting for the opening and welcome reception of the ICRS Conference, the International Cannabinoid Research Society. I followed the conferences and the scientists to see and hear what they learned and what they knew about this plant. In the last few years they talked a lot about CBD, about cannabidiol, and it is very interesting. However, whatever I heard was almost exclusively theory: All the research had been done on animals, and only in laboratories, despite the fact that cannabis was already known as a good thing to use for medical purposes.
A year and a half ago, we started a project in a nursing home. We made cannabis available for the institution to give to their patients. Of course, they are not people that want to smoke in order to get high; they do it as part of their medical treatment. We were using a very high THC plant with almost no CBD. For the patients in the nursery, it was sometimes so much THC that they couldn’t cope with the mind-altering effect. Some of them couldn’t use the medicine, the cannabis, at all. When we started using CBD, the picture changed. Patients who couldn’t stand the effect of THC were able to use this cannabis with CBD. One of the things cannabidiol is capable of doing is lowering the psychoactive effect of THC. Used by itself, CBD is an anti-inflammatory and lowers pain when it comes from an inflammation: Lowering the inflammation enables a lower level of pain.
Why should someone use Avidekel rather than a normal pain killer?
Some painkillers have side effects: They can cause addiction and are poisonous for the human body. Patients with kidney-related problems can’t use the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. On the contrary, Avidekel has no known side effects.
Why should someone use Avidekel rather than a normal pain reliever?
The first question to ask is, “Why should someone use cannabis, at all?” and not just why Avidekel. Why should we use cannabis for medical purposes since it is considered a drug? Despite that, for some reason, some governments in the world, among them the Israeli government, decided that cannabis is a good thing to use in medical situations where nothing else can be of any help. That is the first reason why we started to use marijuana: When everything else didn’t work, we tried to use it and thought, “Maybe this can help.”
Have you already tested Avidekel on humans? If not, when are you going to start?
We have tried it on a few people and we got good responses. It is not the same kind of response as the one obtained from normal marijuana. It doesn’t have the dramatic immediate effect caused by THC, but after 10 days or two weeks, people start to feel better. We are now approaching clinical trials with Avidekel. Of course, it is going to take a few months, but we already have the initial approval by the Ministry of Health and the physicians who would work on it.
Should patients be free to choose between tradition marijuana and Avidekel?
Of course, they should have the right to choose. We don’t offer just two different strands of medical marijuana. We have several kinds of plants with combined percentages of CBD and THC. In this way, patients can try different typologies and choose the best for them.
What kind of patients benefit from either regular cannabis or Avidekel?
People who use medical cannabis and Avidekel come from several different kinds of diseases. Pain can have many different causes.
Patients with inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn’s disease, have a very difficult life. When they use medical marijuana, with THC, they can feel the difference but sometimes the psychoactive effect makes it impossible for them to have a normal life. If we make them feel better but they are unable to work or leave their houses, we have only accomplished half of our goal.
Now, we are able to give them a high-CBD, low-THC plant that can give them relief, without a high psychic activity and bring them back to their normal lives.
Klein told me that the best success while studying medical marijuana was with Holocaust survivors stricken by nightmares of Nazis and concentration camps. Cannabis helped them to sleep again: “The Nazis and nightmares are all gone—and with them the fear. This is one of the most exciting aspects of what we do.”