It may sound strange but I want to pose the question: Should we, as cannabis professionals, go on a birthright trip to Israel?
The tiny country is home to the most advanced cannabis research in the world. In fact, Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam was the first person to isolate THC, back in 1964. Since then, Mechoulam and his colleagues have pioneered the field of cannabis science, making strides in the study of the cannabis plant, the endocannabinoid system, and the myriad conditions that could be helped with medical marijuana.
So while "birthright" in popular culture often refers to the free trip offered to Jewish young adults who might be curious about the Holy Land, in broader terms, a "birthright" is defined as a particular right of possession or privilege one has from birth, or a natural or moral right, possessed by everyone. So I'd like to take the concept of a birthright trip to Israel and apply it to cannabis.
Of course, Israel isn't the only destination for cannabis professionals. Take Amsterdam, for instance, one of the first places to quasi legalize cannabis and allow for public consumption. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone in the industry who hasn’t taken this trip to Amsterdam. I also think of the Emerald Triangle in northern California — the area in which some of the finest cannabis in the world has been cultivated and where some of the greatest pioneers in the American cannabis industry have resided for decades.
One could say that in order to better understand cannabis, industry professionals should go on all these birthrights, as it is a natural obligation.
So to that end, I began my cannabis birthright tour with Israel. Not only has cannabis research in Israel flourished since the 60s, but medical cannabis has also been federally legal there since the 90s. As of this year, adult use has also been decriminalized across the nation up to a certain possession limit.
My employer, the America Israel Cannabis Association (AICA), led a trip to Israel that, naturally, I dubbed a cannabis birthright trip. AICA’s mission is to foster collaboration between North American and Israeli cannabis companies and professionals. So what better way to foster collaboration than to bring North Americans on a tour of Israel? We assembled a crew of investors, lawyers, consultants, and entrepreneurs to join us for our three-day tour.
Our first stop was with cannabis cultivation company BOL Pharma. Located in the southern Israeli town of Revadim, the company has executed dozens of clinical trials, operates 377,000 square feet of greenhouses, and manufacturers GMP-certified cannabis products in 65,000-square foot facility, where they process dried flower and tinctures.
After meeting their team, we were famished, and went to a moshav about an hour away to make our own lunch. A moshav is a cooperative, agricultural community, similar to a kibbutz, as I understand it, but without everyone sharing everything. Our host there taught us how to make our own focaccia bread and we cooked our own pizzas. We drank wine that was grown by their neighbors and prepared food that was grown in their garden. It was a very different experience than what I’ve grown used to in Denver — despite being a pretty friendly person, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about my neighbors nor could I tell you the last time I hosted a group for dinner in my tiny apartment. Even more so, it allowed us some time to get to know each other. Our tour group consisted of professionals with a variety of backgrounds, from a Canadian investor who is banned from the United States because of his cannabis investments to a cannabis lawyer from South Carolina. All of us came together on this tour to learn more about cannabis, Israel, and the intersection between the two.
We ended the first day with a hike through some ancient pagan burial grounds, which served as a reminder that many civilizations have occupied this land in years past. Then I took a much-needed nap on the bus ride back to Tel Aviv.
The second day of our tour was jam packed with a trip to the Eybna headquarters in Raanana, the town of Cesaria, and the Tishbi Estate winery. With a focus on terpenes, or aromatic compounds found in cannabis and other plants, Eybna offers a selection of plant-derived terpenes that cannabis companies can add into their formulations in order to enhance or shift the consumer experience.
Due to security regulations, we couldn’t see the lab, but we were able to see their main office. Like many startups, Eybna is a lean operation and their office reflected their startup nature. With a few white desks, the focus of the office was on the terpenes that they extract and research; they were hanging on the wall, sitting on shelves.
Afterward, we took a tour of Cesaria, a beach town that was originally established in Roman times. We saw the bath houses of ancient days and even crashed a wedding on the beach. But it wouldn’t have been a full day without a late lunch with fresh food and wine at the Tishbi Estate winery.
Our final day was as full as the others since a trip to Israel isn’t complete without visiting the Dead Sea and Jerusalem. The Dead Sea was a comical experience, as we floated and applied mud onto our skin. The Dead Sea gets its name for the lack of sea life in the water due to a massive amount of salt — so much salt that even as adults, we had to hear the rules. No swimming, no splashing, no dunking your head underwater. While people are naturally buoyant, the salt boosts our buoyancy. You couldn’t sink if you tried! After our "spa session" floating in the salty sea, we had to have a drink at the “Lowest Bar in the World.” The bar is 420 meters below sea level. (For comparison, Denver, the Mile High City, is about 1560 meters above sea level.)
And then of course, we went to Jerusalem. Nestled inside the large cosmopolitan city is an ancient, walled-in "Old City," filled with a whirlwind of people from all over the world, craft shops donning trinkets and religious garb, and some of the best hummus I’ve ever had in my life. Separated into four quarters (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian), I stayed close to our tour guide through the winding and confusing streets. One wrong turn and I'd be completely lost!
Some of the main sights in Jerusalem are the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. The Dome is an Islamic shrine, perhaps best recognized for its glittering, golden dome, which sits above the Western Wall, one of the holiest places in Judaism. Religion aside, the two sights are awe inspiring. A few hours in Jerusalem and it was time to go back to Tel Aviv. Our three-day tour was over, and I collapsed into bed, anticipating the 18-hour travel day that I had the next day. After all the commotion of the trip, I'd have time to sit back and reflect.
I entered the cannabis industry because of health issues. I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis a few years ago and was on Humira, the best selling drug in the world, for a number of years. Twice a month for the rest of my life I would have to inject myself with a chemical concoction that would suppress my immune system and potentially lead to long term health effects. And did I mention that this treatment costs $5,000 a month? It worked for a bit, but after a few years I plateaued and was back to being in pain. So there I was looking for a solution that didn't break the bank, that would mitigate my pain, and which didn't involve needles.
I had heard that cannabis could help so I tried it, and a few months later I packed up my car and moved to Denver to join the industry. Unbeknownst to me, a lot of the research about my particular ailment — inflammation — was coming out of Israel.
See, in Israel, a medical cannabis program that is federally legal benefits both patients in need and researchers aiming to study the plant and its effects for numerous conditions. To see cannabis treated like a legitimate medicine, in a pharmaceutical sense alone, was worth the trip to me. It was encouraging to observe a different paradigm than that in the US, with our patchwork of local, state, and federal laws that make it difficult to access cannabis and execute scientific research.
Yes, I was a foreigner in a strange land, but going there helped me connect with the birthplace of cannabis research and the medicine that comes with it. I want to encourage others in the industry take a "birthright trip," too. It could be to Israel, Amsterdam, Northern California, Denver, Jamaica, Canada, and elsewhere — wherever you think you can best connect with cannabis. You may even learn about yourself while doing so.