Inside CannaTech: the future of Israel's medical marijuana industry - and of weed-scented snake oils

Written by
Elie Bleier

Steve D’Angelo, one of Fortune Magazine’s ‘most powerful people in the cannabis industry’, proclaimed to a crowded auditorium earlier this week that the hippie dream is still alive and kicking. “We used to think weed would just get us high,” he said, “but now we know it can make the world a better place!”

The crowd in attendance was for the annual event, CannaTech Tel Aviv, a med-tech conference billed as “two days of the highest level cannabis dialogue”, where sweets and munchies lined the convention booths as the who’s-who of the medical marijuana industry rubbed elbows, both stoned and not-stoned. 

This year's event gave locals and international visitors a justifiably ambitious understanding of Israel's position for growth on arguably one of the world's most talked-about topics. While anyone living in Tel Aviv knows it’s a green-friendly city, and Israel itself actually touts the highest recreational weed-smoking percentage in the world, what many don’t know is that Israel is a hub of the growing medical marijuana industry, with CannaTech serving as a platform to connect between locals looking to globalize their services and potential foreign business partners.

©Amit Payis

The patrons at CannaTech included a strange mix of medical industry professionals providing loving care and scientific reason, hungry entrepreneurs looking to hit a home-run, kippa-touting hippies with THC-oil vaporizers dangling from their lips and stern, international suit-and-tie businessman dripping in sweat from the early Israeli spring heat.

In the auditorium, Steve continued by pointing to the seemingly innumerable problems weed apparently solves, with employment creation, raising tax dollars, lowering alcohol consumption and minimizing violent crime topping the list. He encouraged us to “look to things like yoga - and realize that hippie dreams do work.” The suit-and-tie crowd, however, didn’t seem keen on joining Steve’s peace 'n' love trail. But Alon Gertner, CEO of Hiku Brands, had them licking their lips with his Steve Jobs-like stage presence and capitalistic vision that would bring profits, though probably not world peace.

“At Hiku, our fundamental thesis,” pausing for emphasis, “is that cannabis is a consumer product. With consumer products, you need to tell a story. Like Starbucks taught us to irrationally buy $5 lattes, a similar story needs to be told for cannabis.” Giving hope to the entrepreneurs trying to create the ‘Marlboro of Weed’, Alon stressed that, “in the end, consumers will buy brands.”

Dr. David Meiri, a cancer and cannabis researcher at the Technion, quelled the crowd’s rabid enthusiasm. And, as the first Israeli speaker, his paternalistic yelling reminded us just which country we are in. “Cannabis is a very complicated plant,” he scolded, “people often say ‘cannabis will cure cancer!’ But what does that even mean?” He explicated that, “there are thousands of variants of cancer, and as many strains of weed, each with hundreds of compounds, some of which are still unnamed. So: exactly which strain do we use with which cancer?” Laying into both the hippie idealism and capitalist storytelling, he told attendees exactly what they didn’t want to hear: “Let’s face it: we know nothing!”

Still, Dr. Meiri’s dose of realism didn’t seem to stop the marijuana industry’s hyperdrive that Alon envisioned. With products on display from every vertical imaginable - consumer brands, medical-grade devices, agricultural tools, testing laboratories and more - it was crystal-clear that weed has grown up way past buying dime-bags from dealers and smoking out of home-made pipes.

Benji Stern of CiiTech, a UK-Israeli partnership creating cannabis consumer products, explained that, “in the industry, there’s a difference between ‘therapeutic’ and ‘medicinal’.” Where the latter rely on clinical trials, the former use anecdotal evidence, which is to say they have no scientifically-proven medicinal benefit. CiiTech’s own products, such as skin creams and tongue drops, were among the many ‘therapeutic’ products at CannaTech - which included cannabis drinks, essential oils, sleep aids, skin creams and weed-flavored ice-creams. Rather than treating serious illnesses, these products seemed to be nothing more than the newest snake oil, with businessmen jumping on the bandwagon of general weed enthusiasm to make a quick buck.

In stark contrast, the Israeli scientific community represented a legitimate effort to prove cannabis’ medicinal worth. Israel, with the highest per-capita number of PhDs and physicians in the world, is an international leader in clinical trials on cannabis, armed with the the manpower to investigate the very lack of knowledge Dr. Meiri warned of. Scientists at CannaTech were marketing their abilities to businessmen, especially from countries such as the United States, which have stricter clinical regulations. Ran Abuhasira, of the Cannabis Clinical Research Institute, explained that, “Israel is a combination of loose regulations and the ‘startup-nation’ effect, which combines high tech attitudes with medical research.”


Weeding through the speakers, ‘therapeutic’ products and scientific researchers, it was easy to lose sight of the industry’s raison d’etre: treating real patients with real illnesses. In Israel, Tikun Olam is the first - and largest - Israeli company to vertically integrate research, dispensaries and client care. Their head of international relations, Maayan Weisberg, spoke to the efficacy of their services. “We treat 12,000 every month for illnesses such as cancer, epilepsy and more,” she explained, “and have over 800 children whose parents are demanding our services.” Tikun Olam works with patient care based on marijuana's medicinal benefits. Further, they already have a foot in the US market and are aiming to globalize not only their client care services but their proprietary weed strains.

This annual event cast a wide spotlight on the varied aspects of marijuana's benefits, research, consumerism, and trends. Time will tell how the Israeli and global markets will move forward and collaborate, and Israel shows no signs of slowing its role in making significant strides in cannabis research and development. The proof is in the brownies.   

For more info: Cannatech

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