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Israel’s Cannabis Export Plans Evaporate in Fire and Fury

By Marguerite Arnold
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Trump Administration-Israeli relations had the distinct whiff of cannabis to them in the first week of February. In a development potentially just as impactful as transplanting Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, it has now emerged that Israel’s president, Benjamin Netanyahu, has effectively scotched, at least temporarily, the country’s budding medical cannabis international export plans on the eve of finally launching them.

Why? To appease the U.S. president.

What this latest act of international “diplomacy” will eventually impact in the long run is anyone’s guess. There will, however, be winners and losers out of this situation, both now and in the long term.

Who Wins

On the surface (and to gentiles) it might be hard to understand why Israel effectively shot itself in the foot from a global perspective. But cannabis falls into complicated geopolitical and religious crevices at home too. Bibi, as Netanyahu is referred to by an international Jewish audience, has just scored political points over the Jerusalem showdown. Why rock the boat over a plant that has so recently gained legitimacy just in Israel? Remember the country only partially decriminalized recreational use in 2017. However, Israel has explored legal medical cannabis for quite some time, and Tikun Olam, the country’s flagship producer, has been growing cannabis since 2007.

Tel Aviv, Israel, where Tikun Olam has a dispensary

The quote from Netanyahu that has been widely circulated in the press says a great deal. “I spoke with Trump and he told me about his general opposition to the legalization of cannabis, and I’m not sure Israel should be the export pioneer.”

The fact that apparent encouragement of this policy came from the Israeli Finance Ministry only underscores the gravity of the impact for the losing side – and what was also probably threatened. Uruguayan pharmacies, who began distributing medical cannabis legally, walked away from customers last year after their banks were first informed by U.S. partners that they would either have to cut off the pharmacies or sever ties and access to the entire U.S. banking system. The cannabis trade was estimated to be worth between $1-4 billion per year to Israeli firms.

That said, this will also be a short-lived hiccup. Netanyahu apparently wants to see more medical evidence before moving forward with the plan. That means Israel will be in the race, but not for the next 12 to 18 months (minimum).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi)
Image: Kjetil Elsebutangen, UD

This will also not affect the cannabinoid-related export of intellectual property, where Israel has also led the cannabinoid discussion and for several generations now. Recipes, breeding instructions and even seeds cross borders more easily than plants. If anything, it will merely sharpen and shape the start up nation’s many budding cannapreneurs in a slightly different focus.

Canadian, Australian and a few other exporters also win. As of 2018, there will also be multiple European countries and EU-based firms importing and exporting (even if it is to each other).

Who Loses

The U.S. legal state cannabis movement has just been served a two fisted punch in the face by the White House. The Trump administration, in fact, has doubled down, in the space of less than five weeks, on its views towards cannabis legalization.

This also means that there will be no U.S. firms in any position to join a now global and exploding legitimate cannabis industry that stretches from the American hemisphere north and south of the U.S. itself. Not only will American producers not be able to get export approvals themselves from the U.S. government, but they may well be facing federal prosecution back home.israel flag

It will also be interesting to see whether this heralds any post-Cole memo prosecutions of the many Israeli entrepreneurs already operating in the U.S. state cannabis space. American and Israeli entrepreneurs with IP to protect are also the losers here, no matter how much this is being fought on the California front right now. That is just a state battle. IP must be protected federally.

Investors in the U.S. who had already been tempted to invest in the Canadian cannabis industry, now have little incentive to invest domestically or in Israel, no matter how big and bad California is. There is clearly budding (and less politically risky) competition elsewhere.

It goes without saying, of course, that this decision also hurts consumers – both recreational consumers and medical patients.

Bottom Line

This is clearly sabre rattling of the kind intended to make news both internationally and abroad. However, in direct terms, it will have little impact to the overall growth of the industry, no matter who is doing the growing, distributing and ex-im. The cannabis industry will also clearly not stop being a political business for the near term.

Look for prosecutions this if not next year in the U.S. – potentially in California or another high profile “impact” state. We might see pressure on Netanyahu at home, and probably from abroad as well, to get Israel into the cannabis game globally.

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Israeli Cannabis Brand Tikun Olam Expands to US

By Aaron G. Biros
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Tikun Olam is a Jewish concept that addresses social policy, promoting acts of kindness to better society. In Hebrew, it literally means, “repair of the world.” The company by the same name, Tikun Olam Ltd, and now in the United States as T.O. Global LLC, was the first medical cannabis provider in Israel back in 2007. Working with patients, doctors and nurses in clinical trials, they developed 16 strains over the last decade that target alleviating symptoms of specific ailments.

Tel Aviv, Israel, where Tikun Olam has a dispensary

In November 2016, they launched their United States brand, Tikun, in the Delaware medical cannabis program with their partner, First State Compassion Center, a vertically integrated business of cultivation, extraction and retail in Wilmington. After the success of their pilot program, Tikun announced their expansion into the Nevada market with their licensed partner, CW Nevada LLC. Tikun is leveraging its experience with clinical trials and medical research to launch a line of cannabis products focused on health and wellness in the United States. According to Stephan Gardner, chief marketing officer at Tikun Olam, they have the largest collection of medical cannabis data in the world. “Tikun Olam started out as a non-profit, working to bring medication to patients in Israel,” says Gardner. “Opening nursing clinics gave us a tremendous amount of knowledge and data to work on the efficacy of strains developed specifically for targeting symptoms associated with certain conditions.” For example, their strain, Avidekel, was developed years ago as the first high-CBD strain ever created.

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The strain Avidekel being grown in Israel.

In a single-strain extraction, Avidekel has been used to successfully mitigate the symptoms associated with neurological conditions, like epilepsy in children, and they have the data to demonstrate that efficacy. “The American market needs some sort of guidance on how these cannabinoid and terpene profiles in certain strains can truly assist patients,” says Gardner. “We have been tracking and monitoring our patients with clinical and observational data in one, six month and annual follow ups, which are data we can use to guide the needs in the US.”

Their expansion strategy focuses heavily on the health benefits of their strains, not necessarily targeting the recreational market. “As a wellness brand in Nevada, we are positioned to work first and foremost in the medical market,” says Gardner. “Our wellness brand can cater to people looking for homeopathic remedies for things like inflammation issues, sleep disorders or pain relief for example,” says Gardner. “You will not see us going out there catering to the truly recreational market; the benefits of what our strains can do is marketed from a wellness perspective.” A cannabis product with high-THC percentages is not unique, says Gardner, but their approach using the entourage effect and proven delivery mechanisms is. “While higher THC might appeal to the rec market, that is not exactly how we will promote and position ourselves,” says Gardner. “We want to be a dominant force in the wellness market.”

Best practices include quality control protocols

That effort requires working within the US regulatory framework, which can be quite complicated compared to their experience in Israel. “We have to understand the Israeli market and American market are completely different due to the regulatory regimes each country has in place,” says Gardner. “We understand the efficacy of these products and want to educate customers on how they might benefit. We don’t want to make claims looking to cure anything, but we found in our data that a lot of symptoms in different ailments, like cancer, PTSD, Crohn’s disease, colitis and IBS, can be alleviated by strains we developed.” In addition to the medical research, they are bringing their intellectual property, cultivation methodologies, evidence-based scientific collaboration and best practices to their partners in the US.

So for Tikun’s expansion in the US, they want to get a medical dialogue going. “We will launch a fully accredited AMA [American Medical Association] program, educating medical practitioners, giving the doctors the understanding of the capabilities of cannabis and what our strains can do,” says Gardner. “We will also share our observational data with doctors so they can work to better guide their patients.” Right now, they are working on the education platform in their pilot program in Delaware. “We plan on using that as a platform to expand into other markets like Nevada,” says Gardner. “And we will be launching the Tikun brand in the Washington market this summer.” Based on the high demand they saw in the Delaware market, Gardner says they plan to launch six unique strains in the American market, with delivery mechanisms like vape products, tinctures, lozenges and topicals in addition to dried flower.

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Rows of cannabis plants drying and curing before processing.

While Tikun expands throughout the United States, their sights are set on global expansion, living up to the true meaning of the concept Tikun Olam. They entered a strategic partnership with a licensed producer based in Toronto, bringing their strains, including Avidekel, to the Canadian market. The company they are partnering with, MedReleaf, recently filed for an initial public offering (IPO) on the Toronto stock exchange. Tikun Olam is actively seeking to expand in other parts of the world as well.