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Israel Studies Potential of Medical Marijuana as a Treatment for Autism

The Israeli government sees marijuana as a promising source of new treatments for physical and mental illnesses.
Israel Studies Potential of Medical Marijuana as a Treatment for Autism
Image credit: Matthew Staver | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Unfettered by restrictions on marijuana such as those in the United States, other countries continue to take the lead on researching the potential health benefits of the cannabis plant.

Recently, researchers at Oxford University in the United Kingdom announced a research project into the potential medical value of marijuana. Now, Israel has launched the first clinical trial in the world to determine if cannabis can provide treatment for one specific condition: autism.

Israeli researchers are looking how the non-psychotropic compound found in cannabis – called cannabidiol (CBD) – might treat autistic children better than other medications have so far done.

Israel approved medical marijuana in 1992, before the first state did so in the U.S. (California in 1995), and has  government approved-medical marijuana program. Obviously, there are clear differences in Israel and the U.S., where marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I illegal drug by the federal government.

In Israel, the government is helping foster the marijuana boom. The Ministry of Agriculture’s Volcani Center is building an institute for medical marijuana research. The government has handed out funding for entrepreneurial companies looking to make a start in the business.

The autism research is taking place at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. The study, which is expected to last through the end of 2018, involves 120 patients ages five to 29 who have mild to severe autism.

Related: Study Links Medical Marijuana to Fewer Traffic Fatalities

What Is autism?

Autism, once thought to affect a small number of people, is now thought of more as a spectrum condition, meaning that different people are affected differently and to varying degrees. The best definition, given by the Autism Society of America, is a “complex developmental disability” that affects how a person “communicates and interacts with others.”

Symptoms typically start at a very young age. The condition affects about one in every 68 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Behaviors associated with autism can include:

  • Delayed learning of language
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Difficulty holding a conversation
  • Difficulty with “executive functions” such as reasoning and planning
  • Little or no interest in other people
  • Poor motor skills
  • Sensory sensitivities

As long as that list is, it is not comprehensive. Autism is sometimes difficult to diagnose, but most patients experience some combination of the above.

Related: Illinois Asks Trump to Let Banks Take Medical Marijuana Business

The Jerusalem Study

The research that started in January in Jerusalem will involve treatment of those with autism using CBD. Adi Aran, the pediatric neurologist leading the research, told USA Today that almost every patient in the study has tried other medications and about half had a negative response. 

Parents had requested cannabis to treat their kids, but had been refused because no research exists showing any potential benefit. The current two-year study will seek to provide concrete answers. Aran said some improvement in autistic patients had been seen in “observational studies” of about 70 patients.

Israel has expanded its movement into medical marijuana in the past several years and now allows more plant growers and uses for medical marijuana than ever before. As a trailblazer among countries that legalized medical marijuana at the federal level, Israeli officials have written a series of rule and regulations called The Green Book.

The book is now in high demand from other countries, Israeli officials told the New York Times.

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