low-res image of 1971 issue of Jewish Bulletin with headline "Israeli 'Turned On' by Drug Research"

Marijuana: In Israel they researched it, but blamed its use on Americans

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The digitization of the J. archives was made possible by funding from the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund and Fred Levin, The Shenson Foundation, in memory of the Shenson and Levin Families.

On March 9, Raphael Mechoulam died at 92. The Bulgarian-born Israeli scientist was considered the founder of marijuana research and a man whose work allowed Israel to lead the way in the field of medicinal cannabis innovation. In 1964, he was the first to isolate the psychoactive molecule in the plant, leading off a major wave of research into the way the drug works in the body.

Known around the world for his work in the field, he was also known here in the Bay Area. In 1971, we interviewed Mechoulam in an article headlined: “Bulletin Interviews Hashish Expert: Israeli ‘Turned On’ by Drug Research.”

Mechoulam may have been an expert in cannabis, but, despite the headline, he was far from approving of it as a recreational activity. In the interview, Mechoulam had some tart words to say about Americans.

“There are very few cases of Israelis smoking hashish, although our next-door neighbor Lebanon is the world’s greatest grower of the cannabis [hemp] plant from which both hashish and marijuana are derived.

“At Hebrew University, where approximately 4,000 of the total enrollment of 15,000 students are foreigners, it is mainly the American students who turn on.”

He also discussed how little was known about the long-term effects of recreational use of cannabis, but added that, “In Israel there is little or no use of hard drugs such as heroin or morphine to speak of and LSD seems to only be used by American tourists and a few students and artists who have come under the American influence.”

He wasn’t the only one concerned about American influence on Israeli youth in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Following the Six-Day War in 1967, aliyah numbers shot up; over 40,000 U.S. immigrants arrived in Israel between 1967 and 1973. Along with their ideals, they also brought counterculture with them, and some less-than-popular American habits.

Israel’s young generation is becoming acculturated to ‘Americanism’ with its concern for ‘pop songs, long hair and marijuana.’

In 1972, we carried a short article in which Zvi Gabay, an Israeli diplomat in posted to Philadelphia at the time, worried that “Israel’s young generation is becoming acculturated to ‘Americanism’ with its concern for ‘pop songs, long hair and marijuana.’”

Another 1972 article led off with “Foreigners are introducing Israeli youngsters to drugs, the chief pharmacist of the Tel Aviv Health Office charged.”

Abraham Tornau, addressing the closing session of the second Congress of the World Alliance for Israeli Pharmacy, “blamed the influx of volunteers and tourists from abroad for the rising incidence of drug abuse among minors.”

“‘Stoned in Israel:’ U.S. College Students Are Chief Casualties In War On Hashish,” read a page 10 headline in the Feb. 11, 1972 issue.

“American college students have been the chief casualties in Israel’s war on hashish, Jonathan Braun wrote from Jerusalem in Rolling Stone, the rock-music bi-monthly,” the article noted.

“No accurate arrest figures are available, but recent campus busts have netted as many as a half-dozen students at a time, as university officials and police have teamed up in an anti-hash campaign involving effective but bizarre tactics,” the article added, in a paraphrase of the Rolling Stone piece.

Braun wrote that “some cops and government bureaucrats are firmly convinced that Palestinian commandos have joined with the dope-pushing international New Left in an elaborate conspiracy to destroy every Israeli mind under 30.”

However, he apparently concluded that marijuana wasn’t as big a risk as authorities feared, confined as it was to a particular set of people.

“Despite the national paranoia,” Braun commented, according to the article, “serious hash use seems limited to American students, Arabs … and rock and roll singers, filmmakers, professional cafe sitters and other members of the emerging Israeli hip set.”

A world pioneer in cannabis research, Raphael Mechoulam helped form the Hebrew University Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research in 2017. (Photo/JTA-Yoram Aschheim-Hebrew University)
A world pioneer in cannabis research, Raphael Mechoulam helped form the Hebrew University Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research in 2017. (Photo/JTA-Yoram Aschheim-Hebrew University)

Mechoulam’s work paved the way for the medical establishment to begin to look seriously at cannabis for therapeutic purposes, rather than just as a drug used by “greaser-types” and “cafe sitters.” But it would be another 2½ decades before medical marijuana would become legal in California and even longer before the same thing was true in Israel.

In 1996, the East Bay Council of Rabbis came out in favor of the Compassionate Use Act, and later the same year we wrote “Whether or not Jews are inhaling and exhaling, they’re not ‘just saying no’ to the idea of medicinal marijuana. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll conducted after the November elections, Jewish voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 215, the ballot measure legalizing marijuana for medical use.”

The 1996 proposition passed, and by that time, the limited use of marijuana for medical purposes had been legal in Israel for a few years. In 2016, full legalization passed in California; in Israel, it’s still not fully legal, although it has been decriminalized for adults.

Based on Mechoulam’s pioneering work, Israel has become a major power in medical marijuana research, a position that may prove lucrative. At universities and in the private sector, researchers are looking at cancer cures, obesity treatments, AIDS therapies and more.

And Mechoulum’s own lab, at Hebrew University, which holds the most cannabis patents of any university, there are current research projects on how cannabis affects everything from aging to autism and osteoporosis to pain relief.

Back in 1971, when we interviewed Mechoulam, that was all still to come. Still, he had some predictions.

“I don’t think it will be legalized in Israel for many years, but naturally as American and Western European influence grows in our country, things could change,” he said. “In America, it is already engrained in young society. Israeli youth and adults presently oppose it.

“In your country where there is wide use of marijuana, I think it will eventually have to be legalized.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.