Israel is moving toward authorizing the export of medical marijuana. Israel is an example of how advanced a market can get with a relatively small number of potential customers. With only around 23,000 patients, Israeli’s medical marijuana businesses have thrived, benefiting from the country’s open approach to research, unlike in the United States. So, how will potential Israeli exports affect markets in the United States?
Countries can regulate trade on two fronts — outgoing goods (exports) and incoming goods (imports). On the export side, countries will generally have limits or bans on the export of munitions or military items, items that have military applications, and items intended to go toward countries or individuals that the U.S. has designated under its sanctions regime. For imports, countries will generally track what is coming in for customs purposes to levy import duties and will require proof of licensure for the import of regulated goods that require licenses to possess. Israel may allow the exports, but it doesn’t mean that the United States will allow the imports. Because marijuana is still a controlled substance that is illegal to possess without permission from the DEA, medical marijuana patients in the United States likely won’t be able to import marijuana for their own use.
But for researchers, access to Israeli medical marijuana strains would be a huge boon. For years, the only marijuana researchers can use has been controlled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at a licensed facility at the University of Mississippi. This has been a problem because NIDA’s Mississippi marijuana has often been found by researchers to be of inferior quality, and many research projects have ground to a halt after receiving all required licensing and permits because the NIDA facility simply didn’t have the type of marijuana that needed to be researched. In August, the DEA announced a new policy that would potentially expand the list of permitted facilities for the cultivation of cannabis for research. In that policy statement, the DEA used the Single Convention on Narcotics to provide it some cover for its continued limitations on cannabis growing for research. The primary limitation for those permitted by the DEA to cultivate marijuana is that they receive written permission from the DEA each time that they distribute marijuana.
The DEA continues with these limitations for a number of reasons as we have discussed here and here. But the DEA’s best arguments for its ongoing limitations are based on the U.S.’s obligations under the Single Convention. Articles 23 and 28 of the Single Convention make clear that countries that allow cultivation of cannabis for research purposes must ensure that research marijuana not be diverted to the illegal market. This is only a problem for the DEA domestically when the cultivation is in the United States, though. If the DEA licenses importers, only a limited quantity of marijuana comes into the United States, and protection against diversion from the grow operation is the problem of the exporting country.
The DEA has authorized importation before. In December 2015 it granted Catalent CTS, LLC of Missouri a registration to import “finished pharmaceutical products containing cannabis extracts in dosage form for clinical trial studies.” These imports would presumably be from GW Pharmaceuticals, which has a massive facility in the United Kingdom.
But Israel’s medical marijuana cultivators have a strong reputation around the world, and researchers will be eager to run trials with strains of cannabis they cannot get anywhere else. It will take some time for Israel to move the marijuana export allowance through its legislature (it has only been voted out of committee), but don’t be surprised if a number of U.S. based researchers start applying to the DEA for import permits and start getting their cannabis from Israel.