The ex-prime minister of Israel is investing in medicinal cannabis

The debate around medicinal cannabis has long been affected by the plant’s widespread recreational use. The world’s most popular illicit drug, there is a certain crossover between cannabis advocates and conspiracy theorists toting phrases like “cannabis cures cancer”.

As far as the experts are aware, cannabis doesn’t cure anything. However, it does appear to be useful in certain medical circumstances - a fact to which many people, from doctors to politicians, are waking up.

One such politician is former prime minister of Israel Ehud Olmert. Having held the position of Mayor of Jerusalem in addition to heading various ministries, Olmert was a forward-thinking leader with progressive policies. However, he stepped down in 2009 amid allegations of corruption and later served a 16-month prison sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice.

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Olmert now works with Univo, an Israeli medicinal cannabis company to which he is an investor and senior advisor. Univo is headed up by Golan Bitton, formerly a senior figure within Israel’s special forces, who believes his company will become a major player in this industry.

Meeting them ahead of the Europe CBD Expo at London’s ExCel convention centre, Bitton has the serious demeanour of a military man. Meanwhile, Olmert wears a t-shirt and exudes the confidence of a former rock star, such that it’s only his hovering close protection agents that give him away. However, he speaks confidently and knowledgeably about his work with Univo. There was plenty to speak to him about but we were there, ostensibly, to discuss medicinal cannabis.

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VT: What medicinal properties do you believe cannabis has?

"It would be presumptuous for someone like me, without any scientific background in this area, to give you an outline of what can happen. I can only establish my predictions on the basis of my thorough learning and talking to some of the chief scientists in Israel who are deeply involved in this area. Already now, there are tens of thousands of Israelis which are treated for different medical needs with cannabis under the supervision and the guidance of the Ministry of Health and the top physicians in Israel.

"Parkinson’s patients, patients of autism - which, I know, is not considered to be an illness, but the symptoms of autism can be treated with cannabis and are treated with cannabis in a very significant way - there are all kinds of indications of psoriasis, of skin diseases, which are treated with cannabis. So, I think that these areas already now are being assisted by the use of cannabis."

"The big pharmaceutical companies are not involved yet in cannabis"

VT: Is Univo looking to export its products or are they only for use in Israel?

"Absolutely, yes. We are looking to export. We believe that there will be a market. We already signed agreements with companies in Germany and Holland and we hope to sign eventually here in Great Britain."

VT: Other than the obvious, what's the difference between you and other pharmaceutical companies?

"All the companies that are producing the product are not pharmaceutical companies. The big pharmaceutical companies are not involved yet in cannabis. When they come, when they jump into this market, you will know that cannabis has specific indications that can be very significantly effective in curing the most serious diseases. That's when the big companies will jump in."

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VT: So Univo’s not a pharmaceutical company?

"It’s a pharmaceutical company but the products are not prescribed for any specific disease. So we don’t try to describe it in a way that it’s not. It is helpful, it is useful, it is recognised as a useful product for many different needs. But this is not a medicine which can be sold only by a prescription of a doctor. We have to be clear. We don't want to say that which is not."

VT: Would you like to see cannabis decriminalised or legalised for medical use in more countries around the world?

"Yes. My answer is yes. The more it will be legalised for research, development and medical use, I think the better it will be. And, quite frankly, the more useful it will be for many people."

"I’ve never tasted cannabis. Or any other drugs for that matter"

VT: What are your thoughts on the legalise movement?

"Had I been in a position of power, I would have influenced the process in Israel. But that doesn’t mean that I support the party that wants the total legalisation of cannabis [the legalise movement has long had representation in Isreali politics] because they have other positions on other important national issues which I entirely disagree with. I can agree with them entirely over cannabis but they are extremely right-wing on other issues."

VT: Have you ever tried cannabis?

"No. I was a chain smoker of cigarettes when I was very young. But I stopped smoking cigarettes more than 20 years ago. I smoke cigars occasionally. But I never tried cannabis. I’ve never tasted cannabis. Or any other drugs for that matter."

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VT: Having already strayed somewhat into politics, do you think people should be allowed to criticise the State of Israel without fear of being called anti-semitic?

"Of course you can criticise the State of Israel. I can tell you that I criticise my government quite a lot and I’m an Israeli and I don’t think it’s anti-semitic. Not everyone that criticises Israel is anti-semitic. In many, many cases they are lovers of Israel but they are concerned about certain policies and they are allowed completely to criticise and to spell out whatever they think. That doesn’t mean that everyone that criticises Israel is not anti-semitic. There are some but the overwhelming majority of those who criticise the State of Israel are not."

"I think that Univo will have major offices"

VT: With that in mind, would it now be fair to call Israel an aggressor in the conflict between Israel and Palestine?

"No. I am the one who proposed the peace agreement which was completely, universally
supported. And unfortunately Abu Mazen, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, never said yes to this. He never said no but he never said yes. I think it’s quite obvious that this was an Israeli display. It was initiated in Israel. It involved major painful concessions for Israel - pulling out of most of the territories. And the fact is that the Palestinians didn’t say yes. So I think it would be far-reaching and very unfair to describe the full context of this conflict by saying Israel is an aggressor. But that doesn’t mean that I agree with the government on most issues."

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VT: Do you feel like certain world leaders are above the law?

"I was not. And I think that others should not. No one should be above the law."

VT: Where do you see Univo in 10 years’ time?

"I think that Univo will have major offices. I’ll tell you where. In Canada and the west coast, in California, Colorado, in Portugal and in Columbia. This is because those are the places which are more interested and more involved in the potential use of cannabis. And they have the right conditions, which will make the growing of cannabis easier and distribution of cannabis to major parts of the world easier. So that’s where, in 10 years, I believe that Univo will be."

Israel perhaps seems an unlikely country to be leading the charge on medicinal cannabis. However, in 1996, it became the first country in the world to develop a national program devoted to it. With Univo controlling the whole chain of production, from growing plants right up to the finished product, Olmert hopes that it will soon be a market leader in a booming industry.