The Early Mover Advantage

Israeli Flag

What can the combination of government support, a robust research ecosystem, generous funding, enabling regulations, and efforts of a visionary scientist achieve? Make the country a global leader.

Exactly why Israel is the global leader in medical cannabis. And, it is heads and shoulders above the rest.

Fresh evidence is regularly emerging on the substantial health benefits of cannabis, pushing multiple countries into legalizing its medical variant. An ancient remedy, cannabis became acceptable in the modern sense only after researchers isolated its individual components and demonstrated their positive impact on health.

In the 1960s, people looked at cannabis as a narcotic. Researchers avoided it. Professor and biochemist Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem took up the topic back then. The rest is history – the professor is among the foremost pioneers of research in medical cannabis [1].

Driving home the first mover advantage was institutional support. Government sponsored medical cannabis research in Israel dates back to the 1990s, decades before other countries took the plunge [1].

Today, cannabis is a lucrative industry. Grand View Research places the global medical cannabis industry by 2025 at $56 billion [2]. Governments and companies from over the world associate with Israeli institutions, researchers, and companies in various capacities to tap their vast knowledge troves.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that around 27% of Israel’s citizens aged between 18 and 65 use cannabis. This is the highest ratio of cannabis users anywhere. Iceland comes a distant second at 18% while the United States is at the third position with a 16% ratio [2].

Institutional & Individual Excellence

Medical Cannabis Research
Medical Cannabis Research


Sometimes, ignorance can be bliss and lead to the path of enlightening knowledge. Prof. Mechoulam was unaware of the taboo surrounding cannabis when he decided to pursue research in medical cannabis [1].

What has spurred interest in cannabis of late is the beneficial impact of cannabinoids on human health. Cannabis contains compounds called cannabinoids, which are believed to be useful for mitigating cancer, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes.

That no one had separated active and pure cannabinoids surprised Prof. Mechoulam in the early days of his research. The tipping point was his co-discovery of the human body’s largest receptor mechanism, the endo-cannabinoid system.

With fellow researchers, Prof. Mechoulam isolated Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the two primary cannabinoids [1]. Singling out these compounds enabled an analysis of how they act on the endo-cannabinoid system.

Next, the professor’s research delved into how the human brain secretes its own cannabinoids to stimulate the endo-cannabinoid mechanism [2]. It was the findings of such studies that thrust medical cannabis into the research mainstream.

Israel’s innovation prowess is not limited to medical cannabis alone. The country invests 4.2% of its GDP in research and development, the highest percentage in the world. Venture capital per capita also peaks in Israel. Unsurprisingly, the nation is globally ranked [3]:

  • Second in the Bloomberg Innovation Index and the 2016-17 Global Competitiveness Report.
  • Third in tech companies listed on NASDAQ.
  • First in the number of patents and start-ups per capita.

Breath of Life, an Israeli cannabis company, operates one of the largest facilities for growing and researching medical cannabis – a 1-million square foot centre in the south of the country!


The Knesset (Israeli Parliament)
The Knesset (Israeli Parliament)


Israel was among the first to legitimize medical cannabis, although recreational cannabis is still prohibited on its soil [2]. The country allocates the highest percentage of funds for research on medical cannabis [4]. May 2020 saw the Israeli government legalize medical cannabis export [5].

Only the governments of Israel, the Netherlands, and Canada sponsor cannabis programs [2]. Friendly research climate means Israel has a simple, streamlined process in place for conducting cannabis clinical trials.

Even the governments of Canada, Germany, United States, and Australia finance research in Israel [2]! Prof. Mechoulam has received $5 million over the past five decades from the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) [2].

Foreign companies don’t lag their governments. The first American company to start a lab for commercial cannabis in the U.S., Steep Hills Lab, has teamed up with iCan, a cannabis firm based in Israel [2]. A number of U.S. companies are operating out of Israel. Others outsource research to Israel while some hire Israeli researchers.

A small country offers its own set of advantages. When in Israel, company executives have to travel less for meeting diverse cannabis professionals [2]. This further speeds up things. The utility of a small country in this regard goes back a long way though.

Decades ago, it was the size advantage that Prof. Mechoulam harnessed when he first forayed into medical cannabis research. The Israeli Ministry of Health has supplied hashish to Prof. Mechoulam for 40 years [1]. With the necessary precautions, but with no fuss. Hashish or hash is a potent version of cannabis [6].


Medical Cannabis
Medical Cannabis


Israel’s pre-eminence in medical cannabis research is a shining example of the brilliant results that follow the coordinated functioning of various public and private institutions in unison with meritorious individuals. Definitely a role model!


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  1. GreenEntrepreneur / “How Israel Became the Global Leader in Cannabis Research.
  2. Yardena Schwartz. US News & World Report. “The Holy Land of Medical Marijuana.”
  3. Deloitte. “Israel – A World Leader in Cannabis Market.”
  4. Cannabis Facility Construction. “Israel’s Contribution to Cannabis Innovation.”
  5. Reuters. “Israel Approves Medical Cannabis Exports.”
  6. “Hashish.”