“Immediately, they took him to the emergency room,” said his father, Asaf Parush. “They doped him up and he was basically passed out the first week of his birth.”
For six months, Parush and his wife, Noa, held on to the belief that Lavie’s condition would improve. But the seizures worsened. He suffered dozens a day. Doctors diagnosed him with epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Lavie was severely brain damaged.
Doctors put the baby on one drug after another to try to stop the seizures. Each drug required another visit to the hospital. And each one led to another disappointment as the seizures continued unabated. Some drugs had severe side effects, Parush said. Steroids, for example, weakened Lavie’s immune system and caused him to become incredibly bloated.
Just before Lavie’s first birthday, Parush heard about the use of medical marijuana — commonly called medical cannabis in Israel — to treat epilepsy.
How medical marijuana works in Israel
Unlike other medicines, cannabis is not prescribed by a doctor in Israel. Instead, specialist doctors request a license for a patient to use cannabis for treatment of chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced symptoms, epilepsy and other conditions. The license allows medical cannabis patients between 20 and 200 grams per month. The cannabis is sold at a fixed price of approximately $100 per month, regardless of the amount.
The Ministry of Health points out that the efficacy and safety of medical cannabis “have not yet been established,” but the ministry also acknowledges cannabis can help patients suffering from certain medical conditions. Israel has approximately 23,000 licensed medical cannabis users, according to Daniel Goldstein, an industry advocate with Israel Cannabis
. Recreational cannabis remains illegal in the country.
Patients select from one of Israel’s eight cannabis growers, collecting their cannabis from a hospital or dispensary, instead of from a pharmacy. Cannabis is available in different forms, including cigarettes, oil and pills.
Lavie’s family requested a license for him from the Ministry of Health for the boy to use medical cannabis. He takes a few drops of cannabis oil every day, mixed into his food.
“After a few weeks we didn’t see any seizures at all,” Parush said.
The cannabis oil, extracted from a strain of cannabis called Avidekel, was developed in northern Israel by one of the country’s largest cannabis growers, Tikun Olam. The oil is high in cannabidiol — or CBD – the pharmacological ingredient in cannabis that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient that makes marijuana users high and has been shown to relieve pain.
According to Tikun Olam, Avidekel is the strain used for toddlers and babies. Of Tikun Olam’s 6,500 medical cannabis users, only 15 are under 3 years old. The Ministry of Health couldn’t confirm the number of toddler and baby cannabis patients in Israel, but Tikun Olam’s spokeswoman Ma’ayan Weisberg estimates that no more than 25 children under 3 years old are licensed.