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Israel's Ehud Barak, out of politics, turns to medical marijuana

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Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and military commander-in-chief, rang the bell Wednesday to open trading on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange for InterCure Ltd, a biomedical company he chairs.

[TEL AVIV] Israel's most decorated soldier is going to pot.

Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and military commander-in-chief, rang the bell Wednesday to open trading on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange for InterCure Ltd, a biomedical company he chairs. The company recently completed its acquisition of Canndoc Pharma, which holds one of just eight coveted licenses from Israel's Health Ministry to grow medical-grade marijuana, making it the only publicly traded pot producer in the Holy Land.

Mr Barak, whose other business ventures range from cyber security to emergency-rescue technology, hasn't exactly become a stoner since leaving public service in 2013. InterCure executives approached him several months ago with a business proposal, he said, and after doing due diligence, he signed up.

"I have no familiarity with cannabis: I never took a puff in my life, never took a bite of anything, never put any drops under my tongue," Mr Barak told a crowd Wednesday at the exchange. "But I studied the issue, read material and understood that cannabis for medical use is something real, with real potential impact."

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InterCure shares were up 30 per cent to 4.22 shekels(S$1.58) as of 2.02 pm Wednesday in Tel Aviv, their largest gain since June. The company announced on Wednesday it had raised US$12 million in a private placement to investors.

While Canndoc already supplies medical marijuana to patients with doctors' prescriptions - which can be filled at Israel's largest pharmacy chain - the eventual prize is international export. Many in the local industry expected the Netanyahu government to approve export of medical-grade weed last April, but the issue ultimately was deferred for further study.

Recreational marijuana use is extremely common in Israel - the highest in the world, according to one 2017 poll - and penalties for personal use have been relaxed in recent years. It's not unusual to stroll through a pungent cloud on the streets of Tel Aviv, where people openly roll and smoke joints at sidewalk cafes and every few blocks there's a head shop selling bongs, vaporizers and other paraphernalia. Green Leaf, a party that seeks full marijuana legalization, fields a Knesset slate in every election, though it has yet to win a seat in parliament.

But it's in medical marijuana where Israel really hopes to emerge as a leader. Hebrew University chemist Raphael Mechoulam is credited with isolating THC - the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana - in his lab in the 1960s, and the country is considered among the international pathbreakers in medical marijuana research. Skeptics say some of the medical benefits marijuana advocates claim have yet to be proven scientifically.

Mr Barak, in his presentation Wednesday, struggled to sound out the long scientific name for THC, as well as for CBD, a spectrum of compounds in the plant that are being tapped for their medicinal applications. Clearly, Mr Barak said, he still needs to learn more about the subject.

"I hope we're going to build a global company, based in Israel," he said. "One that will bring relief to a lot of people."

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