Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer has become the first hospital in Israel to administer marijuana to patients for medical purposes. Over the last six months, as part of a pilot project, 20 patients have been treated with the drug.
The first was a 24-year-old cancer patient, who recently died. She was hospitalized about six months ago in the hematology ward and suffered severe pain and nausea. According to Ora Shamai, the head nurse for Sheba's pain management program, "the patient had a permit from the Health Ministry, and she had joints, but the ward wouldn't let her smoke them," due to the presence of specialized equipment in the ward that could be disrupted by opening a window.
The hospital therefore moved her to a private room in the oncology ward. There, she was able to smoke her marijuana by an open window.
Shamai recently finished drafting a formal protocol for administering medical marijuana, the first to be drafted by any Israeli hospital. The document has already been approved by the Health Ministry's Dr. Yehuda Baruch, who is in charge of approving marijuana treatments, and is expected to receive final approval from the hospital soon.
The protocol states that if a patient needs marijuana, the doctor in charge of treating him will help him secure the necessary permit from the ministry. Ambulatory patients will smoke their joints in the hospital's smoking room. Bedridden patients will be allowed to smoke only in private rooms, near an open window.
"We make it clear to the staff that smoking medical marijuana doesn't endanger the medical staff on the wards," Shamai said. "It does not harm those in the area via passive smoking."
A more serious concern is that smoking the drug could hurt the patient himself. "It's certainly a dilemma, but it's the lesser of two evils," said Dr. Itay Gur-Arie, the head of Sheba's pain management unit. "When you're talking about smoking a joint or two a day, we don't think this causes short-term harm to the patients."
The Israel Association for the Advancement of Medical Cannabis, which has also been involved in the project from the beginning, is now raising money for machines that vaporize the marijuana and allow patients to inhale it as steam, without the need to light a joint. Five such machines are already in use in Sheba.
Israel is one of the first countries to have permitted the use of medical marijuana, along with Holland, Germany, Canada and some American states. And Sheba's protocol is one of the first in the world to regulate the use of this drug in hospitals.
Ran Gottlieb, 51, of Gan Yavneh, is one of the people who participated in the pilot. A disabled army veteran of 35 years' standing, he was hospitalized at Sheba three months ago after breaking some of his vertebrae in a household accident, and suffered severe pain and occasional spasms. The marijuana the hospital administered "helped me with the pain, significantly reduced the spasms and improved my mood," he said.
By Dan Even
November 24, 2009