Keep on the Grass


JAFFA—The country is going to pot. No one seems to mind. It makes us feel like we live in a normal 21st-century nation instead of some backward place where two peoples, neither of whom eats pork, kill each other over a piece of scrubby land.

We’re having elections at the end of this month. You’ve probably heard more about them than you ever wanted to know. Same here. The TV and newspapers talk about nothing else, except the sunny prospects for war with Iraq.

The election issues are clear: peace or war; prosperity or economic collapse; clean government or rampant corruption; legalized or illegal grass.

Now, Israelis are pretty smart people . . . except when they vote. The polls reinforce that conviction. Of the four main issues, the electorate is bound to be wayward on three.

That’s right: On January 28 it looks like we will have a clear vote for war, economic ruin, corruption, and legal marijuana.

The polls say Israeli voters are going to re-elect Ariel Sharon despite all the allegations of corruption within his Likud Party, despite the sinking economy, and despite his failed policy of answering Palestinian terrorism with massive military force, thus provoking more terrorism.

“One explanation,” said columnist Yoel Marcus in the daily Ha’aretz, “is that a portion of the public is suffering from shell shock and doesn’t believe in changing generals in mid-battle.”

The main factor in Sharon’s favor is the looming war with Iraq. People are worried about having a new kid in the driver’s seat when Saddam Hussein begins lobbing chemical and biological weapons, or worse, at us.

But Sharon is not the only politician playing the Saddam card. Now we have the Green Leaf Party touting the potential of marijuana as an antidote to Saddam’s nerve gas of choice, soman.

The Green Leaf Party sits on the liberal left and wants all the appropriate things—peace with the Palestinians, separation of synagogue and state, and lots of social benefits. But everyone knows what they really want—the legalization of marijuana.

Marijuana has been a medicine-chest staple in this area for centuries. A few years ago, Israeli scientists found cannabis residue with the skeleton of a young Jerusalem girl who evidently died in childbirth 1600 years ago.

The scientists said the marijuana was probably used by the midwife to ease the girl’s pain.

Israelis are very fond of ancient lore, and of traditional medicines in particular. According to the Israeli Anti-Drug Authority, there is a market for about 25 tons of marijuana and hashish every year in Israel.

Green Leaf, which says it will pay for all those extra social welfare programs with taxes on grass, is growing by leaps and bounds thanks to the rising contempt of young voters for the existing political establishment.

The polls show the party winning between two and eight seats in the 120-seat Knesset. That may not seem like many to you, but pollsters say Sharon is unlikely to win more than 35 seats, which means he will be scrounging around for coalition partners when he tries to form a government. With eight seats, Green Leaf could write its own ticket.

Green Leaf has a modest proposal for dealing with an Iraqi nerve gas attack. Instead of injecting ourselves in the thigh with the drug atropine that comes with gas mask kits, Green Leaf suggests that citizens might simply light a joint, lie back, and enjoy the show.

Green Leaf cites research conducted by the U.S. Army and the Israel-based Pharmos Corporation. Rats were exposed to nerve gas and then injected with dexanabinol, a synthetic substitute for hashish. The army tests reportedly showed that the injection reduced brain damage by more than 70 percent.

Green Leaf says that what a synthetic will do, the real stuff can do better. It’s demanding that the Israeli army consider providing the population with this natural antidote. The grass, Green Leaf says, could come from confiscated dope stored in police warehouses. And there is said to be tons of it. Just one toke should do the trick, so there’d be plenty to go around.

Convinced, I went out to score a nickel bag. In my neighborhood, I didn’t have to go far. Would you believe it? A nickel bag now costs $50!

Before making that kind of investment, I called Pharmos to check the facts.

Dr. George Fink, Pharmos’s vice president of research, was very explicit.

“Our research has been done in collaboration with the U.S. Army,” he said. “The results of testing on animals show that dexanabinol is effective in counteracting the brain-damaging effects induced by nerve gas. In fact, there is robust evidence.”

Dr. Fink explained that dexanabinol is a neuroprotectant that may soon be on the market for use with traumatic brain injuries. But it is not yet available for use against nerve gas.

“It needs to be modified to make it suitable for nerve gas,” he said. “It’s not yet in a formulation suitable for rapid administration. We are working toward it, and it could easily be done.”

Dr. Fink pooh-poohed the notion that a joint would work just as well. But he seemed to understand why some people would prefer it.

“Unfortunately, dexanabinol is a synthetic derivative,” he said. “It has none of the psychological effects of cannabis—it doesn’t make you happy or give you a high.”

Despite all the hoopla, Israel is relatively well prepared for most of the chemical or biological warfare agents that Saddam might use in retaliation for an American attack. Atropine syringes for use against nerve gas are standard stock in most Israeli bomb shelters. And Israeli hospitals have enough smallpox vaccine on hand to inoculate the entire population, including tourists and foreign workers, within a few days.

Unfortunately, medical facilities in neighboring countries, including the Palestinian Authority, can be termed inadequate at best, and hygienic conditions are poor. There is, therefore, a real danger of any epidemic becoming pandemic throughout the Middle East.

According to the usually reliable DEBKAfile, Jordan has deployed troops along its borders with Israel and the West Bank to prevent Palestinians, who might flee the contamination of an Iraqi biological attack on Israel, from carrying the infection into Jordan.

In the best-case scenario, the gusty winds we get in this area in January and February might just blow all the disease microbes straight back into Iraq—sort of a giant germ boomerang. But you have to be stoned to believe in miracles.