Israel has been, for decades, the global leader in medical marijuana research and treatment, with the government funding human clinical trials even as the United States and other countries discouraged or criminalized such studies.

Alon Blatt with NiaMedic, the Israeli company behind a medical clinic in Laguna Woods that will use cannabis to help treat seniors. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Now, a company formed by doctors and nurses involved in some of Israel’s pioneering cannabis research is working to open its first American clinic in Laguna Woods.

Israel-based NiaMedic is promising to offer conventional medical care alongside what company leaders describe as research-backed cannabis treatment aimed at seniors. The focus will be on the use of cannabis to handle pain management, physical rehabilitation, insomnia and other conditions linked to aging.

“Right now, it’s scary to get older,” said Alon Blatt, NiaMedic’s director of business development. “We’re showing people that there’s a better way.”

The clinic is on track to open in late August, just outside the gates to Laguna Woods Village. Though an exact location isn’t nailed down, Blatt said they already have a list of roughly 100 local seniors hoping to sign on as patients.

“I’m very enthusiastic about this,” said Shari Horne, a Laguna Woods councilwoman who occasionally relies on medical marijuana.

“I think there’s so much potential.”

Ideal population

The demographics of Laguna Woods, and the community’s progressive stance on medical marijuana, make the age-restricted town an ideal setting for NiaMedic’s first U.S. clinic, according to Blatt.

Laguna Woods is an incorporated city, but one that’s comprised almost entirely of Laguna Woods Village, a gated retirement community. Home prices are comparatively affordable, amenities are abundant and the 16,400 residents make up one of America’s oldest communities — with a median age of about 75, according to Census data.

Since cannabis has been shown to effectively treat conditions that plague people in that age range — including certain types of chronic pain, spasms and appetite problems — people over 65 are one of the fastest-growing segments of cannabis consumers in the United States.

Lonnie Painter, right, director of Laguna Woods Medical Cannabis places cannabis buds into a pipe as fellow Laguna Woods collective members Brian Grode, left, and Tony Pierce, center, look on. (File: Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

What’s more, cannabis already has something of a toe-hold in Laguna Woods.

In 2008, Laguna Woods became the first city in Orange County to pass an ordinance allowing medical marijuana dispensaries. But a lack of viable commercial space, and pressure from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, prevented a cannabis shop from ever opening in town. And in April 2017, the council reversed its rules, voting to block all marijuana-related businesses.

But over the years, hundreds of area residents have consumed cannabis through the Laguna Woods Medical Cannabis Club, a collective founded by a resident, Lonnie Painter, and staffed by volunteer “peer guides.” Members of the club, also known as a collective, have been able to get information about how to use medical marijuana and buy lab-tested cannabis products sourced by Painter.

However, because of new state laws related to cannabis, the collective will have to get a license to sell cannabis directly, or dissolve, by the end of 2018. Since Laguna Woods’ city ordinances no longer permits marijuana sales, it looks likes the town’s Cannabis Club will be defunct in less than six months.

New options needed

Paradoxically, Proposition 64 — which this year legalized recreational cannabis sales in California — establishes some guidelines that can make life trickier for some medical consumers.

As part of the law, Californians no longer need a doctor’s recommendation to buy cannabis. And, because of that, many doctors who used to meet with “patients” and offer up medical recommendations have been shutting down their practices.

Lynn Jarrett of Laguna Woods browses the different types of medicated cannabis products for sale at Bud and Bloom in Santa Ana, on Wednesday, August 2, 2017. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Bud and Bloom, a licensed dispensary in Santa Ana, saw this problem as an opportunity. Last year, the company started sending a bus to Laguna Woods once a month, offering regular consumers and the merely curious a free ride to consult with cannabis experts and buy product from the Bud and Bloom shop on St. Gertrude Place.

But with the Laguna Woods collective scheduled to sunset, residents with serious medical conditions are afraid that, come January, they’ll face a gap when it comes to getting reliable information and access to cannabis.

Enter NiaMedic.

The company was co-founded by Inbal Sikorin, an Israeli nurse known internationally as an advocate for using cannabis to help geriatric patients deal with age-related conditions.

Early in her career, Sikorin opposed marijuana use. But the family of a patient in a nursing home outside Tel Aviv asked if Sikorin would consider using cannabis to help their mom, who was in constant pain and relied on a feeding tube. Sikorin said marijuana transformed that patient, and others in her care, and she quickly became a leading researcher on using cannabis to treat dementia, pain and other conditions. Her work has drawn interest from celebrity medical types such as TV host Montel Williams and neurosurgeon Dr. Sunjay Gupta.

Sikorin and partners launched NiaMedic two years ago as a way to bridge the gap between the mainstream medical world and the exploding cannabis industry. In Israel, two NiaMedic clinics have treated roughly 800 patients whose average age was 78.

While the hub for medical marijuana research remains Israel, Blatt notes the biggest market for cannabis is in the United States. So NiaMedic has set up its U.S. headquarters in West Hollywood and selected Laguna Woods for its first local facility.

Councilwoman Horne, among others, believes cannabis can help ease some forms of chronic pain and, therefore, could help ease the opioid epidemic that’s plaguing Laguna Woods and other U.S. communities.

“It’s not for everyone, or every medical condition,” Horne said of cannabis. But she added that she regularly hears from hears from residents who say cannabis works as an opioid substitute.

Without much regulated cannabis research in the United States, and with few doctors willing to offer advice on the drug’s potential uses, U.S. cannabis patients typically are left to experiment when it comes to products and doses. But Horne said one element of the NiaMedic model — a database with information from thousands of people treated by Sikorin and others — could be particularly helpful as a guide for local patients trying to sort out which type of cannabis to use for a particular condition.

Patients at the Laguna Woods clinic also will add to that research, since Blatt said they’ll monitor — without names — how treatment methods stack up against results.

How the clinic will work

NiaMedic will be staffed by doctors and nurses who focus on geriatrics, pain management, neurology, psychiatry and physical rehabilitation. While the clinic will cater to Laguna Woods seniors, Blatt said they’ll treat patients of any age, from any location. And cannabis will be “just one tool” in a broader toolbox.

A typical first visit will cost $350. Though that’s not currently covered by insurance (Blatt says they’re hoping to change that), the fee covers a full health assessment, a lengthy consultation, treatment planning and a month of routine monitoring.

Patients also can chose to become NiaMedic members. They’ll then pay $100 a month and $150 for each visit.

The fees won’t include the cannabis. Just as traditional medical clinics use pharmacies to dispense opioids or antibiotics, NiaMedic won’t sell cannabis directly to patients. Instead, Blatt said they’re developing partnerships with cannabis cultivators and manufacturers, and with area dispensaries, so they can send patients to stores that carry what they deem to be appropriate cannabis products.

While the company is developing the standalone clinic in Laguna Woods, Blatt said NiaMedic nurses trained in using cannabis to treat elderly patients will be placed Los Angeles area clinics. The company also plans to host  educational seminars for patients and medical professionals, and to develop software that will suggest the best cannabis products and doses to treat different conditions.

The vision is big. But Blatt, a former investment banker, said it’s all aimed at helping seniors.

“The medical world has focused so much on prolonging life,” he said. “We want to improve the quality of that life.”