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Israel Moves to Decriminalize Cannabis

Israel has been at the forefront of medicinal cannabis research, but the country also has a tumultuous cultural and legal history with recreational use.
Photo Zachi Evernor


Israel Moves to Decriminalize Cannabis

Israel has been at the forefront of medicinal cannabis research, but the country also has a tumultuous cultural and legal history with recreational use. A generational shift in attitudes about drugs, along with the steady progress of decriminalization globally, is moving the country towards decriminalization.

Last week saw the Israeli cabinet expressing support for a cannabis decriminalization plan brought forward by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan

Last July, Erdan convened The Inter-Ministerial Committee on Law Enforcement Policy for Cannabis Users. The committee ran through the end of January, and Erdan presented the bill to the Knesset with the backing of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet.

The committee itself focused exclusively on personal use, and their main findings were that there are dangers in cannabis use, especially for adolescents, and that prohibition isn’t really that harmful.

From the committee’s report:

“There is no basis to the claim that thousands of citizens are unduly harmed by the present law enforcement policy. The policy is full of leniencies for normative citizens and especially minors.”

But despite this satisfaction with the leniencies of law enforcement, the report cites public opinion on law enforcement as a primary motivation for their plan to put decriminalization on paper — in literal bold letters:

“In order to retain faith in our law enforcement system, changes should be made to the current policy.”

This new cannabis policy, intended to bring faith back to law enforcement as a whole, uses a “three strikes” system of civil penalties. It starts with a $272 fine for the first infraction — minors would need to meet with social services following the first infraction. The second infraction would see the fine double. On the third infraction, more possibilities would open up for law enforcement in addition to the fines, including forced treatment and possible loss of drivers license.

That third offense is basically when the decrim part ends; on the fourth, it’s at the discretion of law enforcement to indict.

The committee believes this will will normalize the relationship between law enforcement and offenders without attaching a criminal stigma to regular citizens. They also pointed to the positive effect on resource allocation and an expanded toolbox for dealing with real treatment issues.

The Jerusalem Post covered the news in pro-pot Tel Aviv, where they were proud to note the city’s score of “8” on Marijuana Traveler. After a brief pat on the back, they hosted a debate between liberal Green Leaf Party representative Eldad Maron and Dr. Yossi Harel Fisch, the chief scientist for Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority.

In the brief time he was given, Maron said the war on cannabis is failing and that the real danger to youth was the lack of regulation of the status quo.

From there the post report tossed Harrel-Fisch the “why should we be scared” softball, and he referred to a body of literature concerning “quite negative health effects” — without noting any specifics — then moved on to “amotivational syndrome” causing people to not reach their full potential.

Harel-Fisch then pointed accusingly at Colorado and Washington:

“There is evidence in some of those countries, like Washington and Colorado, there is a very big increase, there’s been a very big increase in teenage use in these first years of legalization, and thereafter,” he said. “We’re very concerned concerned about that. What we’re saying in Israel is that we can not allow ourselves to expose our children to becoming guinea pigs.”

Like the prohibitionists of yesteryear, the doctor’s claims are easily proven false by the state of Colorado’s own data on the subject: in a voluntary survey conducted on the student body by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, it was found that 21.2 percent of Colorado high school students had used cannabis in the last 30 days. That number was down from 22 percent in 2011, the year before legalization, and lower than the national average, which sits at 21.7 percent.

So even though the Prime Minister backs decriminalization, government employees are still spouting old BS talking points, with some new ones sprinkled on top — no cherry though, obviously.

As Israel took the lead in medical cannabis research over the past two decades, one researcher who helped push the envelope the most was Dr. Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Doblin has been visiting Israel since his youth to see family. He and MAPS have pushed the envelope in U.S.-based studies into AIDS, PTSD, and vaping research for years.

MAPS is currently working on a medical cannabis research study at Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) in Phoenix, and MDMA Assisted Therapy for PTSD research efforts in Colorado and Israel.

We asked Doblin what it had been like watching Israel’s transition to a more cannabis lenient mentality.

“It wasn’t always this way,” he said. “There was a time when marijuana, and particularly hash, were seen as an Arab thing… there was just this very anti marijuana sense.”

Doblin added that Israel had a different psychedelic history than the U.S., “they didn’t have the same 1960s as we did.”

Campaign posters for the Meretz party in Israel

He pointed to 1996 and the advent of marijuana as medicine in California as a particular turning point for Israel, as it had always followed the U.S. on its drug policy issues. In fact, Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority was founded just in time for the end of the Reagan administration in 1988. Once efforts in California were vindicated, efforts began not long after in Israel.

Around 10 or 11 years ago, the Israeli government finally decided to permit growing medical cannabis. The catch was it had to be given away for free.

David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s Soap subsidized a MAPS effort to cultivate the cannabis with an $85K donation.

“Slowly what happened was they were able to go from giving it away to selling it at cost, and then the shift from nonprofit to for profit where they’re at now,” Doblin said.

Two years ago Doblin lectured to Meretz, a leftist pro-peace political party in Israel, about the progress of cannabis legalization efforts in the U.S. He met Tami Zandberg, a Meretz politician now leading the anti-drug committee in the Knesset, and their use of cannabis issues to connect with youth vital to them in the election that year.

Doblin said seeing cannabis as a positive political tool is new in those parts.

“Back when I had to start working with the Anti-Drug Authority in 1999 to get the MDMA research going, there was a poster in the office of someone smoking a joint with the smoke curling up into a noose in the air. Like marijuana equals death,” Doblin, said. “So their official position was really, really negative.”

Doblin added that the cooldown period after military service played a major factor in changing the attitudes of the younger generation around cannabis.

“They have this whole tradition of people in the military going around the world for a year or so after to decompress,” he said. “These decompression trips have helped mature the drug culture around cannabis and psychedelics over the past 20 or 30 years.”

Ultimately, Dobin says it was just the perfect storm of responsible use culture and progress in the U.S. that forced Israeli politicians to admit it’s not worth the time and resources to go after people for a plant.

“They’ve got other priorities they need to focus on,” he said, noting he believed it was more of a pragmatic approach in the end — one led by Tami Zandberg and Meretz. “It wasn’t like Netanyahu decided on his own to do this.”

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