Israel Partially Decriminalizes Adult Use Cannabis
April Fool’s Day is perhaps an odd date to enact new changes in cannabis laws, but that is exactly what happened in Israel this month.
On April 1, the same day former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak addressed the fourth annual CannaTech medical cannabis conference in Tel Aviv, new laws came into effect which now partially decriminalize the use and possession of adult use cannabis.
Under the new regulations, the recreational use and possession of small amounts of cannabis will no longer be treated so harshly. People found in possession of small amounts of cannabis in public will now be subject to a fine of 1,000 shekels (around $275) rather than criminal proceedings. This fine will be doubled for a second offense. Only on the third offense within a period of seven years will a criminal investigation be triggered, or the person may be asked to surrender their driver’s or gun license. This change to the law does not apply to members of the Israeli military, minors, or anyone with a past criminal record.
The new legislation does not strictly define what amount might be considered for personal use, but the Israel Anti-Drug Authority has previously considered this to be around 15 grams. Medical cannabis patients have been advised to always keep their medical marijuana cards on their person in case they are approached by law enforcement.
The decriminalization came about on account of a recommendation given by a government committee which wanted to move the focus on cannabis related offenses from the criminal jurisdiction to the education realm. The recommendation was adopted and became the foundation for this legislation. The new rules are only intended to last for the next three years, after which the Israeli government, the Knesset, will make the decision on whether to make the reform permanent.
Despite these good intentions from the committee, the reform has drawn a number of critics. Speaking to the Haaretz newspaper, a representative from the Green Leaf party expressed concerns over the technicalities of the decriminalization.
"The reform is partially welcomed but it does an injustice to users who don't have the means to pay the fine, and to minority groups whose abuse will continue through profiling,” said Boaz Wechtel, the founder of the party. “The police will continue to violate individual liberties without grounds. Only full legalization or regulation will bring justice to users of this magical plant and take control away from the black market and terror organizations"
Medical cultivation license applicants rise with legislation changes
Decriminalization isn’t the only change to its cannabis law that Israel has made recently; the country has also announced a reform of its medical cannabis regulation that would let patients purchase medical cannabis directly from pharmacies with a physician’s prescription. Hundreds of doctors are scheduled to undergo training that will qualify them to prescribe the drug for treatment.
This reform was also initially meant to come into effect on April 1, but has been rescheduled for the end of the month. The reason behind the change of schedule is unclear.
In anticipation of these new reform measures, the Israeli Ministry of Health has reportedly received over 550 requests from farms to apply for a medical cannabis cultivation license.
“So far, 565 farms have submitted requests to the Ministry of Health to obtain licenses to grow medical cannabis,” said Eyal Basson, a spokesperson from the Ministry, to Ynetnews. “Of these, 384 have already passed the first round of tests in the licensing process, and this was after they underwent police checks and land ownership verification.”
“Six farms are currently approaching the end of the third stage of the licensing process and have already established farms that successfully passed security checks as well as agricultural quality tests. In addition, another eight farms have completed all the tests and have received work permits.”
Recently, Israel has been struggling with a shortage of medical cannabis, driving some medical companies to closure. It is hoped that the influx of cultivation applications will soon help address the shortage.
Cannabis and Israeli politics
The changing of cannabis policy is by no means the greatest source of political change in Israel right now. The country is currently in the middle of a national election, in which both the sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, and Benny Gantz of the Blue and White alliance, have declared a victory.
At the time of writing, only 97 percent of the votes have been counted, but it appears that though both parties have won 35 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu will remain in office for a fifth term as his party looks the most able to form a majority coalition using its links to other far-right and religious parties elected to the Knesset. Gantz’ more centrist party has fewer potential political allies to form a government with. The final official vote tally is expected to be announced some time on Friday, April 12, the coalition building process to form a majority government is expected to take several weeks.
Leading up to the vote, cannabis was a hot topic in the election coverage. Moshe Feiglin of the new far-right ultra-nationalist Zehut party, brought the issue to the forefront with his dramatic political platform which promised a complete legalization of cannabis, alongside an overhaul of the country’s finance ministry, the rebuilding of biblical temples in Jerusalem, and a call to annex the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
No party since 1949, the year of Israel’s first election, has managed to win an outright majority in the Knesset, meaning that the country is normally ruled by some sort of coalition between parties with a similar economic or social outlook. In the run up to this election, Feiglin’s party experienced a surge in the polls, leading it to be dubbed a potential “kingmaker” after Feiglin did not offer public assurances to either the Likud party of the Blue and White alliance that he would support their candidates in the formation of a coalition. He repeatedly stated that in order to offer support he would need a promise in return of full cannabis legalization and control over the finance ministry. These red lines drew his platform even further into the limelight as the media looked to explain this surge, often linking his promises to reform cannabis law with increasingly vocal support from young voters.
With just 3 percent of the nation’s votes left to be counted, Feiglin’s Zehut party sits on just over 101,00 votes, or 2.51 percent of the total vote. Unfortunately for Feiglin, this leaves his party 30,000 votes short of the minimum threshold needed to be awarded a seat in the Knesset — a stiff blow to a party that was thought to be a kingmaker. Feiglin believes that a last-minute announcement from other right-wing parties declaring that they would refuse to form a coalition with the Zehut party damaged his party’s prospects, and that this sort of coordinated effort is to blame for his party’s failure to secure a seat, not his policies.
Still, no matter the result of the election, Feiglin’s campaign did promote further discussion of Israel’s cannabis policy. In March, as the political campaigns were underway, prime minister Netanyahu mentioned that his party would be willing to “consider” cannabis legalization in an effort to target Feiglin’s base and to attract voters from the pro-cannabis Green Leaf party, which did not field candidates in this general election.