Israel Decriminalizes Cannabis…Well,Not Quite

“This measure upholds repression as a policy”

Decriminalization is a vague word — its meaning shifts depending on what country it is applied in. On March 5th, 2017, the Israeli Knesset approved a decriminalization plan, but Israeli advocates and cannabists see it as little more than a weak half measure that still keeps personal use illegal.

Levbovich: Israeli pols “have a lot to learn about decriminalization.”

“This plan is far from decriminalization,” says Oren Lebovich, chairman of the Green Leaf party and founder of “Cannabis,” the Israeli cannabis magazine. “It can still land people in jail; worse it allows the police to search and enter a house when they suspect someone is smoking a joint. Nor does it expunge the record of anyone previously convicted of this so-called ‘crime.’ Thankfully, this is only a first draft and we have two more months to change it before it becomes law.”

Israel is the global hub for medical cannabis research; unlike the US, which essentially bans all research into the medical and health benefits of the plant, the Israeli government encourages inquiry that has led to significant advances in understanding the properties of the plant. There are 28,000 patients currently licensed to use medical cannabis and that number is due to double in 2017. But the proposed decriminalization measure, keeps “personal” (recreational) use illegal and can, in fact, land a user in jail for up to 3 years for as little as a half ounce (15 grams).

Moshe Roth: an Israeli medical marijuana patient

Under the proposed decriminalization, first time offenders caught using cannabis for personal use will still be charged and prosecuted, unless they are willing to admit the offence and pay a $270 fine — a rule Lebovich calls “extortion.” Second offenders, same deal, but the fine doubles to $550 — a steep price in a country where the average monthly pre-tax salary is $2500. A third offense, you lose your driver’s license and you’re sent to rehab. The fourth time you face up to 3 years in jail, depending on what the judge rules.

“Before this “decriminalization” first offenders weren’t prosecuted or fined, so basically this measure makes things worse,” says Lebovich. “If lawmakers agree that cannabis isn’t a “crime” why prosecute at all? This measure upholds repression as a policy and maintains the idea that this plant is an evil that can be eradicated and that people who use it can be forced into abstinence. We may lead the world in cannabis research but we have a lot to learn about decriminalization from other countries.”

In a paper titled, “Israel led the world in cannabis research — but what could it learn from others about decriminalization?,” Ruth Dreifuss, the former President of Switzerland and Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, noted that full decriminalization in several European countries has typically ushered in unforeseen economic and health benefits.These include a notable increase in the number of people accessing treatment, a substantial decrease in injection-related HIV transmission, and less strain on the criminal justice system. Drug offenders made up 44 per cent of the prison population in Portugal in 1999, but this fell to 21 per cent by 2008. Neither did people “flock” to Portugal from other countries to take advantage of decriminalization laws. Finally, there have been proven financial savings and public health benefits since decriminalization in Portugal and the Czech Republic.”

As Lebovitch puts it: “If this were real decriminalization you wouldn’t be prosecuted for personal use and the old records would be expunged. We still have a long way to go.”