Israel Moves to Decriminalize Marijuana Use

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announces support for new policy for enforcing marijuana use, which favors fines and educational initiatives, with criminal prosecution only as a last resort.

a marijuana bud is seen at a medical marijuana facility in Unity, Maine
a marijuana bud is seen at a medical marijuana facility in Unity, Maine AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty,

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said on Thursday that he supports the decriminalization of marijuana use. The minister said he is adopting the conclusions of a panel he tasked with reviewing the matter.

The new policy would still require the cabinet's approval because it should be coordinated with other government ministries, Erdan said.

The panel recommended shifting focus from criminal prosecution of users to administrative fines and educational campaigns. Criminal prosecution, he said, should only be used as a last resort.

The panel recommended giving a 1,000-shekel ($265) fine to anyone caught using marijuana for the first time, with the offence not going on his criminal record.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan
Ilan Assayag

The fine would be doubled on the second offence, and if the offender is caught for the third time, the case would be closed, conditional on police judgement. If caught for a fourth time, the offender could be criminally prosecuted. The minister stresses that this would apply to cases of smoking in public.

According to the new policy, if a minor is caught using marijuana he would be criminally investigated only if he refuses to take part in a treatment program, Erdan said.

Erdan said that law enforcement agencies should have means other than criminal prosecution to deal with marijuana users.

Marijuana arrest policy in Israel was reexamined due to legalization efforts around the world, the minister said. "I do not take this issue lightly. Legitimacy to drug use has increased, and the number of users has increased. The awareness of the dangers and damages from regular use is dropping."

A protester calls for the legalization of marijuana use in Tel Aviv, 2013.
Tomer Appelbaum

Lawmaker Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) welcomed Erdan's announcement. "Cannabis consumption falls in the area of individual freedoms where the state has no reason to intervene, since it does not cause damage," she said. "What's absurd is that alcohol, which is harmful and generates violence, is permitted."

Lawmaker Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), who chairs the Knesset Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, said Erdan's decision was "right and brave."

She said the announcement by Erdan, who was in the past opposed decriminalization, "proves that a determent, just public campaign prevails." Zandberg hailed the new policy a "big step forward."

Earlier this week, the Justice Ministry recommended that marijuana use not be prosecuted criminally, but instead fined or punished by administrative sanctions.

“Indeed there is concern that the message of decriminalization could be wrongly interpreted as encouraging use,” the120-page legal opinion said. “This concern must be addressed through appropriate informational activities, but does not justify leaving the problematic policy of criminalization in place.”

The recommendations called for changing the legal approach to marijuana in Israel to a health-centered approach, certainly in cases of personal use. Such a model already exists in Portugal for narcotics.

On Tuesday, police presented statistics to lawmakers showing a sharp drop in arrests of marijuana users over the past five years. At a Knesset panel hearing, the head of Israel Police’s drug research unit, Keren Lerner, said that between 2010 and 2015 there was a 30 percent drop in the number of cases opened for personal use of cannabis, from 4,967 in 2010 to 3,425 in 2015. Fifty-four percent of the cases opened against adults and 60 percent of those opened against minors were eventually closed.