How Cannabis Became Illegal in Israel in the First Place

Cannabis has been illegal in the Holy Land longer than nearly any other place on the globe, and it is all because of a particular British gentlemen and an Egyptian doctor.

Israel moves to decriminalizing marijuana use YouTube / Haaretz

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) announced Thursday that he supports the decriminalization of cannabis in Israel. If Erdan's initiative is adopted by the government it will end a long history of criminal prohibition of the drug, especially in light of the fact that cannabis has been illegal here longer than nearly any other place on the globe.

The relatively early date of cannabis prohibition in the Holy Land is coincidental and is mostly due to the personal history of a particular British gentleman by the name of Ronald Storrs.  

When Storrs graduated from Cambridge he joined the British Colonial Office, and was subsequently sent to Egypt in 1904. His first assignment in Egypt was that of a customs officer. This work mostly involved the thwarting of smuggling into the country. At the time, Egypt was one of the only countries in the world to ban cannabis. With time Storrs was promoted to oriental secretary, and toward the end of World War I, he entered the Holy Land with General Edmund Allenby, when the British rested it from the hands of the Ottomans. He was appointed military governor of Jerusalem and later civilian governor of Jerusalem and Judea. On February 1, 1919 he decreed that cannabis or more accurately hashish be banned. It has been illegal ever since.

Sir Ronald Storrs
Russell, London

At the time cannabis had yet to be banned in Great Britain or in the United States or practically anywhere else. Had Storrs come from anywhere but Egypt, the idea would have probably never had come to his mind. But he came from Egypt, a country that had at the time a long history of cannabis prohibition.

In the 1860s, an Egyptian physician named Muhammad Ali Bey, came to the unscientific conclusion that cannabis consumption (a popular pastime in Egypt at the time) was the main cause of insanity in the country. In 1868, based on the findings of Dr. Bey, Minister of Education Ali Mubarak convinced the Egyptian parliament to ban the use of hashish in the country.

In the 1870s cannabis was once again made legal in Egypt, only to be banned again in the 1880s. In 1903, Dr. John Warnock, the medical director of the Egyptian Hospital for the Insane in Cairo, published an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry titled "Insanity from Hasheesh" in which he claimed that most of the cases of insanity in Egypt are caused by the consumption of cannabis. Though the research presented in the paper is obviously faulty. Warnock's study consisted of his finding that of the 2,564 patients he had, 689 smoked cannabis, thus he reasoned, 27 percent of Egyptian cases of insanity are due to cannabis consumption.

Dr. Warnock's study was nothing more than a curiosity at the time since no-one smoked cannabis in England at the time. In 1923 two African coffeemakers were arrested by the Scotland Yard after an undercover officer solicited them to sell him opium. The case was covered with excitement by the press, even when it was discovered that what the two had sold the detective was not opium at all but hashish. When this was discovered the police and the press clamored for cannabis to be criminalized. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society, citing the particular police case mentioned above and probably influenced by Dr. Warnock study, recommended that the drug be criminalized and in 1925 the British parliament criminalized the drug.

The same law was enacted in British Mandate Palestine that year. In 1936, the British government enacted a new anti-drug law, and a version of that law was enacted in Palestine that very same year. Since Jewish immigrants from Europe didn't smoke cannabis, the law was nearly only enforced on Palestine's Arab population.

In 1948, when Israel gained its independence, the young nation opted to keep its mandatory laws and among these the 1936 Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, which is still the law banning cannabis use in Israel to this day. During Israel's first decades cannabis use was nearly completely restricted to the country's Arab population as well as the recent Jewish immigrants from Arab countries. Thus the ban on cannabis was used by the European Ashkenazi elites as an additional method of control over Arab and Mizrahi Jews. Only in the 1970s did the use of cannabis begin to become popular under the influence of hippie culture.

Over the years, as more and more mainstream Israelis began to use cannabis and as public opinion in the West began to change, public opinion in Israel began to increasingly support the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis.

Medicinal marijuana
Reuters