Grass Roots Support: Most Israeli Parties Favor Use of Medical Marijuana

Even among religious parties, discussion of cannabis is no longer taboo.

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The legalization of marijuana, particularly for medical use, has made it onto the agenda of this election, with most parties addressing the issue, and several adopting a more liberal position than they have in the past.

“It seems that someone – I don’t know who – has invested a great deal of money over the past two years in a campaign to promote marijuana in Israel,” says strategic consultant Itay Ben Horin, who has led many political campaigns in the past. Still, he says, “You still don’t see candidates for prime minister presenting that as part of their agenda.”

Most political parties have some position regarding marijuana use — with the exception of Likud, whose officials chose not to comment or respond to Haaretz’s query on the issue.

Meretz has been working for years to have marijuana use decriminalized, and has included this in its platform since 2002. At the forefront of the struggle is MK Tamar Zandberg, who proposed several bills on the issue in the last Knesset. She believes that the changes in legislation in the United States regarding both medical use and legalization will influence the mood in Israel. “It was important to me that the topic of cannabis use become a ‘serious’ political issue, not a discourse based on stereotypes and fear but from a real place, for better and for worse, around which a real debate could take place,” she says.

Zionist Union co–chairman Isaac Herzog said in a recent interview on Army Radio that he supported the legalization of medical marijuana, but added, “As a former chairman of the Anti-Drug Authority and as someone who fights against the plague of drug use, I’m very tough on the legalization issue, and I’m against legalization.”

Support for the use of medical marijuana and opposition to the legalization of soft drugs seems to be a prevalent position among the parties. This is a significant change compared with previous years, and shows that the long–held taboo against marijuana use has been broken.

It is hard to avoid the question of total legalization if one wants to appeal to young voters. At a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya this week, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said that he had opposed sweeping legalization of marijuana in the past because he knew a woman who had “freaked out from drugs.” But now, he said, “the world’s biggest experiment in this field is being held in Colorado. I would not like us to become the first in the region, but if the world is changing in this direction, then it is changing and we need to take that into account.”

Of course the party that has has made legalization of pot its raison d’etre is Green Leaf (Aleh Yarok in Hebrew), which has contended in five elections but never passed the threshold and will likely not do so this time either.

Not just a secular issue

Even among more traditional parties, the issue of marijuana use, for medical reasons at least, is no longer a taboo.

Take Eli Yishai’s right–wing, ultra–Orthodox Yahad party, for example. “At Yahad, we see great importance in being lenient in every way when it comes to the suffering of sick people. Since it has been proven that using marijuana relieves patients’ suffering, the use of cannabis for medical purposes should be permitted and made accessible,” party officials said. “On the other hand, Yahad is opposed to legalizing cannabis for personal use.”

Officials of the mainly Arab party, Joint List, say that they, too, are in favor of using marijuana for medical purposes, but don’t go as far as legalization. MK Dr. Jamal Zahalka, the Balad faction chairman – who wrote his doctoral thesis on how marijuana affects the brain – claimed in the past that while marijuana was medically efficacious, he opposed legalization because, among other things, marijuana was worse for driving than alcohol.

Meanwhile, in Habayit Hayehudi, Yinon Magal, the journalist and former editor of the Walla! website who is seventh on the party list, said that he would work in the Knesset for the decriminalization of marijuana. At a conference he attended recently, Magal, who admitted when he went into politics that he used marijuana himself, said that marijuana users must never be persecuted. Still, his position does not necessarily represent that of his fellow party members. Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett opposed the bill put forward by MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) that would have permitted general medical practitioners to prescribe medical marijuana.

The next Knesset will have to debate the issue, since it will be faced with two two bills dealing with the decriminalization of marijuana and the plant’s recognition as an herb with medical properties.