Israeli Military Attorneys Back Decriminalizing Off-base 'Soft' Drug Use

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A rally promoting Cannabis legalization in Tel Aviv. March 13, 2014Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Military defense attorneys on Tuesday voiced support for a proposed change in the Israel Defense Forces’ policy on prosecuting drug use, and offered their own twist by suggesting that minor offenses such as smoking marijuana while on leave should be handled by the soldier’s commanding officer rather than the military courts.

On Monday, Haaretz reported that military prosecutors are reevaluating the IDF’s policy of prosecuting soldiers in every instance of the use or possession of illegal drugs. Prosecutors believe minor offenses, such as the one-time use of “soft” drugs on leave, should not be prosecuted automatically.

In response to the Haaretz report, several military figures said they doubted such a change was iminent. Even if the Military Advocate General’s Corps were to meet its goal of submitting a proposal by the end of the year, they said, the plan would still have to be approved up the chain of command, which was not a given. In fact, some defense officials were shocked that MAG was even considering a change in policy.

Consequently, members of the Military Defense, part of the MAG Corps, proposed a compromise on Tuesday: Soldiers would not be charged for one-time drug use while on leave, but would be subject to disciplinary action by their commanders. That, to enable the IDF to continue sending a strong message against any and all drug use while sparing offenders a criminal record that could hurt their future.

“I believe and expect that change will soon happen in the policy toward light drug offenses,” Chief Military Defender Col. Asher Halperin told Haaretz.

One option, he said, was simply to take no action. “But another possibility, which seems more reasonable to me, is to immediately refer such cases to their commanders,” Halperin said.

Many offenders “are very good soldiers,” not criminals, “so there’s no reason to stigmatize them with a criminal record,” he added.

As an example, Halperin cited the case of a soldier in an elite unit who, a few days after starting his service over two years ago, confessed to one-time drug use while on leave. He was charged a year later. The case is still pending, but for now he continues to serve in his unit. His lawyer proposed that the case be closed, or at least suspended until he demobilizes, but the prosecutor refused.

“It’s clear a case like this will end with no punishment in practice; its only effect will be the very one that shouldn’t happen, a criminal record,” Halperin said.

In a second case, a paratrooper whose backpack was found to contain drugs for personal use while on leave facing the possibility of a criminal record.

“This was a one-time thing; he’s serving in a combat unit, in a command position; they want to send him to an officer’s course,” the paratrooper’s father told Haaretz. “With a criminal record, his entire future will be barred to him, but in the meantime he can command soldiers and carry a weapon.”

Halperin said he has discussed the issue with field commanders, and they, too, think disciplinary proceedings are preferable to indictment in such cases.

“The fact that criminal cases are opened against [such soldiers] stems from the need to impose greater discipline in the army, and therefore, if the commanders were responsible for this, they could do this, too,” Halperin said.

“In today’s world, when it’s clear what would be done — or not done — in civilian life, and given the commanders’ justified desire to be responsible for enforcing discipline among their soldiers, I’m certain this solution will be seriously considered,” Halperin said

Several Knesset members also voiced support for the proposed policy change.

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