In Shock Move, Israel's Anti-Drug Authority to Be Dissolved

Agency has been in existence for 27 years, but treasury says it was bloated and spent too much money on information campaigns.

Chen Liebman

Employees at the Israel Anti-Drug and Alcohol Authority were shocked to discover last week that the government intends to shutter their agency. They learned the news after finding it written in two pages of the 2015-16 state budget.

Twenty-seven years after it was founded and made a statutory body, the authority is to be dismantled with barely a whimper, without anyone even having a chance to fight for its continued existence. For the past eight months, its director, Yair Geller, has been suspended from his position, having been caught up in the corruption investigation involving members of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The move is part of a Finance Ministry effort to merge agencies in the Public Security Ministry that work to prevent violence and crime. In April 2016, two large ministry programs – Cities Without Violence and Metzila: the Community and Crime Prevention Branch – will be merged, together with the Anti-Drug Authority. This new ministry division will be called The Social Effort.

Treasury officials say the move will save 20 million shekels ($5.25 million) annually by eliminating duplication and cutting personnel by 20 percent.

Over the years, the authority has enjoyed annual budgets of tens of millions of shekels to achieve a series of objectives, including formulating a national policy to fight drug use; prevention and education activities; information gathering; developing relevant services; and advancing relevant legislation. Its professional employees have sat on numerous interministerial committees.

The treasury has never liked what it considered to be a bloated agency headed by a 43-member board. Back in the days when it was still part of the Prime Minister’s Office, another effort to dismantle it failed – although no one at the treasury is quite sure why. Now Finance Ministry officials feel the time is ripe to dissolve the agency.

“The budget is not the issue here,” a treasury source told Haaretz. “We aren’t happy with the way the authority is run and supervised. We think it has a huge board, that it invests far too much money in information campaigns, and more.

“Ultimately, though, the move is part of a general outlook on the civilian effort for violence prevention. There are bureaucracies in the [Public Security] Ministry that do basically the same thing, and there is duplication in some instances. We believe that as soon as everything is managed under one body in the ministry, there will be better coordination and the ministry can decide what it wants to invest in. Some of the authority’s functions will continue to exist in the ministry.”

Authority employees say they were totally stunned by the news. “There were discussions with the Public Security Ministry about cuts or efficiency measures, but the closing of the authority was never discussed,” said a source in the anti-drug authority. “The 20-million-shekel saving from this move, compared to the 1.7 billion shekels in budget increases the Public Security Ministry received, seems disproportionate.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to say the threat hanging over the anti-drug authority sprang from nowhere – and it didn’t come just from the treasury. The authority’s status has eroded in recent years, particularly due to the public discourse regarding the legalization of marijuana. Campaigns and positions that the authority championed on this issue were perceived as being outdated and irrelevant, certainly when more liberal stances on marijuana were being espoused by the Israel Police chief and various MKs.

That the authority seemed to be battling for public opinion on the marijuana issue may have given people the impression it was spending too many resources on cannabis and not enough on other, more important things. The authority insists this was not the case.

No less significant is the fact that the authority lost the backing provided by Yisrael Beiteinu and its chairman, Avigdor Lieberman. He had been its political patron in recent years, but is now in the opposition. Current Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan doesn’t seem too emotionally attached to the authority, and apparently has no plans to try and save it.

But according to those involved in the anti-drug authority’s workings, what truly signaled the decline of the authority was Geller’s arrest and his being implicated in the corruption probe. “This did us great harm,” said an anti-drug authority source. “It weakened us and made us an easy target, since we have no political backing.”

The source said the move to shutter the agency suggests all of Israel’s drug and alcohol problems have been solved and there’s no need for such a body, but that’s far from the truth. “We have proven achievements,” the source noted. “It’s no coincidence that Israel is one of the lowest consumers of drugs and alcohol among European countries. Without our activity, one can assume the extent of use would be much higher. We provide an immediate response to every new issue that arises with regard to the use of drugs and alcohol.”

As for the authority’s vigorous campaigns against the legalization of marijuana, the source said, “We do believe there’s a dangerous message here for teens and young people, but we never invested most of our efforts in this. It resonated in the media because the media loves this story.”

The Public Security Ministry hastened to note this had been a treasury initiative. Two weeks ago, however, a ministry team was appointed to look into the merger of the three agencies. “We have no plans to stop the work of the authority,” the ministry said. “The question is how it will be carried out.”

In an official statement, the anti-drug authority said, “The decision to dismantle the authority means the State of Israel is neglecting the struggle against drug and alcohol abuse.”

Dismantling the authority and making it part of a division whose sole goal is to prevent violence will leave a large population of addicts who were helped by the authority without assistance, it warned.