A., a college student majoring in economics, was at a birthday party on a Lake Kinneret beach two years ago that was raided by the police. Officers found a half-gram of hashish in his possession.
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“It was humiliating, mainly,” A. says. “They treated me violently and turned me into a criminal in an instant. They acted as if they had arrested a big-time criminal .... I tried to tell them I wasn’t resisting arrest, but nothing helped.”
A., who had recently served in an elite army unit, may now be barred from jobs for which he would otherwise be suitable.
While the arresting officers may have been following the letter of the law, they ignored the attorney general’s directives – issued in 1985 and updated in 2003 – under which individuals found in possession of small amounts of drugs should not be charged on a first offense. Even on a second or third offense, the police are supposed to use their judgment.
National police chief Yohanan Danino has repeated this policy more than once. Last fall the daily Israel Hayom quoted him as saying he didn’t care about someone rolling a joint on the balcony of some apartment, but the police’s arrest and prosecution figures tell a different story.
In 2012 the police made 32,752 drug arrests, 22,895 (70 percent) of them for quantities considered by law to be for personal use only.
Last Monday the Hadera Magistrate’s Court convicted a city resident, a woman in her 40s, for possessing 0.16 grams of hashish.
The judges were not dissuaded, even though she was a divorced mother of three who had spent time in a shelter for battered women and had been treated in a psychiatric hospital.
“How can they even weigh such a tiny amount?” asks the woman’s attorney in the Public Defender’s Office, Shira Kedar, who noted that her client does not have a criminal record and does not meet the requirements for receiving medical marijuana.
“It’s a classic case of a conviction for the sake of police statistics, so they get rack up another conviction” while damaging one of the weakest members of society and possibly getting her fired, Kedar says. “What do the police gain from that?”
Public defenders say the case is far from rare. “Recently many more indictments are being issued for possession of tiny amounts of soft drugs for personal use,” says attorney Anat Meyased Canaan of the Haifa Public Defender’s Office. She notes that this was often for first offenses and for people without prior convictions.
She tells of a case involving a man in his late 40s, a father of four, who was charged with possession of less than one gram of hash. It was a second offense; more than 20 years ago he was convicted of a similar crime. The judge threw the case out, noting that the defendant was an upstanding citizen who had worked at the same company for years and that the previous conviction was in 1995.
There are fewer such cases in the greater Tel Aviv area. As one senior police officer in the district put it last week, “We’d have to put police tape around every bar and club in the city and spend all day interviewing suspects” if the district took a hard line against the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.
“In many cases, the damage resulting from enforcing laws against drug users outweighs the benefit,” says the head of the Public Defender’s Office, Yoav Sapir. The damage is not only to the offender but to the public as a whole, in the enormous expense to the justice system, Sapir says.
Of the 22,895 investigations opened in 2012 for possession of small quantities of illegal drugs, 17,381 were closed due to a lack of public interest and 5,254 were prosecuted. In the same year, only 2,226
indictments were issued for drug trafficking and just 313 for growing, manufacturing and distributing drugs.
For their part, the police say their policies are consistent and in compliance with the attorney general’s instructions, “which among other things stipulate that charges shall be filed for possession of drugs for personal use in the case of a repeat offense or for a first offense that includes long-term drug use, drug investigations that did not result in a prosecution or other aggravating circumstances.”