No Longer Illegal, Hemp Is Back in Israel After 75 Years

Justice Ministry removes the substance, a strain of cannabis, from dangerous drugs list, and a new pilot will see cultivation for industrial use

Cannabis harvest at Kibbutz Dafna in the 1940s.
Tropenmuseum, part of the Nation

The Agriculture Ministry will launch a pilot project to grow hemp, a strain of cannabis, for industrial use after the Justice Ministry this week removed hemp from the list of substances with the legal status of dangerous drugs.

This will not be the first time hemp has been officially cultivated in Israel – in November 1942 Davar newspaper carried a report on the cannabis harvest in Kibbutz Dafna.

“After the harvest holidays we have an opportunity for another celebration, for which we haven’t found a suitable name yet,” the report said, citing a kibbutz member. “Hundreds of kibbutz members and guests gathered in the big dining room for this first-of-its-kind event. We are the first who have introduced a new industrial growth in Israel – cannabis,” the report said.

Kibbutz Dafna people predicted great things for the industrial line of hemp, a cannabis strain with a very low concentration of the psychoactive component in cannabis. They saw the harvest as a turning point in the region’s agriculture.

“Tarpaulin, ropes and work clothes aren’t the only things that can be made from hemp, but numerous byproducts as well,” the report said. “Apart from fibers, the plant’s seeds consist of 35 percent oil and its timbering consists of 50– 60 percent cellulose (for paper industry) and other substances. Processing it will provide a living for 20,000-30,000 workers,” the cannabis growth pioneers estimated in the report, which has recently been republished in the online magazine Cannabis.

But despite the successful experiment in Kibbutz Dafna, cannabis agriculture was not developed in Israel. In 1961 Israeli law defined cannabis as “a dangerous drug with no medical benefit” and forbade using any of its strains, including the non-psychoactive ones, effectively scuppering the project.

Experimental growth for a year

Seventy-five years later, the Agriculture Ministry is planning experimental cannabis growth in the middle Arava, Lachish and southern Golan Heights. Hanan Bazak, who is in charge of the project, said the pilot is expected to last about a year. In the first stage the plants will be tested for producing oil that serves as a food supplement. Other industrial uses will be examined on the basis of the results, he said.

“We’re wavering between sowing now or in the winter,” Bazak told the Committee on Drug Abuse this week.

“On the one hand, growing it in summer requires watering, but it’s suitable to be treated with sewage water. On the other hand, in winter the crops can be two or three times bigger. We’ll add new strains to the experiment every time until we find the most effective ones,” he said.

It was necessary to exclude hemp from the drug law before it could be grown in Israel. “We support any exclusion from the drug law, whether for industry or not, “ attorney Yifat Raveh of the Justice Ministry said at the committee meeting.

Although the main psychoactive concentration in hemp strains is usually not more than 0.3 percent, police object to industrial cannabis growth because it will force them to distinguish between the industrial plant and the drug every time they catch someone carrying cannabis.

Hemp growth is allowed today in 32 states worldwide, especially in Canada and Europe. The plant has clear advantages – it is durable, grows easily, spreads quickly and doesn’t require pesticides.