Sharp Drop in Marijuana Arrests in Past Five Years, Israeli Police Say

'The struggle against the individual user of cannabis is futile,' says former Anti-Drug Authority director.

Marijuana enthusiasts smoke in a Haifa park to mark Marijuana Day, April 20, 2015.
Rami Shllush

Police presented statistics to lawmakers Tuesday showing a sharp drop in arrests of cannabis users over the past five years.

At a Knesset Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse hearing, the head of Israel Police’s drug research unit, Keren Lerner, said that between 2010 and 2015 there was a 30 percent drop in the number of cases opened for personal use of cannabis, from 4,967 in 2010 to 3,425 in 2015. Fifty-four percent of the cases opened against adults and 60 percent of those opened against minors were eventually closed.

“Police policy is moving toward enforcement against growing [marijuana] and not personal use,” Lerner told the committee. “There’s been a 70 percent drop in adult arrests, and in all 2016 there were only two indictments filed related to cannabis.”

Ethicist Prof. Asa Kasher told the hearing that decriminalizing marijuana is only a first step.

“We have to return to the principles of living in a democracy,” he said. “The primary expression of human dignity is a person’s freedom to conduct his life as he pleases so long as it poses no threat to anyone else. The justified boundaries of freedom only come when expanding freedom creates a danger, so we have to ask what would happen if we expand freedom in the realm of cannabis? Since there is no significant threat that we can’t cope with, we have to move the fence.”

Haim Messing, a former director of the Anti-Drug Authority, said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the struggle against the individual user of cannabis is futile. The United Nations has agreed that criminal pursuit has failed and that it must be addressed from a health aspect. From a public perspective, we’re talking about a cultural perception by normative people and the best proof is what happens in the courts.

We all know that a very high percentage of cases are closed for lack of public interest or some other reason. From conversations with teens or with Al-Sam [a drug treatment organization] I’ve learned that the hovering criminal threat makes people deeply afraid to come for treatment or help.”

Guy Lehrer, anchor of the Channel 10 program Hatzinor, which has been lobbying for decriminalization, called on Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan not to resist the process. “I believe that he’s a serious person who’s attentive to his environment and I believe that together with this struggle that’s coming from the Knesset and from the opposition, this struggle can only end in victory.”

MK Shelly Yacimovich said that she would be happy to see marijuana decriminalized and at a later stage even legalized. “It’s true that massive violation of a law is not a good enough reason [to change policy], but in this case we see a huge, normative and law-abiding public that consumes cannabis,” and these people are not lawbreakers, she said. “We are at the point at which there is no real reason to enforce this law, but to change it.”

Committee chairman MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) expressed hope that the struggle for legalizing marijuana would soon be completed. “We have no doubt that this train has set out on its journey long ago; the story is the order of the cars and keeping it on track. We feel that it’s soon and that it will happen.”