The Next Battle in Israel’s Weed Wars: Legalizing Growing Marijuana for Personal Use

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A home-grown marijuana plant in Montevideo, Uruguay.
A home-grown marijuana plant in Montevideo, Uruguay.Credit: Miguel Rojo / AFP

The joy over the government’s new stance on pot smokers to replace criminal charges with fines may be a bit premature. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan may be increasing his popularity, but the police aren’t giving up. They’re worried a new campaign will crystallize aimed at legalizing home-grown marijuana.

A senior officer told Haaretz the police can’t stop walking the beat versus pot because “dealers provide us with useful information on other crimes such as car theft and burglaries. They know who’s out there needing some money. It’s a resource we’ll find hard to give up.”

The police say they’re only after dealers. In 2012, when they opened 23,000 files, 70 percent were against users. In 2015, the number had dropped to 20,813, but court cases show that the police are still targeting people growing cannabis at home.

Increasing numbers of Israelis grow the plant at home to save money and not have to meet up with dealers. The police don’t distinguish between a lab and a single plant; they seek serious charges and prison sentences in both cases.

According to Clause 6 in Israel’s antidrug law, the growing, producing, extracting or preparing of a dangerous substance requires a license. With possession there’s a distinction between small and commercial amounts, but not with Clause 6. Be it one plant or a field, growing it is the same offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The police have been invoking this clause extensively, with the courts tasked with distinguishing between light and heavy growers.

Lots of community service

No fewer than seven policemen appeared in a Jerusalem court at a hearing for a resident of a nearby settlement who had been caught growing four plants at home. The high-tech employee told the police that, at the recommendation of his doctors, he needed marijuana for pain relief due to a chronic disease.

The cops didn’t buy it and charged him with growing and producing a dangerous drug. “He watered them every day,” a police representative said in court this month. “He violated the rule of law and hindered society’s need to purge itself from the scourge of drugs.”

'Legalization 2018': Israelis demonstrate for legalization of marijuana in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, February 4, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

During his two-year trial the man received a medical certificate letting him use cannabis for medicinal purposes, but the charges weren’t dropped. The judge distinguished between growing plants for a profit and for medicinal use; the sentence: 400 hours of community service.

When plants are seized they are weighed in their entirety, including the earth around the roots not just the flowers used for smoking. The weight is then used in the indictment.

The police also weigh plants that never bloom. Any hose, fan, light or fertilizer around the plant is considered an accessory, making the operation a “laboratory.” This can make the grower liable to those 20 years in prison.

Judge Dana Cohen-Lekach sentenced a father of seven to 45 days in jail for growing seven plants at home. The man works in a large dairy, where he manages a project with the Alei Siach nonprofit group that finds jobs for people with severe disabilities. The man told the police he grew marijuana at home so as not to have to do business with drug dealers.

His boss at the dairy said the man was a model to others in his devotion and diligence. The employment coordinator at Alei Siach said the man had taken in cerebral palsy patients and was completely trustworthy. In any case, he received 45 days in jail. This is one example of the hundreds of cases that end up in court.

Online orders

In another case a man was sentenced to 300 hours of community service after a pot with a 31-gram cannabis plant was found in his home. He argued that he was growing at home to avoid drug dealers, whom he considers criminals.

The police claimed that growing for personal use is the same as growing for commercial purposes, so similar punishments should be applied. The judge disagreed and noted that the man had not been charged with intent to sell. A plea bargain produced the community-service sentence.

The police might prefer customers buying from dealers, but this approach is now outdated. It’s now easy to buy seeds online, and Hebrew sites offer links to overseas suppliers. The police go after these customers as well; in one case they arrested a man suffering from schizophrenia just as he was receiving 10 seeds.

“It’s the state that must decide if it’s moving toward legalization, not the police,” says a former senior police official. “They shouldn’t chase every flowerpot. It may be better to grow at home than to go out at night to get some marijuana in a dicey location.”

Some lawyers are struggling to grasp why a flowerpot is such a serious offense. “A half-gram flower is worse than five grams in your pocket,” says attorney Alon Nesher. “When lawyers want to see a plant in court after several months, it’s all shriveled and tiny – there was little there to begin with but the accused is treated as a serious grower.”

Many lawyers now want to change the law or court rulings regarding smoking pot so that the number of plants and the amount of marijuana extracted from them is taken into account. Defendants would then be treated just as in possession cases.

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