'The Time Has Come': Israel Announces Plan to Legalize Recreational Cannabis Use

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A man smoking medical cannabis at Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam, September 2012.
A man smoking medical cannabis at Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam, September 2012.Credit: Daniel Chechik

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn announced on Thursday a draft government-sponsored bill to legalize recreational cannabis use in Israel.

Nissenkorn's announcement came on the heels of formal recommendations made by an inter-ministerial committee to legalize recreational (and not just medicinal) cannabis use for adults over the age of 21.

Legalization would go into effect nine months after the law is passed to allow government ministries to prepare properly, said Nissenkorn.

Politicians say the law has a very good chance of passing in the Knesset.

“The time has come to move forward to a new path and legalize cannabis in Israel,” said Nissenkorn. “This is a major reform – holistic and responsible – that demonstrates Israel is not ignoring reality but rather making progress in the direction of developed nations around the world.”

Nissenkorn emphasized that the committee's recommendations "strike a balance between liberal values and the protection of individual health considerations" and include concrete steps to prevent and treat addiction, facilitate enforcement of illegal dealers, as well as government regulation.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaking at the Knesset, September 2020.Credit: Yehonatan Samiya / Knesset

The committee, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Merari, reached the conclusion that it was necessary to come up with a new regulatory framework that would allow for personal cannabis consumption, all the while minimizing harm and safeguarding public health. The committee’s report provides a detailed legalization strategy, along with proposals for limitations and regulations on growing, selling and using cannabis in Israel.

Under the proposed plan, a regulatory body would be established to strictly oversee the cannabis market – from growth through sales – for at least the first five years after legalization. “The government regulator will be responsible for legislating regulations which will set the conditions for growing, manufacturing, licensing and sales, as well as requisite training for growers and marketers, guaranteeing adequate supplies, etc.,” reads the report.

The committee said they were aware of the health and mental health dangers posed by cannabis use, and to that end proposed a long list of restrictions on purchasing and use. These include allowing possession of cannabis for personal use only – though no clear definition of what this means was offered. Today, the law allows for possession of up to 15 grams for personal use. The committee recommended that fines be imposed for possession in excessive of the personal use amount, and in some cases, even criminal charges.

Cannabis would be sold in specialized stores and delivery would be allowed. Cannabis vendors would have to undergo appropriate training, to include topics such as preventing overuse, limitations on sales and responsible usage. Other recommendations included restrictions on where stores may be located, such as that they not be located near schools or community centers. Most committee members were in favor of not requiring private purchasers to register, such that purchases could be made upon presentation of an I.D. The committee also recommended that driving under the influence of cannabis be prohibited.

Under the committee's recommendations, home growing would not be allowed without a license, at least during the first stage of the reform, “in light of the fear that this would make it easier to grow marijuana for purposes of black-market commerce, or growing plants that do not meet the regulatory restrictions.”

The report also includes oversight mechanisms to ensure that prices remain "reasonable" so as to prevent black market activity are also recommended by the committee. Sales to tourists would be allowed, but importing and exporting cannabis would still be prohibited.

Proponents of cannabis legalization believe there is a high chance the bill will be passed into law. In June, cannabis-related bills sponsored by lawmakers Sharren Haskel (Likud) and Ram Shefa (Kahol Lavan) passed preliminary reading in the Knesset with a large majority. Under Haskel’s bill, cannabis would be removed from the list of dangerous drugs in Israel's drug law, but the sale of cannabis for recreational use would remain a crime. By contrast, Shefa’s proposal would fully legalize marijuana.

Members of Knesset Sharren Haskel and Ram Shefa in the Knesset plenum hall, June 24, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Most lawmakers from Likud, Kahol Lavan, Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz supported the bills. Haredi lawmakers are expected to abstain from votes on the issue so as not to obstruct passage of the law and avoid clashing with their coalition partners.

Shefa said he was “proud to take part in a historic step that would place [Israel] alongside advanced European nations, and would also contribute to the economy” during the present crisis. “We are very close to the next stage in the legislation. The possibility of the bill passing is very high considering that all the relevant government ministries have taken part in the legislative process.”

In addition to imposing a ban on sales to people under the age of 21, under the terms of the proposed plan, resources would be invested in educational programs to teach young people about cannabis use and the dangers involved. The approach favors reducing marijuana use among minors through a ban on sales to minors rather than criminalization of minors. In addition, cannabis advertising and packaging would be regulated in a similar way to those for cigarettes.

The committee pointed to Canada’s approach to cannabis as a positive model that Israel can learn from. The Canadian law allows those ages 18 and up to possess up to 30 grams of dry cannabis, to share up to 30 grams of legal cannabis with other adults, and to purchase it from licensed dealers. The punishment in Canada for the distribution or sale of marijuana to minors is up to 14 years in prison.

The Canadian legalization process was accompanied by a broad educational campaign regarding cannabis use, and also entailed research and data collection to facilitate evaluation of the model and reduce any harm to the public. “The Canadian approach believes that public safety is achieved by way of strict regulation of the quality and safety of the cannabis,” wrote the committee.

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