Cannabis Reform That Netanyahu Promised Feiglin Unlikely to Take Effect

Health Ministry sources cast doubt over prospects of legislation promised by the prime minister, calling it de facto total legalization of cannabis via the medical system

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and far-right Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin in a joint press conference, Jerusalem, August 29, 2019.

At a news conference this week with Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin, who made liberalization of cannabis a central plank of his party’s platform, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the cannabis market was “at the mercy of a cartel.” Netanyahu was apparently referring to cannabis growers and processors in the country, some of whom the Health Ministry has accused of delaying and obstructing efforts to liberalize access to cannabis in Israel. (For the latest election polls – click here)

“Tens of thousands of people who deserve access to medical cannabis are not getting it. Their distress requires us to solve the problem, and we’ve decided together to solve it. Therefore we will introduce legislation for the Knesset’s approval legalizing cannabis to ease the situation of patients and to spare them unnecessary bureaucracy,” the prime minister declared at the news conference, at which he also promised Feiglin a cabinet post in the next government, if Netanyahu wins the election on September 17.

In return for policy commitments from Netanyahu, Feiglin, whose party is far to the right on relations with the Palestinians and free market-oriented on economic issues, agreed to pull Zehut out of the election, subject to a vote by the party’s membership (which approved it on Sunday). Netanyahu said the agreement also included opening up the cannabis market in Israel to imports. “We want to create competition to provide patients with the service, really so they can live. This subject will be part of the coalition agreements.”

Netanyahu’s concern over patients’ access to cannabis is heartwarming, but one might wonder where he was before he needed to neutralize the political threat that Feiglin posed. In any event, it can be assumed that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman wasn’t terribly enamored of the news conference in which Feiglin was portrayed as the patients’ savior.

Technically, Netanyahu himself is health minister, but in practice it is Litzman who is responsible for policy on medical cannabis and who has for months been trying to ease access to medical cannabis and assuage public discontent over the issue.

The agreement that Netanyahu and Feiglin signed includes a provision on legislation on cannabis “legalization for patients,” which would provide that any doctor in Israel could write a prescription for any quantity of cannabis for any patient and any illness. It would enable patients to buy cannabis at the pharmacy of their choice or to order it shipped to them directly from abroad.

If such a law were passed, it would sweep away the current restrictions on patient access to cannabis. As of now, Israel has about 150 doctors who are authorized to write prescriptions for cannabis for a specified list of medical conditions for patients who have a specific license to receive it. (About 50,000 Israelis have such authorizations based on the restrictive legislation now on the books).

Theoretically, if the proposed law would pass, any doctor could prescribe 100 grams of cannabis even to a patient complaining of a headache. Back in May, the Health Ministry declared its intention to loosen restrictions in a similar manner to strip away much of the current bureaucracy involved, but the ministry’s proposal would still impose limitations and make access to cannabis subject to clear criteria.

Proposed regulations released last week for public comment by the Health Ministry would change the country’s rules on dangerous drugs so that those with certain medical conditions could get a prescription for cannabis without necessarily having a license to obtain it. But the exemption from a license would apply only to the following groups of patients: those receiving up to 40 grams of cannabis a month; children with serious epilepsy; adult patients with cancer, Crohn’s disease, colitis, HIV, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome or epilepsy; and terminally ill patients who are not expected to live more than six months.

But patients suffering from pain or a post-traumatic condition, which is the case for about half the patients who currently are licensed to obtain cannabis in Israel, will continue to need the Health Ministry license. In addition, the ministry’s proposal would only allow doctors with a specialty in the relevant fields – which include oncology, gastroenterology, infectious diseases, neurology and child development – to issue cannabis prescriptions.

All of these regulations require the approval of the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, which will only convene after a new government is formed following this month’s election – towards the end of the year. Over the weekend, Health Ministry sources cast doubt over the prospects of passage of the legislation that Feiglin and Netanyahu agreed upon. They called it de facto total legalization of cannabis via the medical system – meaning that in practice, cannabis would be accessible for non-medical use. The proposal, the sources predict, will encounter opposition, including objections on the part of the Israel Police.

Incidentally, Health Ministry officials would be among the first to welcome unrestricted access to cannabis in the sense that it would spare them the pressure that they have been under from patients and cannabis growers and distributors.

Recycled campaign promises

Members of Feiglin’s Zehut party voted on Sunday in an internet poll to approve the Feilgin-Netanyahu pact. But even with the approval, which was supported by 77 percent of those voting, it is unlikely that many of the roughly 100,000 voters who cast their ballots for Zehut the first time it ran, in April, will now shift to support Likud.

Many of those who voted for Zehut in April expressed disgust with the existing political system, a sentiment that would make it unlikely that they would vote for an establishment party like Likud. And the Netanyahu-Feiglin agreement is misleading in any event. As Feiglin himself admitted, it has no legal validity.

It’s important to remember that on Sunday, without any connection to Feiglin, another regulatory change related to medical cannabis took effect that now bars new cannabis growers from selling their product directly to patients, who must now obtain it only through pharmacies. So the major innovation of the Feiglin-Netanyahu pact is that the proposed legislation would permit patients to buy directly from suppliers abroad.

The other parts of the agreement are in keeping with the promises that Netanyahu loves to make to voters at election time: legislation encouraging European imports, laws encouraging the opening of new businesses, revival of the ministerial committee on easing regulation, and making it easier to do business in Israel.

Anyone looking for the financial aspects of the agreement that Feiglin struck would see that his party remains solely liable for its past debts – but Likud will assume responsibility for expenses that Zehut accumulated in the current election campaign before dropping out. That could provide compensation of sorts for the cost of Zehut’s campaign over the past several weeks, but it is doubtful that it could provide the basis for an accounting trick that could also cover prior expenses.

So what’s left? Mostly the cabinet position promised to Feiglin if Netanyahu forms the government. And even if he does, it’s difficult to find a practical reason for him to keep the promise, which may be more a matter of wishful thinking for Feiglin .