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Israel Announces New Cannabis Decriminalization Plans

Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar proposed new guidelines last week which further move the consumption of cannabis away from a criminal offense and propose essentially creating an administrative one, punishable with a maximum fine of 1,000 shekels (about $310). Members of the Israeli Defense Forces, the police and minors are exempted from this new regulation. Now, possession of marijuana will be considered traffic offense.

Prosecution will not be allowed except under “exceptional cases” and does not distinguish between a first and subsequent offense.  Current guidelines state that possession will result in both a first- and second-degree offense. A first offense is subject to a fine of 1,000 shekels under current guidelines. A second offense will result in a fine of 2,000 shekels. The third offense, which is criminal violations that require a conditional settlement agreement, is subject to a $5000 penalty. A fourth offense may result in a conviction.

The new guidelines are still temporary—there is every sense of a holding action here—but are set to replace the measures in place since 2019 and which expire in March. 

But this is not the victory that many Israelis have hoped for, or lobbied, for. The use of marijuana would be reclassified to a criminal offense without this extension. 

Avi Nissenkorn (the previous justice minister) proposed full legalization two years ago, but it was delayed by a new government. However, the new government seems content to keep things as they are, regardless of how short-term, rather than actually codifying complete recreational reform in law. 

The Constitution and Law and Justice Committee still need to approve the new legislation.

Israel is not alone in holding on to prohibition laws. Luxembourg’s government repeatedly failed to keep their word on a promise of full reform. Instead, they proposed a seed market. Portugal’s reform, long in the works, was also stymied last year by the fall of the last government. Germany has recently discussed the need to shift the conversation away from this topic, even though a new coalition is bringing it up.

The oldest medical market

Israel has the distinction of having the world’s oldest medical market as well as the largest one. Simply because Raphael Mechoulam invented cannabinoid research here after WWII, this country has the most extensive medical research.

Even though these changes have been controversial, they are not the only ones. Even though Israel is the leader in cannabis research in the second half of the 20th century, and for most of the past two decades, Israeli patients still have to struggle for access and reform just as in other countries. One example is when Israeli parents threatened to move to Colorado in 2014 after becoming frustrated by the difficulty of getting access to cannabis even at low levels. The threat was successful, and access to cannabis increased within months.

Recreational reform, however, along with exports has repeatedly stalled over the last years mainly due to opposition from the country’s extreme right wing as well as the overarching issues of flying in the face of international law, which still regards cannabis as a Schedule I drug.

Is there anything that could move the Needle in Israel

While the Israelis may be on the edge of total reform like all other countries at this stage, they don’t seem to want to go too far ahead. 

The whole discussion remains highly politicized, as it is almost everywhere.

If either Germany or the United States decide to implement federal recreational legislation, Israel may move ahead with reforms this year and next. In the latter case, the Israelis have been eyeing the growing medical market with interest—indeed some firms now sell their products here (although not flower). Israeli firms also missed the original cultivation bid in 2017. As of 2019, none of them had won the bid. This went to Canadian companies Aphria, Aurora and Demecan. The German company essentially succeeded Wayland.

Ex-politicians from Israel like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert (both ex-prime ministers), Tzipi Lilivni (ex-foreign minister), Ehud Barak, Ehud Barak (both ex–premier ministers), Tzipi Tivni, ex-foreign minister and former commissioner Zohanan Daino, as well as Yaakov Peri, retired director of Shin Bet Security Agency, are now flock to this industry to help to domestically to get the issue to domestically to solve it

More than 100,000 Israelis are now able to legally use the drug for medical purposes, an increase of 16 percent in the last decade. Protests led to reforms that made it possible for doctors and patients to use cannabis medicinally for many conditions.

Medical cannabis consumption was 43 metric tons in 2021 according to the Health Ministry and worth around $264 million—about $7 million less than the entire European market (of which Germany is the largest consumer).

A full recreation reform would be an incredibly positive step in the right direction, like elsewhere.

It remains to be seen when that final move will occur. All victories, however small, are worth it.