Israel Takes First Steps to Decriminalize Recreational Marijuana Use

Israel's cabinet voted in favor of a bill that would decriminalize the use of recreational marijuana.

Israel Votes to Ban Criminal Penalties for Public Marijuana Use

In a vote on Sunday, Israel took the first step toward decriminalizing recreational marijuana use. The Israeli cabinet approved a new policy to rid of criminal penalties for the public use of marijuana.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Israel for decades. Citizens can obtain permits to use marijuana to treat symptoms of various medical conditions, like cancer or epilepsy. However, recreational marijuana has not been so widely accepted. Recreational marijuana use previously included heavy fines and incarceration.

Under this measure, public use of marijuana would result in a smaller fine (roughly $270). Only after a fourth offense would there be a criminal charge. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan drafted these new rules. The policy “will emphasize public information and treatment instead of criminal enforcement,” said Erdan.

Growing and selling marijuana are still illegal. The Israeli police will continue to enforce policies against growers and vendors. However, there is a campaign to distinguish between small-scale and commercial growers on this issue.

A worker in one of Israel's medical marijuana farms.
Medical marijuana farm in Safred, Israel. Source: New York Times

Israel joins several countries around the world that are making changes to marijuana policy. In the U.S., several states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. And countries like the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Mexico have also decriminalized marijuana. Many governments see this as an opportunity to combat societal problems associated with marijuana use.

“On the one hand, we are opening ourselves up to the future,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to the cabinet. “On the other hand, we understand the dangers and will try to balance the two.”

While the cabinet voted in favor, this measure was the subject of much debate. And the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, still needs to approve this decision.

“This is an important step, but it’s not the end of the road,” said Tamar Zandberg, chairwoman of Israel’s Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

The promising future of Israel’s cannabis industry

At a medical marijuana farm in Israel, a worker tends to the plants.
At a medical marijuana farm in Israel, a worker tends to the plants. Source: New York Times

Israel has been a leader of medical marijuana research since the 1960s. The country has hosted international medical marijuana conferences just in the past year. The Cann10 conference in 2016, for instance, focused on science, technology, and commerce. And the country’s blossoming cannabis industry has support from farmers, lawyers, scientists, and entrepreneurs.

But research isn’t only supported by private institutions. The government has also played a significant role in developing the medical marijuana industry. A national institute for medical marijuana is currently in the works. And reforms led by the Ministry of Health, and supported from various other ministries, have allowed more doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients. There are even talks of allowing exports of marijuana.

Tamir Gedo, CEO of Breath Life Pharma, reflected on this support from the Israeli government. “It is almost unprecedented,”said Gedo. “It seems like the government is working faster than the private industry.”

Currently, 25,000 people—of Israel’s population of 8.5 million—have medical marijuana permits. So as the recreational use of marijuana becomes more widely accepted, the number of citizens using marijuana will grow. Cannabis companies estimate that the cannabis industry in Israel could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years.

This has been great news for the many cannabis companies, who see this as an opportunity for expansion. ICAN, the Israel-Cannabis venture fund and tech incubator, praised the cabinet’s decision.

“This step, although not legitimizing use, is due to reduce the negative perception of the plant as ‘immoral’ or ‘criminal,’ increasing openness to its outstanding medicinal and wellness properties,” said ICAN CEO Saul Kaye. “The decision will significantly increase entrepreneurship and investment into cannabis in Israel.”

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