Israel’s New Marijuana Bill: The Most Criminalizing Decriminalization Ever
After decades of prohibition since under British rule, the Israeli government approved the decriminalization of cannabis for recreational users. Hurray! Now hundreds of thousands of Israeli weed-smokers will no longer have to be afraid to smoke and grow marijuana in their own homes, right? Sadly, not really.
It all started with one young member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) named Sharen Haskel, a politician for the ruling Likud party, who adopted a suggestion from the pro-legalization movement and proposed it to the government. The suggestion included the complete decriminalization of the consumption of cannabis, including the ability to legally own up to 15 seeds and one plant. A decent proposal for decriminalization indeed.
But the Minister of Interior Security, Gilad Erdan (a known anti civil liberties politician), rejected the proposal and demanded to gather a committee that would discuss the future of the criminalization of cannabis in Israel. If Haskel’s suggestion had reached the government’s table she would have had her way, as a majority of ministers supports the proposal, and official government-backed legislation will pass the Knesset vote easily. But Erdan is a prominent figure in the Likud party, and could easily end the young MK’s political career if he wanted to. So Sharen bit the dust and accepted the formation of the committee, that promised to present results within 3 months.
One year later (that’s how Israeli committees are, Parkinson’s law), while Haskel, who is under a lot of pressure from pro-legalization groups, has kept unsuccessfully threatening to propose the law if the committee will keep delaying, the committee finally handed out its conclusions. And it has, unsurprisingly, come to exactly the conclusions that Erdan wanted them to reach. And so Erdan then displayed his own “responsible decriminalization” solution – a proposal that is a mere shadow of what Haskel first proposed.
Currently, cannabis possession of up to 15 grams can technically send you to jail for 3 years. In practice, the police in the Tel-Aviv area decided on their own not to prosecute cannabis users even if they catch them, creating an interesting “practical decriminalization”. Growing, on the other hand, as well as smoking in peripheral Israel, will get you a criminal record and even some jail time.
In Erdan’s decriminalization proposal, upon the first conviction for possession of cannabis – even for a single joint or flower – you will be fined 1,000 ILS (about 260 EUR) but not criminally prosecuted. For the second conviction – double that. When convicted for a third time, you will be forced to “volunteer” in an anti-drug foundation, and only at a fourth conviction you will receive a criminal record and jail time. This will only apply, however, to those who immediately admit the crime of possessing or using cannabis.
This creates a frighteningly realistic version of the prisoner’s dilemma: One of the main reasons the Tel-Aviv area police decided not to prosecute cannabis users, was that it was too expensive on their own drug labs to test all the suspected strains of marijuana. Under Erdan’s policy, if you admit to charges of possession, you will be fined. But if you don’t, you’re taking the risk the police will run a drug test on your joint or flower. If enough of the public won’t admit to the charges, however, prosecution for personal use will remain impossible just like under the current policy. So it’s unclear if this “responsible decriminalization” solution will changes things for the better or for the worse. In addition, no seeds or plants are included in Erdan’s proposal.
The main good thing about Erdan’s initial proposal, was that it separated the private space from the public space: Only in the latter one shall the law be enforced. But in the actual bill that Erdan presented last week, this aspect of the law disappeared. The result is a law so softened up, it’s essentially liquid.
The practical outcome of the new marijuana law, is that it will be up to the heads of the police (or worse, the field policemen), to decide to what extent they choose to enforce the “dangerous drugs order” issued by the British colonial governor a century ago. This decriminalization is so criminalizing, Haskel actually decided to overpass legislative tradition, and lay an actual decriminalization bill on the Knesset’s floor. However, the coalition forced discipline on its MKs (meaning all coalition MKs should vote against the law or at least not for it, or else face political consequences), and half the opposition didn’t show up for the vote. Haskel’s bill was voted out, and we are left with Erdan’s soft decriminalization that is unlikely to make much of a difference.
We Israeli libertarians will continue to fight for the end of the war on drugs and especially the war on cannabis. Politicians have started to bend in our direction, but this fight is far from over.
Idan Eretz is the co-head of the Tel-Aviv University SFL student group, studying Economics and History, and one of the founders of the Israeli “Liberty For All” organization. He likes to write about history, politics, economy and philosophy.
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