Israel Announces New Cannabis Decriminalization Plans

Israel, the “Startup-Nation,” published new guidelines last week to eliminate criminal penalties for consumption.
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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). Fines would also be limited for members of the Israeli Defense Forces, police, and minors who are excluded from the new regulation. Possession will now be treated like a traffic offense.

Prosecution will not be allowed except under “exceptional cases” and does not distinguish between a first and subsequent offense.  Under current guidelines, possession is fined on the first and second offense. Under current regulations, a first offense is fined at 1,000 shekels. A second offense is 2,000 shekels and a third offense is considered a criminal violation requiring a conditional settlement deal. A fourth offense could result in 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. 

However, this is far from the full and final victory many Israelis have been hoping, if not lobbying, for. Without this extension, the use of cannabis would have reverted to a fully criminal offense. 

Full legalization was proposed two years ago by the previous justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn, but this has been delayed by a change of government. The new government, however, appears to be content with hanging on to the status quo, no matter how temporary, instead of actually codifying full recreational reform into law. 

The new legislation still needs to be approved by the Constitution and the Law and Justice Committee.

Israel is not the only country now hanging onto prohibition laws by a thread after proposing a final change. The government in Luxembourg has repeatedly stalled on their promise to bring full reform into law by next year, proposing a seed market instead. Portugal’s reform, long in the works, was also stymied last year by the fall of the last government. In Germany, despite the new traffic light coalition putting this issue on their agenda, recent discussion has been to push the entire conversation back so the government can focus on COVID.

The Oldest Medical Market

Israel has the distinction of having the world’s oldest medical market as well as the largest one. The depth of research in the country leads the world simply because cannabinoid science was invented here by Raphael Mechoulam after WWII.

Even these developments have not been without controversy. Despite leading the world in cannabis research for the latter half of the last century and the first two decades of this one, Israeli patients have had to fight for further reform and access just like in other countries. In 2014, for example, Israeli parents, frustrated with a lack of access to even low-THC cannabis, threatened the government that they would immigrate to Colorado. The threat worked, and greater access occurred within the next 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.

What Could Move the Needle in Israel?

At this point, the Israelis, just like other countries, are on the verge of full reform, but nobody really seems to have an appetite for moving forward too aggressively. 

The entire discussion also remains a highly politicized one, just about everywhere.

That said, Israel is likely to move forward with reform this year or next if either the United States or Germany decides to implement federal recreational reform. 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 were also left out of the first cultivation bid here in 2017, and none won the bid as of 2019. That went to Canadian firms Aphria (now merged with Tilray), Aurora and Demecan, a German firm which essentially replaced Wayland.

Former Israeli politicians like Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak (both former prime ministers), Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister, former police commissioner Zohanan Danino and retired Shin Bet security agency director Yaakov Peri are all flocking to the industry now, trying to move the issue domestically with their domestic capital.

Over 100,000 Israelis have permits to consume the drug medically, a 16-fold increase in just the last decade. This increase has come largely because of protests and subsequent reform which make it easier for doctors to prescribe cannabis for a range of conditions, including chronic pain, cancer, PTSD, epilepsy and similar 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).

Full recreational reform will clearly juice the industry here, just like everywhere else.

The question remains, however, when this final move will come. In the meantime, small victories count.

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