Despite ultra-Orthodox objection, Israeli government advances cannabis laws

The cannabis laws now being promoted at the Knesset are nothing short of a revolution, which would not have been possible under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous right-wing, ultra-Orthodox governments.

al-monitor An employee tends to medical cannabis plants at Pharmocann, an Israeli medical cannabis company in northern Israel, June 24, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

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taxation, education, legalization, benjamin netanyahu, right-wing, ultra-orthodox, knesset, cannabis

Jun 29, 2020

“This is a very exciting moment,” said Knesset member Ram Shefa of the Blue and White party in addressing the Knesset plenary on June 24 as he introduced legislation regulating the cannabis market in Israel. He knew his historic bill was assured a majority at the first Knesset hearing after the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members, the legislation’s staunchest opponents, cut a deal with coalition Chair Miki Zohar to absent themselves from the vote.

Zohar is considered one of the politicians closest to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the cannabis legislation would not have stood a chance without the prime minister’s approval. However, this was not the only reason for the elation of cannabis liberalization proponents. In addition to its preliminary approval of Shefa’s bill (it needs to be approved in two more hearings to be enacted), the Knesset also approved a draft bill decriminalizing the personal use of cannabis. Its author, Likud Knesset member Sharren Haskel, led the fight for cannabis legalization in recent years and was instrumental in convincing Netanyahu to go along.

Haskel’s persuasive powers notwithstanding, Netanyahu, as usual, was swayed mostly by poll results presented to him on the eve of the April 2019 elections, showing legalization was a highly popular agenda issue among not only younger voters and was not an expression of social debauchery.

Netanyahu’s current government partner, Blue and White party leader and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, did not need much convincing, and thus, following a two-decade political and public campaign, the Knesset “said ‘yes’ to logic and freedom,” as television presenter Guy Lerer tweeted. Lerer, a popular social media figure, had been at the forefront of the determined public and media campaign in favor of the so-called “cannabis laws.”

While police have eased enforcement of cannabis criminalization for recreational use in recent years, Haskell’s bill would anchor it in legislation stipulating that possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis for personal use would be an administrative rather than a criminal offense. It would carry a fine of up to S500 Israeli shekels ($145) rather than a jail term of up to three years as prescribed by existing law. Shefa’s proposed bill would pave the way for complete legalization of cannabis, allowing possession of up to 15 grams for personal use by those aged 21 years and older and its sale in designated venues (coffee shops). The Knesset is likely to combine the two proposed bills as it prepares the package for subsequent stages of approval.

The cannabis laws are nothing short of a revolution, which would not have been possible under Netanyahu’s previous governments that relied heavily on ultra-Orthodox parties. The current unity government with Blue and White turned the tide, along with the support of traditional advocates, such as the Meretz and Yesh Atid parties, currently part of the opposition. Once the Knesset gives its final approval, Israel will join a club of liberal states that have started regulating nonmedical cannabis use in recent years.

The intensity of the moment when the Knesset plenary board lit up with the sweeping majority votes (61 to 11 for Haskel’s bill and 53 to 12 for Shefa’s) cannot be understated. Two young lawmakers — Shefa, 35, the former head of the National Union of Israeli Students, and Haskel, 36 — not only triumphed after a long, bitter struggle, but they also brought together Likud and Blue and White, at least on this issue, to defeat the adamant opposition of the ultra-Orthodox factions.

Shefa’s stand is particularly interesting given his role as chair of the Knesset’s Education Committee and the argument by legalization opponents that the move would be disastrous for school-age children and encourage social dissolution. Shefa used this very argument to explain his advocacy of the move as an expression of sanity. “It is exactly as chair of the Knesset Education Committee that I am telling you that the current illegality drives some youth to want to use cannabis even more and to hook up with dubious elements,” Shefa explained.

“This is really good news for the freedom-loving public,” Haskel declared from the Knesset podium. “Regulation of the cannabis issue for personal use is one of my generation’s symbols of personal freedom to make choices over one’s body,” said the heavily pregnant lawmaker. She added, “It is the expression of a person’s right to privacy, a person’s right to lead the life they want as long as they do not harm others, without police persecution, arrests and risk of criminalization.”

When Haskel presented her bill for a vote, she referred to other countries that have adopted similar laws and to data indicating a decline in cannabis use by teens. “The reason is that when they are monitored, shops are careful not to sell cannabis to underage buyers,” she explained.

Haskel also referred to the “forbidden fruit” theory arguing that the ban piques the interest of young people in the drug. She pointed specifically to the effect of legalization in Colorado, which has seen a consistent decline in the number of school dropouts. “They say that people will drive under the influence, but the rate of those driving under the influence of cannabis has not gone up in states that have legalized use, and the rate of those driving under the influence of alcohol has dropped 15%,” she said. Another argument Haskel brought up was the $130 million in state revenues from cannabis taxation in Colorado, money that Israel could use to invest in welfare, education and fighting crime.

Former Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the right-wing Yamina party was not convinced, voting from the opposition benches against the bills and warning of their destructive repercussions. “Legalizing cannabis would be a dangerous social experiment that will destroy future generations of Israelis,” he lashed out at the bills’ supporters.

Various assessments put the rate of Israel's adult cannabis users at 27%, meaning over 1.5 million people.

The battle over legalization has been long and frustrating. Two decades ago, pro-legalization advocates established a party calling itself “Green Leaf,” which led this agenda and attracted the support of young Israelis as a symbol of liberalism — and generated opposition among certain groups that viewed legalization as promoting anarchy. The party ran in successive elections since 1999 but failed to garner sufficient votes to make it into the Knesset. It was dismantled on the eve of the last elections in March 2020, but its founders can declare victory, nonetheless. Their agenda has captured hearts and minds and defeated the politicians.

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