<p>Tony Newman 646-335-5384<br />
Hannah Hetzer 212-613-8060</p>
On Sunday, Israel took a big step toward decriminalizing adult marijuana use. The Israeli Cabinet approved a proposal that would replace criminal penalties with fines for people who are caught using marijuana in public. The proposal from the Ministries of Justice and Public Security has received support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but still requires approval of the Israeli Parliament before becoming law.
Some Israeli marijuana reform advocates worry that the plan may do more harm than good. Over the next two months, they will be working to improve the proposal before it becomes law.
The new plan stipulates that people caught using marijuana in public would be fined $270 for the first offense, $550 for the second offense, and probation for the third. However, after being caught a fourth time, people will be charged with criminal penalties, with the possibility of facing up to 3 years behind bars. Minors caught using marijuana in public would be criminally investigated if they refuse to join a treatment program. The proposal also does not expunge the criminal record of anyone previously convicted of marijuana possession.
“It’s a good step forward symbolically but the devil is in the details,” said Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The last thing Israel needs is a reform that takes one step forward and two steps back.”
Tamar Zandberg, a Member of the Israeli Parliament and the chairwoman of the Knesset Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, said that "this is an important step, but not the end of the road. It sends a message that a million of Israelis who consume marijuana aren’t criminals. We will carry on following the details in the committee and ensure that the change is implemented."
New York offers a cautionary lesson as to the harms of incomplete or partial decriminalization. New York State first decriminalized personal marijuana possession in 1977 yet tens of thousands of people continue to be arrested to this day because of a loophole in the law that allowed police to make arrests if marijuana was detected “in public view”. Due to racially discriminatory policing practices, those arrested are disproportionately young, Black, and Latino.
“It’s good that the Israeli government is officially acknowledging that people shouldn’t be criminalized for their marijuana use – but this proposal can and should be improved upon,” said Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The fines are excessive, prior records should be expunged, and minors shouldn’t be threatened with criminal penalties if they refuse to seek treatment. Examples from other countries – such as Portugal – show that effective decriminalization models remove criminal sanctions from the equation altogether.”
Oren Lebovich, the chairman of the Green Leaf party and the founder of an Israeli cannabis magazine, said, “This plan is far from decriminalization. It can still land people in jail; worse it allows the police to search and enter a house when they suspect someone is smoking a joint. Nor does it expunge the record of anyone previously convicted of this so-called ‘crime.’ Thankfully, this is only a first draft and we have two more months to change it before it becomes law.”
Israel has long been a world leader in medical marijuana research, medicine and technology, with over 25,000 Israelis licensed to use medical marijuana for cancer, epilepsy and other diseases. In the U.S., 20 states have decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use, eight of which have also approved legal regulation of the production, distribution and sale of marijuana.