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Israel Prepares to Decriminalize Cannabis

A bill which would punish minor marijuana offenses with fines rather than criminal charges is set for a vote before the country's full legislature this week.

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Photo via Mark Probst

Israel, which currently boasts one of the world's most pioneering medical cannabis programs, seems likely to relax some of its laws against recreational marijuana this week. Back in March, the Knesset, Israel's legislative body, unanimously passed a bill to decriminalize low-level cannabis possession. The bill then moved to the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, who approved it without dissent on Monday. This clears a major hurdle for the legislation, which will come up for a final vote before the full Knesset again later this week.

The bill would levy fines, rather than criminal penalties, against minor pot offenders. First-time offenders would have to pay a fine of 1,000 shekels ($275), and second-time offenders would be fined 2,000 shekels ($550). Third-time offenders would get to choose between a higher fine, community service, or criminal charges. These new decriminalization policies would not apply to minors, armed service members, prisoners, or anyone who currently has a criminal record.

“I definitely hope that the money [collected] from the fines will be allocated for the establishment of a fund for education, information, treatment and rehabilitation of [drug] addicts, instead of taking the money to the state’s funds,” Knesset Member Meirav Ben-Ari said in a statement reported by the Jerusalem Post. Ben-Ari acknowledged that “this [current] policy of people over 21…getting a police file” for low-level cannabis use has been ineffective, and hopes that the bill will “fix this…to not turn these people into criminals.”

Ben-Ari also told the Jewish Press that passing the law would be “an important first step that the Knesset is implementing in a transparent and positive manner,” as it would herald “a significant change in the public perception in all things that pertain to cannabis use.” Even Homeland Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is in charge of the Israeli Police, spoke out in favor of the bill, saying that he “hopes and believes that the law will prevent unnecessary incrimination of civilians, while also minimizing cannabis consumption, especially for our youth.”

Some legalization advocates have actually criticized the law, however, noting that police are more likely to issue a ticket under the proposed new law than to actually arrest someone under the old law. “This is a bad law, whose sole purpose is to make the punishment more severe and to make the police enforcement easier,” said pro-legalization group Green Leaf Party, the Jewish Press reports.

Although recreational pot use has been prohibited in Israel for years, the country’s lawmakers have widely accepted the medical use of cannabis. The country is now one of the world leaders in medical marijuana research, and cannabis-related stocks are currently climbing on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Last summer, the Israeli government approved the export of medical cannabis products, a decision that was expected to bring the country over $1 billion a year. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shut this plan down in February over concerns of black market diversion as well as fears of angering President Trump.

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