Partial decriminalization of public cannabis use takes effect Sunday night
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Partial decriminalization of public cannabis use takes effect Sunday night

Legalization activists warn substituting fines for criminal indictments may lead to stricter enforcement by police

Illustrative image of marijuana plant. (CC BY-SA Jennifer Martin, Wikimedia commons)
Illustrative image of marijuana plant. (CC BY-SA Jennifer Martin, Wikimedia commons)

Marijuana possession will be partially decriminalized at midnight Sunday night when a plan two years in the making goes into effect, replacing criminal prosecution for personal marijuana use in public with fines and a less stringent enforcement regime.

A version of the plan was first put forward in early 2017 by the government’s Anti-Drug Authority, and was approved by cabinet ministers in March of that year. It is based on the so-called Portugal Model, which treats marijuana use as a public health issue akin to cigarette smoking rather than a criminal problem.

Under the new guidelines, possession of small amounts of marijuana in private homes will no longer be treated as an offense, criminal or otherwise.

In public, the current policy of arrest for criminal prosecution will change at midnight to a three-strikes policy. An individual without a criminal record who is caught in possession of a “personal-use” amount of marijuana for the first time will face a NIS 1,000 ($276) fine. A second offense within five years will mean a NIS 2,000 ($551) fine. Only on a third offense within seven years of the second will offenders face the opening of a criminal investigation. Even then, the indictment can be avoided by accepting a heftier civil penalty, either a much higher fine or the loss of, for example, a gun or driver’s license.

In a step likely signaling an expectation of leniency in enforcement going forward, the new policy leaves it up to police to decide whether to pursue offenders even after their third offense.

Marijuana captured by police in early-morning raids on November 22, 2016 (Israel Police)
Marijuana captured by police in early-morning raids on November 22, 2016 (Israel Police)

Crucially, the policy does not specify how much pot is considered “personal use,” leaving that determination, too, up to the officer in the field. The Anti-Drug Authority has in the past recommended that the personal-use amount be set at up to 15 grams.

In all cases, the marijuana found with the individual will be confiscated by police.

Individuals in possession of a medical permit to consume cannabis for medical reasons must be able to present the permit to the officer when confronted.

The new policy does not apply to soldiers, prisoners and minors, all of whom will still be subject to criminal indictment, though the policy urges directing otherwise law-abiding minors to rehabilitation programs instead of the criminal justice system.

The move comes amid growing calls over the past two years for legalizing and regulating cannabis use in the country, including from senior officials in the Justice Ministry and other law enforcement bodies.

Among Western countries, Israel already has one of the highest per capita rates of legal marijuana use, with over 21,000 people medically licensed to use the drug.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has characterized the new policy as a cautious first step toward limited legalization, saying recently that the reform was an “important step” that “shifted the focus from the criminal process to fines, education, public information and rehabilitation.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announcing new measures to decriminalize marijuana use, January 26, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announcing new measures to decriminalize marijuana use, January 26, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

But cannabis legalization activists have criticized the move, which they say could end up increasing penalties faced by cannabis consumers.

Police already have an unspoken policy of mostly ignoring first-time personal-use cannabis consumption in public spaces, they argue, in part because the alternative has been to open large numbers of criminal probes into otherwise law-abiding citizens. The new alternative of a fine will thus incentivize increased enforcement by police, they say.

On the online Israeli magazine Cannabis, one user urged restoring the former balance by “everyone walking around with bags of crushed tea. Pretty soon the cost [of enforcement] for the police will be higher than the income from the fines.”

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