Cannabis opponents take a hit as top ethicist calls for legalization

Asa Kasher tells Knesset committee that Israel should ease red-tape on medical marijuana, allow regulated recreational use

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Portrait of Professor Asa Kasher, in 2014. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Portrait of Professor Asa Kasher, in 2014. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Israel’s preeminent expert on ethics and philosphy voiced support Tuesday for easing limits on the use of medical marijuana and — with appropriate regulation — legalizing the drug for recreational use.

Speaking to the Knesset Committee on Controlled Substances, Professor Asa Kasher said restrictions on the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes went against the principles of medical ethics, and argued doctors should be given the freedom to prescribe the pain relieving drug even if other options have not been explored.

“Among the pillars of democracy are the principles of human dignity, human life and health. This means that person in pain is eligible to receive medical care, whether it be to cure what ails them or make life easier for them,” he said. “This is why, out of respect for the professional ethics of physicians, when a doctor reaches the conclusion that they right way to treat a person is cannabis, there is no reason not to authorize treatment, even if the patient did not earlier exhaust all other alternative forms of treatments.”

Known for authoring the IDF code of conduct, Kasher has written important works on the meaning of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state including a defense of the Law of Return.

Purchasing medicinal marijuana in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Purchasing medicinal marijuana in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Regarding the recreational use of the drug, Kasher told the committee that, “while there is freedom in a democracy, this freedom has some necessary limits, like the limits on the use of alcohol. Legalization can be promoted but only if the process includes relevant regulation.”

Kasher said he doesn’t “like the idea that there is a law forbidding use of cannabis in Israel, but in practice, there is no criminalization. When you examine the field of legalization, we need to see whether existing criminalization promotes a reasonable, proportionate purpose. The fact that a car is a dangerous thing doesn’t mean no one should drive.”

Marijuana is illegal in Israel for recreational use, but medical use has been permitted since the early 1990s for cancer patients and those with pain-related illnesses such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients can smoke the drug, ingest it in liquid form, or apply it to the skin as a balm.

Israel has gained a reputation as an expert grower of cannabis for use as a pain reliever for those suffering from serious illnesses, such as cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. Among Western countries, Israel already has one of the highest per capita rates of legal cannabis use, with over 25,000 people medically licensed to use the drug.

A Health Ministry representative, Dr. Yuval Landschaft, responded to Kasher saying, “in cases where it is deemed necessary, a doctor will be allowed to prescribe cannabis that can be given as a medicine in pharmacies, but the Health Ministry believes it is not right to promote general legalization of the use of cannabis for social uses.”

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset, September 15, 2014 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset, September 15, 2014 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Since taking control of the Health Ministry in May, United Torah Judaism chair Yaakov Litzman has spearheaded a number of moves to make cannabis more accessible to patients.

In October he announced the beginning of a training program for doctors who will then be allowed to prescribe marijuana. The two-day training is aimed at specialists in oncology and psychiatry, as well as family doctors, pediatricians, orthopedic surgeons and others. Health Ministry-approved pharmacies will be stocked with medical marijuana in order to ease the often arduous bureaucratic process faced by patients prescribed the drug.

Committee head Tamar Zandberg of Meretz, a proponent of the complete decriminalization of the substance, said Tuesday that, “whether we like it or not, we are today at a point in which we’re waiting for gradual change in the field of cannabis. It is our job to recognize the coming change and prepare for it as best we can. If the process stops, it may create a crisis point that will lead to change that is swift and not properly planned. The train, in this context, has left the station.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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