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Coalition pulls bill on decriminalizing marijuana because of Ra’am opposition

Arab coalition party asks that legislation wait another two weeks, mulls how legalizing recreational use will be received by Arab community

Israelis gather at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to mark the international marijuana smoking day, in a demonstration to legalize the drug, on April 20, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis gather at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to mark the international marijuana smoking day, in a demonstration to legalize the drug, on April 20, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The coalition pulled a proposed bill for decriminalizing recreational marijuana use ahead of a planned Wednesday vote in the Knesset, after the Islamist Ra’am party said it wanted more time to consider the legislation.

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas asked the bill’s sponsor, New Hope MK Sharren Haskel, to wait two weeks before raising it for a plenary vote to give Ra’am lawmakers more time to examine how legalizing the recreational use of marijuana would be received among its supporters in the Arab community.

Earlier reports said Haskel was facing pressure to pull her proposed bill with the legislation failing to garner the backing of Ra’am and facing almost certain defeat in a vote.

Despite the entreaties of the coalition, Haskel had been refusing to yank the bill, Hebrew media reports said.

The bill was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, giving it official government backing.

But Ra’am, which has broken with the coalition and played spoiler in previous legislative efforts, opposes decriminalization of marijuana consumption on religious grounds.

New Hope MK Sharren Haskel in the plenum hall of the Knesset, June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Unsuccessful efforts were made overnight to convince the party not to vote against the bill, according to Army Radio, with coalition politicians pushing for Ra’am MKs to abstain instead.

Due to the opposition of Ra’am, which is joined by the parties in the opposition, the bill appeared to lack sufficient support to clear a first reading in the Knesset. The coalition had attempted to enlist opposition MKs to back the proposal, including from the predominantly Arab Joint List, Channel 13 news reported.

The coalition holds a razor-thin majority in the Knesset, with limited ability to advance legislation without Ra’am’s support. The party’s lawmakers said Monday they won’t hesitate to initiate coalition crises to get what they want, after briefly threatening to stop working with the coalition.

In the lead-up to the vote, Haskel shared social media posts urging lawmakers in former premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, which she used to be a member of, to vote for the bill. When Haskel was still a Likud MK, the party voted last year in favor of legislation to legalize marijuana use. However, the Knesset dissolved and new elections were called before a pair of bills could pass the three plenum readings necessary to become law.

Haskel’s bill would permit Israeli adults to possess up to 50 grams of marijuana and to grow up to 15 plants for personal use. Anyone possessing marijuana in excess of that amount could face a NIS 2,000 (over $600) fine.

Marijuana consumption in public will continue to be barred, with violators subject to a fine of NIS 500.

A cannabis plant at the Knesset in 2009 for a meeting on medical marijuana in the parliament’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Recreational use of the drug is currently illegal, though the Public Security Ministry partially decriminalized it in 2017, setting fines and treatment for initial offenders instead of criminal procedures.

Israel has taken steps in recent years to make medical cannabis available and is poised to become a major exporter of the crop, though local medical cannabis users have complained of near-impossible access to the few dispensaries licensed to distribute it.

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