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Anger in opposition as Netanyahu, others, skip vote

Knesset gives preliminary okay to bill to make medical cannabis more available

Ra’am party backs legislation, as leader MK Mansour Abbas, speaking in Arabic, makes it clear he will only ever agree to medical use of the drug

New Hope MK Sharren Haskel, center, seen during a vote on a law proposing reforms regulating medical marijuana, held in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on October13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
New Hope MK Sharren Haskel, center, seen during a vote on a law proposing reforms regulating medical marijuana, held in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on October13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset approved in a preliminary vote on Wednesday a bill that would create major reforms in the medical cannabis industry in Israel, and expand its ease of access.

Ra’am, the coalition’s Arab party, which previously opposed a similar bill that would have also decriminalized recreational marijuana usage, voted in favor of the legislation proposed by MK Sharren Haskel of the New Hope party.

Some in the opposition were apparently taken by surprise at Ra’am’s vote for the bill, which they had anticipated would be defeated.

Under the terms of the bill, those granted a license from the Health Ministry will be legally allowed to grow, distribute and possess cannabis for medical purposes. The new regulations are aimed at overcoming a chronic shortage in medical cannabis available to those with a prescription, due to strict regulations over producers.

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

Three months ago, a broader bill put forth by Haskel that would have decriminalized recreational marijuana use was defeated in parliament, with Ra’am voting against it on religious grounds.

The updated bill passed 54-42. It will now move on to the Knesset Health Committee where it will be prepared for a first reading. It will also need approval by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

“It’s time to release this matter that has been tied for years to unnecessary bureaucratic restrictions, and a real reform needs to be made here that will free up the use of cannabis,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told the plenum.

“This is tremendous news for more than 100,000 patients, the most seriously ill of people, when most of them live on a disability pension that is entirely wasted on a medicine they need in order to live a routine life,” Haskel said after the vote.

New Hope parliament member Sharren Haskel , right, and MK Mansour Abbas of Ra’am seen during a vote on a law proposing reforms regulating medical marijuana, in the Kneesst, Jerusalem, on October 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Before the vote, there were reportedly intensive meetings between representatives of New Hope and Ra’am in order to convince the latter party to support the bill.

As lawmakers prepared to cast their votes, Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas addressed the plenum in Arabic in order to explain to the party’s voters why its MKs would back the legislation. Abbas said the bill had been changed from its earlier version to only deal with medical use of the drug, and stressed that this is the only use Ra’am will agree to.

During the voting session, opposition MKs attacked the bill, with MK David Amsalem of Likud claiming a financial guarantor for New Hope is benefiting from the medical cannabis business “so there is a classic bribe deal here.”

Haskel retorted that Amsalem was “lying about personal matters without a drop of ideology.”

Medical-grade cannabis growing on tables in Israel. (Courtesy Israeli Medical Cannabis Agency)

Many opposition MKs including opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, skipped the vote, apparently because they did not expect Ra’am to back it and thought it would be defeated without them.

MK David Bitan of Likud warned opposition MKs who were missing that “anyone who is not here will pay for it,” Ynet reported.

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.

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