Marijuana decriminalization leaps first legislative hurdle
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Marijuana decriminalization leaps first legislative hurdle

First- and second-time offenders to be hit with fines, rather than criminal penalties, under new government proposal

An Israeli smokes a marijuana joint in Jerusalem on April 20, 2017 during a rally at the Rose garden, to celebrate 420 and to express their defiance of current laws. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)
An Israeli smokes a marijuana joint in Jerusalem on April 20, 2017 during a rally at the Rose garden, to celebrate 420 and to express their defiance of current laws. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

Lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a proposal to decriminalize personal recreational marijuana use, imposing fines rather than criminal penalties for first and second-time offenders.

The proposal cleared its first reading in the Knesset with 38 MKs in favors, and none opposed. It must still pass another two readings to become law.

Under the proposal backed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, whose office oversees the police, first-time offenders would be charged a NIS 1,000 ($265) fine but would not have a criminal case filed them. That sum would be doubled on the second offense.

Those caught for a third time could still evade prosecution on the condition they accept a number of possible measures, including loss of their gun or driving license and participation in a rehabilitation program. Only those caught smoking in public on a fourth occasion would be subject to criminal charges.

The plan would also see minors under the age of 18 criminally prosecuted if they refused a rehabilitation program.

An Israeli smokes a marijuana joint in Jerusalem on April 20, 2017 during a rally at the Rose garden, to celebrate 420 and to express their defiance of current laws. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

Presenting the bill to the Knesset plenum on Wednesday, Erdan said the goal of the bill was to avoid tarnishing the reputations of Israelis who do not smoke marijuana on a regular basis.

Erdan’s plan did not specify the amount of marijuana that would be subject to sanctions but the Anti-Drug Authority has in the past recommended that fines apply only for possession of more than 15 grams of marijuana.

“This law is far from perfect, but it’s a foot in the door on the way to full legalization,” said Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, who has championed the issue.

“There is a lot of work ahead,” she added.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a Likud party conference in Lod on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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.

Israel is well-known as a pioneer in medical cannabis. Two years ago, the government approved a plan initiated by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to relax some of the medical cannabis requirements. That plan aimed to expand the number of doctors who can prescribe cannabis to patients, remove limits on the number of marijuana growers, make cannabis available at approved pharmacies, and possibly eliminate the requirement for a permit from the Health Ministry so that just a doctor’s prescription will be sufficient.

Last March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would move ahead with decriminalization of cannabis for personal use, albeit in a “cautious, controlled” manner.

“On the hand one, we are open to the future,” Netanyahu said,  before adding that “we also understand the dangers and we will try to balance the two things.”

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