Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government is exploring the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, following a model similar to Canada’s.
He has created a committee tasked with “importing the Canadian model for regulating a legal market”. Minister of Justice Amir Ohana will head up the committee and it will also include Oren Leibowitz, chairman of the pro-cannabis Green Leaf Party.
The Green Leaf Party is a small political contingency that believes in an ideology called “green Zionism,” which entails free-market expansion especially within environmental matters as well as certain issues that may come with environmental policies, such as the legalization of marijuana.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana “has begun work on the issue, and he will head a committee including professionals and Oren Leibovich, chairman of the [pro-legalization] Green Leaf Party, that will investigate importing the Canadian model for regulation of a legal market in Israel,” Netanyahu tweeted in Hebrew.
That announcement met with considerable skepticism on Twitter. Some users, The Jerusalem Post notes, “joked that cannabis is needed to have faith in what he says.” Netanyahu, who is struggling to remain in power after two indecisive parliamentary elections in April and September, faces voters once again next month, just two weeks before his trial on corruption charges is scheduled to begin.
Still, it is notable that Netanyahu seems to think legalization would be a popular move.
Netanyahu made the announcement on Twitter. He also pledged to expunge the criminal records of anyone previously convicted of possessing cannabis. This could benefit more than 40,000 people, allowing them to gain easier access to employment, housing, and education.
“I examined the matter and decided to advance the erasure of criminal records of tens of thousands of Israelis for personal use and cannabis possession, something that causes unnecessary suffering to many and is a burden on the courts.”Netanyahu wrote on his Twitter account.
Israel has already partially decriminalized recreational marijuana use, with fines and treatment for initial offenders instead of criminal prosecution. It allows regulated use of cannabis for medicinal purposes and its cultivation and export by government-licensed growers.
Netanyahu recently took up the cause of Naama Issachar, a young Israeli woman who received a seven-year prison sentence after she was caught with nine grams of cannabis while changing flights in Moscow. Issachar was released from prison last month, thanks to diplomatic intervention by Netanyahu’s government.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Leibovich, the Green Leaf Party leader, welcomed the prime minister’s interest in legalization. “I believe that this week we made a significant step on the path to a legal cannabis market in Israel,” he said. “I think this is something that should have been done a long time ago, and I appreciate the prime minister who paid attention, met with me, heard me, and made the right decision,” Leibovich said he made overtures to every party, but Netanyahu was the only politician who showed any interest.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Israel since the early 1990s. Under a partial decriminalization policy that took effect last year, recreational consumers caught with up to 15 grams (half an ounce) of marijuana are subject to a fine of 1,000 shekels (currently $292). The fine is doubled for a second offense, while third-time offenders receive probation, possibly coupled with treatment or additional sanctions, such as suspension of their driver’s licenses. Criminal charges are possible, at the discretion of police, only after a fourth offense.
If Israel actually legalized the recreational market, it probably would be the fourth country to do so at the national level. Uruguay legalized marijuana in 2013, followed by Canada in 2018. Mexican legislators are working on a bill to establish a legal market, which they are supposed to pass by the end of April to comply with a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that deemed marijuana prohibition unconstitutional. In the United States, marijuana is still completely prohibited under federal law, although 11 states have legalized recreational use, including 10 that allow commercial production and distribution.
Marijuana is legal for medical and recreational use in Canada. Canada’s Cannabis Act, the outcome of an election promise by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, allows adults to buy up to 30 grams and grow up to four plants at home for personal use.
Netanyahu also said he would “promote immediate solutions” to reducing the price of medical marijuana, which recently increased to an all-time high as a result of industry reform.
Leibovich said that the time is right for Israel to follow in the footsteps of Canada, which legalized adult-use cannabis in 2018.
He thanked the Prime Minister for taking the time to meet up with him, paid attention to his points and will include him in the committee tasked with exploring legalization.
However, the opposition Blue and White party accused Netanyahu of making pledges that he will never actually honor in a bid to drum up support ahead of the legislative elections set to take place on March 2.
The Prime Minister made pro-cannabis vows before elections in April and September 2019. Both failed to produce a majority government, meaning Israel now needs an unprecedented third vote in order to try to break the deadlock.
The country has long been a pioneer in the medical cannabis sector and it began exporting to the UK three weeks ago. Very few countries have legalized recreational cannabis sales, and Israel could benefit from increased tourism if it does, while it would also help the country become a big player in the export of adult-use marijuana.
Israel’s medical cannabis sector is small but thriving, and for much of its existence, it has been a purely domestic industry. Recently, however, Canadian marijuana company Tilray (NASDAQ: TLRY) announced that it signed a supply deal with Israeli marijuana importer-exporter Canndoc for medical cannabis. Tilray will ship as much as 2.5 metric tons of product to the country from a facility it operates in Portugal.
One reason for the Tilray deal is that the Israeli cannabis industry has experienced domestic supply shortages. If the country liberalizes its marijuana laws to any degree, these could become significantly more acute, increasing the need for assistance from foreign companies like Tilray.
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