Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday said his government is exploring the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, following a model similar to Canada's. 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, and his tweet also touted his plan to expunge "tens of thousands" of criminal records related to marijuana possession. He said prosecution of cannabis consumers "is a burden on the courts" and causes "unnecessary suffering to many."
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.