Israel Eases Up on Marijuana Users

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An Israeli prescription-carrying patient (right) buys marijuana at a dispensary by Israeli medical cannabis company Tikun Olam in the coastal Israeli city of Tel Aviv on March 2, 2016. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty

This article first appeared in Reason magazine.

"More and more citizens are demanding marijuana use be permitted," Yohanan Danino, then Israel's police chief, observed in 2015. "I think the time has come for the Israel police, together with the state, to re-examine their stance on cannabis. I think we must sit and study what's happening around the world."

If it was surprising to hear a sitting police chief talk about tolerating cannabis consumption. It was even more surprising when the country's right-wing government followed Danino's advice, although it didn't go quite as far as he suggested.

In March, the Israeli cabinet approved a plan to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of pot with civil fines.

Under the plan, which was endorsed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of the conservative Likud Party, people 18 or older caught with up to 15 grams (half an ounce) of marijuana would be subject to a fine of 1,000 shekels (about $275). The amount would be doubled for a second offense, while third-time offenders would receive probation, possibly coupled with treatment or additional sanctions, such as suspension of their driver's licenses. Criminal charges would be possible, at the discretion of police, only after a fourth offense.

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Possession of 15 grams or less is currently punishable by up to three years in prison, although the consequences are usually much less severe. Under attorney general's directives issued in 1985 and 2003, people caught with small amounts of marijuana are not supposed to be arrested for a first offense. Police have discretion as to whether charges should be brought for subsequent offenses.

Arrests for marijuana possession fell 30 percent between 2010 and 2015, from 4,967 to 3,425, in a country with a population of 8.2 million. By comparison, police in the United States, which has a population 40 times as big, arrested about 575,000 people for marijuana possession in 2015, or 168 times as many.

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"The current law enforcement policy may come across as arbitrary and draconian, or, alternatively, a dead letter that is no longer enforced," a committee appointed by Erdan concluded. Tamar Zandberg, a member of the left-wing Meretz Party who chairs the Knesset Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, said the new approach "sends a message that a million Israelis who consume marijuana aren't criminals."

While recreational use remains illegal, about 25,000 Israelis legally use marijuana as a medicine. Last year, the government made medical marijuana more accessible by letting more doctors prescribe it and allowing ordinary pharmacies to dispense it. In January the government announced $2.1 million in funding for medical marijuana research, and 37 growers received preliminary permits in March, more than quintupling the number of cultivation sites.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally syndicated columnist.