In 1976, when former Wailers co-founder Peter Tosh was pictured sitting in a marijuana field smoking an ornate pipe on the cover of his solo debut album Legalize It, the idea that cannabis could be made available like beer or rum was revolutionary.
Four decades later, Sunday’s cabinet decision to “decriminalize” marijuana is in keeping with the trend in many parts of the world. Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and other countries have all imposed varying degrees of decriminalization. Some states in the US, Uruguay and Spain have gone one step further and realized Tosh’s dream.
If the Knesset approves the legislation the way it stands presently, it will still be against the law to possess cannabis, but transgressors will not be subject to jail sentences nor will they face criminal proceedings, at least not after the first three offenses.
This is a positive change in the way recreational cannabis use is perceived by the state, but responsible use should not be a criminal act. We should celebrate – not by lighting up but by ensuring that the cabinet vote is the first cautious step toward broader decriminalization.
Instituting more lenient penalties saves thousands of people from being branded with criminal records and spares taxpayers the expense of arresting, trying and jailing users. Israel’s police have better things to do than chase after reefer-smoking citizens. Their limited resources would best be devoted to other more worthy causes, such as dealing with lawlessness in the Beduin and Arab sectors; combating organized crime; and improving response times in cases of robbery, rape and murder.
In widely cited research, Robert G. Morris of the University of Texas and colleagues found that the overall crime rate fell in every US state that has introduced medical marijuana legalization (MML).
Before it is passed in the Knesset, the decriminalization legislation ratified by the cabinet should be amended to make it clear that recreational use in the privacy of one’s home will not be targeted by police. Also, those whose reputation has been tarnished with a criminal record for marijuana use in the past should have their criminal records expunged.
Ultimately, decriminalization is only half the answer.
In the future a more comprehensive law should be passed to ensure that the growing and distribution of marijuana does not remain a criminal monopoly. Gangsters must not maintain their control of the ganja market. They must not be allowed to corrupt police, murder rivals and push their products to children.
Legalizing cannabis – albeit with adequate regulatory oversight – snatches the industry away from crooks and gives it to law-abiding, tax-paying entrepreneurs. Unlike the Beduin drug smugglers operating on our southern border, who regularly endanger the lives of our soldiers and border policemen and who operate no differently than terrorists, business-oriented growers and distributors of marijuana play by the rules that dictate when and to whom they can sell their products. Money saved on policing weed can be spent on chasing real criminals or on treatment for addicts.
The illegal marijuana business causes damage on two fronts. Firstly, because it is not regulated, the substance carries with it a stigma that makes the transition to more dangerous drugs easier. Secondly, the trade enriches criminal gangs and terrorist organizations on Israel’s borders – particularly in the South – and strengthens organized crime inside Israel.
For a long time, nearly every government thought that the best way to reduce both types of harm was to mete out harsh penalties to those who bought and sold illegal drugs.
But after several decades of that approach, with little to show for it, countries are turning to alternative tactics.
Partial decriminalization is, therefore, a step in the right direction. It is part of a gradual change in perceptions regarding cannabis that will contribute to the weakening of criminal elements and the strengthening of our law enforcement authorities. “Legalize It” has become the preferred policy vision for countries across the world as a means of combating criminal activity and freeing police to deal with real crime.
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