Israel to legalize, regulate recreational cannabis market within 9 months

After receiving government approval, the bills will be rewritten into a new law under the supervision of Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh.

An employee checks cannabis plants at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel March 21, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
An employee checks cannabis plants at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel March 21, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
After four months in which the inter-ministerial committee for the regulation of Israel's cannabis market had been convening every week, it published its conclusions on Thursday and handed them over to the Justice Ministry.
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn said that a legal memo will be drafted in the coming days for government approval, and that a bill could come to the Knesset floor for an initial reading even before the end of 2020, with the entire legislative process expected to take around nine months.
After receiving government approval, the bills will be rewritten into a new law under the supervision of Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, chairwoman of the Knesset's Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Use.
"I see great importance that these two bills [for decriminalization and legalization] be put forth as a single bill, which will be a responsible, holistic step for Israel without compromise. I am committed to leading, advancing and supervising the application of these recommendations for reform, while doing the preparations required in the memo on time," Cotler-Wunsh said.
In a special discussion on Thursday, Deputy Attorney-General Amit Merari presented the main conclusions of the extensive and in-depth staff work done by the committee and the experts who appeared before it on the subject of regulating cannabis.
The recommendations were formulated after an in-depth study of the successes and failures in the implementation of cannabis legalization and decriminalization policies in the countries where the field was regulated.

FIRSTLY, anyone who was expecting to be able to smoke a legal joint will have to wait until some time near the final quarter of 2021, since there are still certain areas of both research and legislation which the various government offices need to prepare.
The committee said there is an essential need for detailed and thorough legislation concerning all possible aspects of the regulation, a lesson from the Colorado model, which had much less data to go on when the Rocky Mountain state chose to legalize cannabis in 2012.
A significant and early budget will be dedicated for data tracking, enforcement, mental health treatment and addiction rehabilitation, in order to prepare the public for the move.
A major emphasis in the policy will be put on preventing teen cannabis use and addiction, similar to the Canadian model.
Establishment of a forfeiture fund from the tax profits on cannabis will be dedicated to social and community action.
The new law is expected to go to a first reading in the Knesset within the next month, and clear the entire legislative process within nine months, according to Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn. In that time, the different offices will cooperate to regulate the market, each in their own department.
After the process is complete, Israelis and tourists will be able to buy cannabis at special dispensaries, provided they are above the age of 21 and present a valid form of identification.

MERARI PRESENTED the reasons for the committee's recommendations, saying the drug is very common in public use, there is no justification for its prohibition, and that its legal consequences currently outweigh its medical consequences.
A majority of the committee members agreed that the advantages of cannabis legalization outweigh the disadvantages.
The nine months will be used to answer some of the legislation's many questions, and to prepare a network of data, so that the Health Ministry will be able to research and monitor the market in real time before it legally opens.
The amount which will be allowed for possession of cannabis has still not been decided.
Home growing will initially be illegal, but will be reconsidered once the market has been established.
In the field of transportation, an emphasis will be placed on education regarding the dangers of driving under the influence of cannabis, particularly when mixed with alcohol.
However, many questions remain regarding the accuracy of THC breathalyzer tests used today, leading to this area to be possibly the largest loophole in need of fixing before legislation can pass.

PROF. ITAMAR GROTTO said after the announcement that there are three reasons they are satisfied with the recommendations. The first is the harm-reduction approach taken by the recommendations, which aim to work incrementally towards reducing the overall harm which comes from both cannabis criminalization and addiction.
Secondly, the field of medical research into the long-term societal and health effects of cannabis would be greatly aided by legalization, Grotto said.
Lastly, there is a need for better prevention and treatment methods, seeing as criminalization has not lowered the amount of users, despite being Israeli law since the country's founding in 1948.
Grotto also mentioned the need to separate the medical and recreational cannabis markets, saying they are still at the start of the journey on that aspect.

MK RAM SHEFA, who proposed the legalization bill which passed in a preliminary hearing in June, addressed the meeting via Zoom while in isolation, thanking the team for their hard work.
"We can't close our eyes to what is happening. Israel is a relative leader in cannabis consumption, and the market needs to be regulated," Shefa said. "I say that also as the chairman of the Knesset's Education Committee. I think we have a responsibility to address the problems of addiction, and the best way to deal with them is when your eyes are open.
"I know we still have a few roadblocks ahead of us, and that the legislation will take many months, which will force us to find all kinds of solutions and compromises. But I am certain that with the wide consensus around this table, we can do it in a safe, responsible manner, that I think will succeed in freeing a lot of people of the stigma of feeling like criminals, for something that can and should be regulated," he said.
Shefa noted an urgency in the need to pass the legislation, most likely due to the looming specter of a possible dissolution of the Knesset for an election, which could complicate the chance for legalization if the bill has not yet passed in a first reading.
"I'm here to push with full force, whether in isolation or not, for this legislation to be completed. We won't let any party or MK – or anyone – stop us from leading a move that would help a lot of people in a responsible manner," Shefa said.

LIKUD MK Sharren Haskel, who wrote the decriminalization bill, thanked Nissenkorn and the committee for their work, while also criticizing fellow Likud member and current UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan for his previous attempts at decriminalizing cannabis.
"The recommendations which came out today are righting an injustice that was done during the previous cannabis committee led by [former public security minister Gilad] Erdan, where there was a majority for these recommendations to go through, but they were disregarded, and a completely different set of regulations passed," Haskel said.
"These recommendations confirm what I and many in the public have already known for years: that the current policy has failed and we must change and repair it," she added.
Haskel seemed to echo Shefa's urgency in the need to pass the bill during a time of election uncertainty, saying: "I promise the citizens of Israel that I will make a tremendous effort to cooperate and finish this legislation before the Knesset dissolves" – before being interrupted, and changing her remarks to reflect a vague optimism that the bill will likely pass.
"We expect that within the final quarter of 2021, we will have completed the outline for the regulations," Nissenkorn said. "The legislative outline can be approved very soon. Afterwards, there is the process of applying performance regulations, which we expect will be done by the last quarter of next year. We still need to discuss the intermediary period." 

GROTTO SAID that there is no plan for changes in the reform to the medical cannabis market, though he added they will need to think of ways to differentiate between the amount of regulations placed on cannabis for recreational use and cannabis for medicinal use.
However, Grotto added, the fact that Israel has already established regulations for the medicinal market, provides an infrastructure through which recreational cannabis can more easily be regulated.
"We intend to release a legal memo to the public and hand it to the government for approval within the coming days. At the beginning of next month it can be sent to the Knesset along with the bills from MKs Shefa and Haskel to continue for a first reading in the Knesset plenum. Our goal is that within nine months, the first offices will have completed the important infrastructural work needed to combat addiction, to regulate the market and other processes."
When asked about issues which arose from Erdan's 2018 cannabis reform (disproportionately high fines, criminalization still optional for possession, black market unaffected), Nissenkorn said a discussion would be had on the topic due to its complexity. However, Merari said no changes to the reform are planned to take place until new legislation passes.

MERETZ MK Tamar Zandberg, a long-time advocate and pioneer for cannabis legalization in Israel, congratulated Nissenkorn for "finally joining the 21st century and the list of ministers who promise legalization.
"The direction is clear: Smoking cannabis in one's spare time should not be a criminal offense – and soon will not be," she said. "The legalization train has already left the station; it will soon become a reality. Congratulations to those who are struggling and joining." 
Blue and White leader and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said: "As I promised all along - today we bring an outline for responsible legalization that is adapted to the needs of the State of Israel."
He congratulated Nissenkorn, Shefa and Haskel for their achievements, adding that "We will lead the completion of the legislative process in the Knesset, and I look forward to the cooperation and substantive discussion of all parties in the political system. Too many civilians have suffered too long - it's time to make amends."