On a money roll: How did Israel go from hating cannabis to embracing it?

Israelis regularly inhale the most weed per capita anywhere on Earth. Why is everyone united on marijuana use? Follow the money.

 A man inspects the leaf of a cannabis plant at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)
A man inspects the leaf of a cannabis plant at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)

If there is one issue that unites the vast majority of Israel’s fractious electorate, it is... cannabis.

Israelis regularly inhale the most weed per capita anywhere on Earth. A survey in 2017 found that 27% of Israelis between the ages of 18 and 65 had consumed cannabis in the past year (up from 8.8% in 2009), according to the US News & World Report. That figure is probably higher by now.

Since 2017, personal use of a small amount has been effectively decriminalized in Israel. In many places in the country, people can – and do – smoke a joint in the street. 

“The authorities’ approach has shifted greatly over the years,” says veteran legalization activist Shlomi Sendak, 63. “But it’s been a long, hard struggle.”

In 1994, Sendak helped form Israel’s first pro-marijuana NGO, called Kaneh Bossem (a reference to an ingredient in the “holy anointing oil” used by priests in Exodus 30:23, translated as “aromatic cane” but conjectured to be a biblical Hebrew phrase for cannabis). That year, Sendak made his maiden presentation before the Knesset’s Drugs Committee, where he put forth the health, economic and social advantages of legalizing cannabis – only to be disparagingly brushed off by then-committee head MK Raphael Eitan as a “criminal drug dealer.”

 An employee checks cannabis plants at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel on March 21, 2017.  (credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS) An employee checks cannabis plants at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel on March 21, 2017. (credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)

“No one was listening to us then,” he recalls. “In those days, people questioned whether there is such a thing as medical cannabis. We had to emphasize this aspect in order to reach the point we’re at now. First of all, we looked after the sick who really need it. Now the emphasis is on legalization. Today, I admit that this was the way we presented cannabis [to leverage the legalization issue].”

A change in tactics was needed. In 1999, together with fellow activists Boaz Wachtel and Rafik Kimchi, Sendak established the Green Leaf party, which shocked observers by gaining 1% of the vote in that year’s Knesset election, and 1.2% in the 2003 election while running on a single-issue platform. For all the existential issues facing the Israeli electorate, a sizable minority deemed marijuana legalization their overriding concern.

Although failing to pass the then-1.5% threshold for Knesset representation, Green Leaf legitimized the issue in public discourse. The third time they ran, in 2006, gaining 1.3% of the vote, Meretz also promised to decriminalize soft drugs.

“Even through Green Leaf didn’t reach the Knesset, it affected the other parties’ platforms,” says Sendak. “Apart from the Arab parties and [Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel] Smotrich, all the parties in the current Knesset are in favor [of decriminalization or legalization].” 

“Apart from the Arab parties and [Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel] Smotrich, all the parties in the current Knesset are in favor [of decriminalization or legalization].”

Shlomi Sendak

Even religious conservatives have accepted medical cannabis, he notes, as the Jewish religion permits ingestion of anything natural that helps people stay healthy. Cannabis is not considered a restricted food in Judaism. 

“Now the Health Ministry accepts 80 percent of what appeared in Green Leaf’s manifesto,” says Sendak, who obtained a permit to treat himself with medical cannabis for severe back problems in 2009. He subsequently founded the Israeli Medical Cannabis Clinic, which has helped thousands of Israeli patients to obtain a permit.

After years of officialdom dismissing activists as stoned parasites, he feels vindicated. “About 120,000 Israelis receive their weed legally in Israel nowadays,” he points out, “yet there’s been no associated rise in traffic accidents, addiction, or crime. Unraveling the demonization takes time, but we should see full legalization in our lives.”

Of course, this is a global phenomenon, and Israel is but another domino. (Marijuana is now legal in Canada, Georgia, Malta, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay, as well as 21 states, two territories and the District of Columbia in the United States; and it is decriminalized in countries such as the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Costa Rica and Portugal).

Currently, cannabis is allowed in Israel for specified medical usage including cancer patients, pain-related illnesses such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, other chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is illegal but partially decriminalized for recreational use (cases of prosecution for home use or possession of 15 grams or less are rare). The Knesset approved a bill for decriminalization in 2018, although supporters of recreational use say this did not represent complete decriminalization. Further legislation in 2020 designed to decriminalize possession of up to 50 grams was stymied by elections. 

Follow the money

Israelis know how to spot a business opportunity. Aharon Lutzky, CEO of leading medical cannabis supplier Tikun Olam, predicts that the business could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel.

With the lucrative export market in mind, local businesspeople have been keen to jump on the bandwagon. One leading biomed and medical cannabis company, InterCure, is chaired by former prime minister Ehud Barak. 

Israel is considered a global leader in medical cannabis research and innovation, with at least 15 US-based companies moving their R&D operations to Israel in recent years. In fact, Israeli scientists have been researching the medical applications and properties of cannabis since the 1960s. In a 1964 breakthrough, Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Yechiel Gaoni of the Weizmann Institute were the first scientists anywhere to isolate THC, the psychoactive chemical component in marijuana.

In recent years, local medical cannabis suppliers have developed an ever-expanding variety of cannabis strains and marijuana-derived products, clearly marked with their levels of CBD and THC for optimum efficacy. CBD is believed to be an anti-inflammatory ingredient that helps alleviate pain, while THC in low levels does not cause a “high.”

Israel’s climate is considered especially good for producing marijuana, and the government sanctions eight cannabis growing operations whose products are distributed to patients who have a Ministry of Health license and a doctor’s prescription, via a company’s store, medical center or pharmacy. 

Cannabis has become ubiquitous, sold and advertised by pharmacists, while smoking paraphernalia is sold freely. 

Online market

Black market marijuana used to be prohibitively expensive for many Israelis – until maverick activist Amos Dov Silver launched the Telegrass virtual marketplace through the encrypted message app Telegram in 2007. Suddenly, consumers could order rapid home deliveries via a smartphone. Within months of its launch, the platform had over 100,000 registered users and eventually connected 3,000 drug dealers to over 200,000 clients. 

Telegrass filled a vacuum of trustworthy middleman instead of shady dealers. Vendors constantly updated menus of the strains on offer; and as supply reached demand, prices plummeted from NIS 120 to NIS 50 per gram. Silver became a local hero for beating the system – but the authorities saw him in a less positive light.

Labeled by the prosecution as “the head of a crime organization,” Silver was one of 42 people arrested in an international sting operation after being lured by a fictitious wedding invitation to Uman, Ukraine, in August 2019. He gained media notoriety after slipping away from his guards at a Kyiv airport, only to be recaptured and extradited to Israel following a manhunt. He sat in a prison cell for over three years as the wheels of justice turned slowly, only to be released to house detention with a tracking bracelet in October. 

Silver remains under house arrest and is not allowed to speak to journalists. However, his wife, Gali, agreed to speak to The Jerusalem Report from her home in the US (she declined to say where).

“Amos and I speak daily, although he’s not allowed video calls – I haven’t seen his face for four years,” she says. “ It’s very difficult for him. He’s not allowed visitors – even his mother can’t see him. He’s living in his mother’s house in Safed, with two supervisors monitoring him around the clock. He’s not allowed to work, has no Internet access – nothing. But he believes in what he’s doing and will survive.”

– This saga has been dragging on. How will it end? 

“Ideally, all charges will be dropped, and the state will admit it made a mistake. But we know Israel, and all we can hope for is a plea deal. He’s already been imprisoned for almost four years, although he didn’t commit any crime. I was accused of the same thing here. I was interrogated, had my bank accounts checked, and was eventually cleared. The FBI told me that if he’d been arrested in the States, he would be free by now. Meanwhile, I cannot leave the US because I’m afraid of being extradited to Israel.”

Silver grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Safed but abandoned his religious lifestyle after his mandatory IDF service as a combat soldier. Prior to Telegrass, he was an outspoken activist for cannabis legalization, who famously organized an audacious protest in front of the Knesset in 2014 called the Big Bong Night. He was repeatedly arrested for disregarding anti-marijuana laws and sentenced to nine months in prison, of which he served seven. After his release, Silver, who has American citizenship, moved to the US from where he oversaw the operations of the now-disbanded Telegrass (another vacuum that has been filled) until his arrest.

“Amos started a revolution,” says Sendak. “He sat in jail for helping others. He used to seek cannabis oil for people with illnesses, waiting for shady dealers in dark streets. People posted on Facebook that they had no money for oil, then a delivery person would appear at their door with a bottle. One day, a movie will be made about him.” ■

‘The medicine that keeps me alive’

Dassi Pardo, 57, suffers from cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a rare type of cancer that begins in white blood cells and affects the immune system.

“I was living in Brooklyn when it was diagnosed in 2016,” she recalls. “The doctors gave me five to seven years to live and told me to start chemotherapy. I went through two different types of chemo in one year, but the disease continued to progress, so they tried full-body radiation. After two rounds, I lost all my bodily hair, but it also didn’t work. I had to resign my job as a professor of communication because I couldn’t be around my students after I’d caught pneumonia from them and had been hospitalized.”

Pardo, who had already been a cannabis patient in California and New York, researched the treatment option. “I knew the cancer could be treated, not just ameliorated, with cannabis.”

She received total disability allowance in the United States, and in 2017 made aliyah with her 12-year-old son. “My husband still had two years before retirement and joining us here in Pardess Hana. As an Israeli citizen since 1997, I had to pay National Insurance, almost 12,000 shekels, to ensure that I’d be covered. But then I had to fight with them for half a year because some arsehole bureaucrat decided that I came here just to get treated,” she says.

Then she was introduced to a local activist who taught her how to make Rick Simpson oil, a highly concentrated extract produced using a solvent that is then burned off. (Although there is little solid evidence, some early research suggests that chemicals in marijuana can be beneficial in treating cancer.)

“Through this connection, I got a prescription for 200 grams a month, and the cancer went into remission because of the oil. Then came a reform in the system, and my doctor wasn’t allowed to prescribe such amounts. My dose was lowered to 50 grams a month, and the cancer returned. I found another doctor who wrote me a prescription for 100 grams, but I have to take care of my own needs because the state is unable to supply me with what I need to survive. I have 100 percent disability and can’t afford the medicine that keeps me alive. Fortunately, nobody’s ever bothered me. I’m not a criminal. 

“I still have the cancer, but it’s much better,” she says. “But it’s ridiculous that I have to make my medicine in my kitchen.”