Police and Thieves: Up in smoke

A would-be MK’s loose lips on smoking marijuana sheds light on how commonplace casual pot smoking is in Israel, and how police enforcement policies are woefully out of touch

Cannabis (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
Yinon Magal doesn’t remem - ber the last time he smoked marijuana, but that makes sense – it tends to cause memory loss. He does know it wasn’t that long ago, which is really all that matters.
Magal, the former editor-in-chief of Walla News, made headlines this week when he declared he was leaving jour - nalism to join Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party – the latest in a long line of Israeli journalists to go into politics.
One assumes that like his new boss Bennett, he won’t be apologizing for the decision.
After he threw his hat in the ring he gave a short interview to Channel 2’s Oded Ben-Ami, during which he was asked if he had smoked drugs – and like a novice politician, he told the truth.
“Yes, in the past,” Magal admitted, and when pressed said it “wasn’t that long ago.” In a sort of “youthful indiscretion” moment à la candid US president George W. Bush, he added, “What happens in Goa, [India,] you know.”
Ben-Ami then rolled a clip broadcast by Walla in April; when they hosted a young man smoking a joint (which Magal said was not real) live on-air from the Walla studio, to protest Israeli laws that prosecute people for possession and using drugs. Before the camera panned to the smoker, Magal told viewers, “We are sick of this farce; here, come arrest us.”
Magal (the pre-politics one) is right; it is a farce, and one for which far too many Israelis are paying a very serious price.
According to police figures, in 2013 alone 23,312 Israelis were arrested for drug charges related to personal use – possession that was not for sale. This is nearly 300 more than the 23,053 arrested the year before, and consistent with the figure in each of the past 10 years.
Every single one of those people had a criminal case opened in their name, and even though the overwhelming majority of the arrests did not result in an indictment or were closed outright, more than 23,000 Israelis in 2013 had to encounter the criminal justice system and face the personal and professional costs this entails – just for the non-violent crime of drug possession for personal use.
The frequency with which police make these arrests seems to contradict the sentiments of Israel Police chief Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino, who in a Rosh Hashana interview with Yisrael Hayom last year said, “I’m not concerned about somebody who’s rolling a joint on their balcony in this neighborhood or that. I look at the dangerous drug addict, the one who robs and steals in order to get his fix.”
It’s also against the recommendations of Supreme Court Justice and former attorney-general Menahem Mazuz, who in a 2013 interview with Haaretz said he called on police “not to get involved [in policing] the personal use of soft drugs,” calling it “a waste of resources.”
Obviously, he’s a dangerous hippie who must be stopped.
Anyone who follows the Israeli criminal justice world and, in particular, the police in recent years, can see they do not appear to have any intention of stopping their pursuit of drug users in possession of small amounts of controlled substances, especially marijuana.
On at least a weekly basis, I receive press releases via WhatsApp and email from various police districts, which are sent out to crime reporters across the country. While at times the press releases are about legitimately significant busts, more often than not the busted “hydroponic lab” turns out to be, at most, a couple of plants stuffed in a closet with a crudely wired lighting system put up by amateurs.
Some of these pictures have only a single potted plant holding on for dear life, with no chance of sprouting buds that can be smoked. A picture sent out by the West Bank police a few months ago was merely a piece of paper folded in half, with a little bit of hash mixed with tobacco (“ ksessa ”) ready to be rolled into a joint.
One hopes this is not the type of high-octane crime-fighting these officers joined the force to take part in.
While there is never a press release sent out when charges are later dropped, on a regular basis police announce with great fanfare another “large-scale undercover operation against drug dealers.” Sometimes these are big fish, but oftentimes these are at most street-level dealers, and in other cases, everyday Israelis – many of them your friends and neighbors – making small buys for personal use, or entrapped into buying a small amount of hash or marijuana from an undercover cop.
The impression these press releases give is that many police, at least those in the spokesman’s branch or their superiors, are out of touch with the concerns of many of their fellow Israelis. According to a survey conducted by Channel 2 in 2013, 20 percent of adult Israelis said they have used marijuana for non-medical purposes, and nearly half (46%) said they believe personal use of marijuana should be legalized.
If the numbers are correct (and for Tel Aviv, they sound a bit low, to be honest), then the Israeli public is far more progressive on this matter than their politicians and police.
Israel has a habit of adopting American culture exports and public policy – if sometimes a few years late. One can assume that if it was up to the average Israeli, the criminal justice system would be moving in the same direction as its American counterpart: away from the intense prosecution of petty drug charges, and greater tolerance of possession for personal use.
Such a trend would make sense for Israeli authorities as well. With the Arab sector awash in illegal firearms and a disproportionately high murder rate, the country woefully short on shelters for battered women, the public sector reeling from one corruption scandal after another and organized crime soldiers wantonly bombing and shooting each other across Israel in recent years, it simply doesn’t seem like smart policy to funnel police resources towards arresting casual drug users and bringing them into the criminal justice system.
Magal may already regret his candor in his Channel 2 interview, but there’s probably a reason he didn’t lie about his own past – and it’s not just that he’s a political novice. A very large percentage of the Israeli public, possibly even close to the majority, does not see personal drug use as a moral failing or a cardinal sin.
It may be time police start to reflect this feeling as well.