Israel Decriminalises Cannabis Possession, With Caveats

The Israeli parliament has approved a cannabis reform bill which had near unanimous support among legislators across the political spectrum.

The new law replaces criminal penalties for cannabis possession with fines and other non-criminal punishments. Someone found in possession will be fined 1,000 Israeli shekels (£207) for a first offence, or 2,000 shekels (£414) for a second offence. Someone caught three times has a choice: to pay a larger fine, to undertake community service, or to be criminally sentenced. If over five years pass following a person’s first or second cannabis possession offence, then a subsequent offence will be considered to be the first offence again.

Nonetheless, the criminalisation of people for cannabis possession remains a possibility under this new law. Those found in possession of cannabis four or more times within a five-year period can be prosecuted. Additionally, several groups will be exempt from the change in the law, and can be criminally charged if caught possessing cannabis once. This includes minors, prisoners, and individuals convicted of other criminal charges, according to regional sources. This also includes soldiers - an exemption which affects a significant part of the adult population, as it is mandatory for Israelis to undertake military service for several years.

The bill smoothly progressed through various stages of the legislative process without significant resistance. It was unanimously passed after its first reading in the Knesset – the Israeli parliament – in March, the Jerusalem Post reported. Furthermore, it was unanimously approved by the Knesset’s Labour, Welfare and Health Committee on July 9. The bill passed its final reading on July 19, with only one legislator voting against it.

The bill has received praise from lawmakers across the political spectrum.

Tamar Zandberg, of the left-wing Meretz party, said that cannabis decriminalisation marks "another important step on the road to our victory", noting that the bill is “far from perfect, but it is a foot in the door on the way to a policy of full legalisation".

Security Minister Gilad Erdan, of the right-wing Likud party, announced that he “hopes and believes that the law will prevent unnecessary incrimination of civilians, while also minimising cannabis consumption, especially for our youth”.

Meirav Ben-Ari of the centrist Kulanu Party, said she was hopeful that “the money [collected] from the fines will be allocated for the establishment of a fund for education, information, treatment and rehabilitation of [people who use drugs], instead of taking the money to the state’s funds”.

The decriminalisation of cannabis possession will be implemented for three years as pilot programme, after which the government will decide whether or not to retain the approach.

This article was updated on 23 July.