In the United States, marijuana legalization is viewed as progressive and controversial. Its use is still frowned upon in most of the country, and employers nationwide still demand drug tests to screen for cannabis use before you can be hired. But in Israel, the government is taking steps to legalize marijuana nationally. Researchers say 27% of adults in Israel already admit to using cannabis, compared to 12% in the United States.
The Justice Minister, Avi Nissenkorn, made the announcement in mid-November that marijuana will be legal for recreational use for anyone 21 and older within the next nine months. Nissenkorn’s office is working on writing up a bill in line with Israeli researchers’ recommendations, which he hopes to publish by the end of November.
The announcement is falling on very welcome ears in Isreal. This past September, a company used drones to drop hundreds of tiny bags of weed over crowds in Tel Aviv with the slogan, “Free Love.” That stunt ended with two people being arrested for distributing substances that remain illegal for the time being.
The new law will require people to show identification to prove their age before purchasing. Dispensaries will not be allowed to sell edibles that resemble candy in any way, and advertisements for marijuana will be prohibited (that’s the case for tobacco in Israel as well). Smoking in public places will remain illegal. At-home cultivation will only be permitted with a license, though the Justice Minister admits that decision may be reconsidered later on down the road.
Even in states where cannabis is legal, licensed producers have to battle with cheaper black-market sources of the product. That’s why Israel’s Deputy Attorney General, Amir Merari, says decriminalization wouldn’t work there. He fears the black market would remain an issue unless there were a legal channel provided for access to cannabis instead.
Some communities in North America are facing major problems trying to compete with the black market. Cannabis is regulated and taxed quite heavily and has strict packaging requirements, so the overall cost is much higher than someone selling it on the street. In Canada, some estimates say the government-regulated cannabis can be double the price of black market product. In California, reports estimate the black market will make up more than half of marijuana sales in the coming years.
The Israeli government plans to put in place measures to ensure the legal cannabis is priced fairly, so people don’t continue to turn to the black market for cheaper weed. Overall, the product is expected to be a massive boom for Israel’s economy. Marijuana accounts for $17 billion of a global market. The Israeli government voted to legalize exportation of cannabis in 2019.
Israel is well suited for pot growth. The weather is sunny and mild, and the infrastructure required for grow operations is already in place. Thousands of acres of “precision agriculture” are already developed and dedicated to cannabis. That type of farming uses technology to increase crop yields and find the exact amount of water, fertilizer, and chemicals needed to produce the crop itself. That means more of the product for less money. Tens of thousands of dollars have already been invested in technology to assist Israel’s cannabis crop.
Right now in Israel, the decision to legalize cannabis has been made, but the law has not yet been drawn up. That means for the next several months, marijuana is only allowed to be produced for medical and research purposes. That being said, the Public Security Ministry partially decriminalized marijuana in 2017, choosing to issue fines and draw up drug treatment programs rather than criminally prosecute people for first-time offenses.
Countries around the world have been moving to decriminalize cannabis. Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and many others have come to look the other way when it comes to marijuana. In Argentina, medical marijuana is provided for free and recreational use is decriminalized. Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001. The United States, which is considering decriminalization at the federal level, has one of the sterner views when it comes to cannabis, and Israel’s decision is not out of the norm in the global view.
Leaders in the United States including the President-Elect have often argued that they’d like more research done on cannabis before they’ll consider legalization. That’s been difficult, because studies of products that are still illegal federally are hard to come by. The available finances for those studies are limited by the federal government, and proposed studies are often passed over in favor of other projects, such as research into coca and poppy. The first FDA-approved medicine derived from cannabis only surfaced in 2018. Cannabidiol sold as the prescription Epidiolex treats severe seizures for adults and children as young as 1.
The hesitancy to study cannabis in the U.S. is not at all mirrored in Israel. An organic chemist named Raphael Mechoulam uncovered major medical finds about CBD in 1963, then THC in 1964. In 1980, he published results of clinical tests using CBD to treat epilepsy. Epidiolex builds on his research.
Mechoulam, operating in partnership with six universities across Israel as well as the United Kingdom and Canada, also recently had a breakthrough involving cannabis acids. Those are thought to be more potent than cannabis derivatives like CBD and THC. Some studies suggest CBD acid could be up to a thousand times more effective than regular CBD at binding to certain serotonin receptors. Those acids are produced in the plant while it is still living and could lead to further pharmaceutical applications like treatment of IBS, anxiety, nausea, and arthritis.
As Israel’s government works to draw up the final legislation that will dictate cannabis regulations, two legalization bills have already passed preliminary readings. The bill to decriminalize consumption passed by a 61-11 margin, and a paired bill laying out regulation guidelines for purchase and sale of cannabis passed 53-12.
Medical cannabis laws in Israel will also change. Possession of up to 50 grams of marijuana would be decriminalized, and possession of up to 15 grams would become fully legal.
Not everyone is on board with the shift. The Times of Israel reports a politican named Yamina MK Bazalel Smotrich called the bill “a super dangerous social experiment that, if it fails, will destroy the future generations of the State of Israel.” That same politician has also opposed gay rights.