Pubdate: Mon, 06 Mar 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Ian Fisher


JERUSALEM - Israel, which has been at the forefront of research into
medical marijuana and the drug's commercialization, took a major step
on Sunday toward officially decriminalizing its recreational use.

At a time when many American states and European countries are
loosening marijuana laws, the Israeli cabinet approved a plan that
would impose fines rather than criminal penalties on those caught
using the drug in public.

Growing and selling marijuana, which is widely used here
recreationally and medicinally, would remain illegal.

"On the one hand, we are opening ourselves up to the future," Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the cabinet. "On the other hand, we
understand the dangers and will try to balance the two."

The decision still requires the approval of Israel's Parliament, the

Until the decision on Sunday, people charged with marijuana use could
face heavy fines and even incarceration, though the official policy in
recent years effectively amounted to decriminalization. There were
fewer than 200 arrests in 2015.

About 25,000 Israelis, in a population of 8.5 million, hold permits to
use medical marijuana to ease symptoms of cancer, epilepsy and other
diseases, but that number is expected to grow rapidly.

Under the new rules, people caught using marijuana publicly a first
time would face a fine of about $270 rather than criminal charges.
Fines would rise with repeated offenses, with criminal charges filed
only after a fourth offense.

The new rules were drafted, after much debate, by Gilad Erdan, the
public security minister. "The government's approval is an important
step on the way to implement the new policy, which will emphasize
public information and treatment instead of criminal enforcement," he
said after the cabinet's decision on Sunday.

Israel has been active for decades in studying the use of marijuana
for medical purposes, and the government and private industry have
been working to turn it into a major business, including for export.

ICan: Israel-Cannabis, a venture fund and technology incubator for 
start-ups in the medical marijuana business, praised the decision.

"This step, although not legitimizing use, is due to reduce the
negative perception of the plant as 'immoral' or 'criminal,'
increasing openness to its outstanding medicinal and wellness
properties," Saul Kaye, a pharmacist and the fund's chief executive,
said in a statement. "The decision will significantly increase
entrepreneurship and investment into cannabis in Israel."

While marijuana use has long been overlooked by the authorities in
Israel, the police have continued enforcement against growers and
dealers. A campaign is underway for the law to distinguish between
those growing small amounts, particularly for medical purposes, and
those growing it commercially. The cabinet decision on Sunday did not
address that issue.
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