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Saturday December 12, 2020

By Paul Barach


The news that Israel will most likely vote to legalize cannabis across the nation within a year is a cause for celebration in the Jewish state. However, some of its citizens can’t be blamed for harboring a little frustration as well. Marijuana-loving Israelis have been waiting for their government to legalize weed with the same levels of rapidly decreasing patience as fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels. The good news is, unlike the publication of Winds of Winter, at least one of these two long-anticipated events will finally happen in 2021 (most likely). 

Israel’s History with Cannabis

For a nation whose history, economy, and population is as intertwined with marijuana as Israel’s, it’s been an unexpectedly long road to legalization. After all, it was the Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam who first isolated the THC molecule over fifty years ago, as well as many of the other major cannabinoids including CBD. He was also one of the first to isolate the brain’s endocannabinoid system (and yet to this day has never tried pot, the nerd). 

By 1999 Israel had established one of the first government-run medical cannabis programs, which as of 2018 provided over 30,000 citizens with a medical marijuana license. Along with the Netherlands and Canada, Israel remains one of only three countries in the world with such a federal program. Beyond this relatively progressive and compassionate program (that still has many accessibility issues), Israel has remained on the forefront of cannabis research and development.  

Raphael Mechoulam
Israel's Raphael Mechoulam is often dubbed "The King of Cannabis". photo credit

In 2017, Hebrew University’s School of Pharmacy established their Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research, which employs over twenty-seven cannabis researchers. Besides the academic fields, Israel is also one of the global hotspots of private cannabis research and investment. In 2016 Israeli cannabis companies received $250 million in venture capital funding, half of which came from American investors.

According to a Rolling Stone report, there are currently fifty US cannabis companies doing research in Israel through partnerships, joint ventures, or by employing Israeli researchers.

Fifteen American companies have gone the extra step of setting up their entire operations in Israel. This doesn’t include the other foreign countries looking to use Israel’s well-developed marijuana research facilities and full governmental support. 

This influx of funds have caused Israel’s medical marijuana advancements to skyrocket. There are currently between 120 and 150 clinical trials underway for medical marijuana, more than in any other nation. Today nearly 300 growers, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers so far have received licenses to produce medical cannabis. 

Cannabis in Israel Today

Beyond all the funding for medical advancements, Israelis are also investing in the global cannabis export market, which is projected to reach $33 billion dollars a year by 2024. Some projections have Israeli cannabis exports becoming a $4 Billion dollar a year industry, with even more money potentially coming in from national sales and tourism. 

Much of this has been driven by an overwhelmingly pro-marijuana citizenry. Israel’s rates of cannabis use are at 27% of their population, beating out both Iceland and the United States by that metric. Since 2014, marijuana activists have held the annual “Big Bong Night” sit-in every April 20th on the lawn facing parliament, where they play guitar, sing, and each light up a joint at 4:20 pm. Thanks to their efforts, in 2017 Knesset passed a law to decriminalize marijuana possession.  

A cannabis protest
Marijuana activists continue to fight for legalization every year at the "Big Bong Night" on 4/20. photo credit

And yet, despite all this money, history, and social support for cannabis putting political pressure on their democratic representatives, the Israel president and some members of parliament have dragged their heels since legalization came up for a vote in 2016. Internal pressure from their police forces, as well as external pressure from then-President Trump, slowed down the passage of any further marijuana legislation. 

But it couldn’t stop it forever. As of November 2020, Israel has finally laid out a roadmap to fully legalize marijuana across the nation, primarily based on the Canadian model.

Future Plans for Nationwide Legalization

Avi Nissenkorn, Israel’s justice minister, has stated that he will present a legal memo laying out the framework for legalization to the Knesset. (The Knesset is Israel’s national legislature which passes all laws, elects the president, and supervises the work of government.) Once it wins approval in parliament, it will go into effect within nine months as long as there are no political snags. This puts Israel ahead of both New Zealand and Germany, both countries who recently voted against national legalization.

The Knesset
In order for Israel to nationally legalize cannabis, it will first need to be passed by the Knesset. photo credit

While there is now a roadmap to legalization, further details will need to be hammered out by select government committees. The Knesset’s Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Use will have the most input on the wording of the law, followed by the rest of the Knesset. However, the broad strokes have already been made clear. Just as with Canada’s model, the new laws will focus on public health, strict enforcement, tax allocation, and allowing for legal business investment.

At first, Israel will not allow for home cultivation of any marijuana plants.

While the reasoning is a little hazy, this is probably due to both irrational fears of a massive increase in drug use, as well as the police force’s fears of contributing to an already thriving black market. This would also explain the focus on data tracking, enforcement, drug rehabilitation, and preventing teen use. Much like in some US states, a portion of the tax revenue will go towards community investment. 

In good news for medical marijuana patients, MMJ reforms are also included in the memo. These will improve and streamline the process for patients to receive MMJ treatment. It will also make it easier for growers to get a license. Dispensaries will most likely be government-run, as in Canada, while cannabis producers and growers will operate privately. Anyone with a valid ID showing that they’re 21 or over, both Israeli citizens and tourists, will be able to purchase weed legally in these dispensaries. 

Israel’s Cannabis Forecast

If all this passes on schedule and Israel becomes only the third country after Uruguay and Canada to legalize cannabis at a national level, what does the future of cannabis look like? Despite the guarded push into full legalization, one can assume that Israel’s cannabis laws will progress at an even faster pace than Canada’s or Uruguay's.

Besides the national demand and tourism revenue, Israel already has decades of experience growing cannabis as well as an incredible amount of international funding in Research and Development. With the international cannabis market currently dominated by Canada by default, there will be plenty of economic pressure to enter into that market. Israel will most likely become an epicenter of new strains and cannabis tech rivaling America, Canada, and the Netherlands, which is good news for everyone.

In conclusion, 2021 is looking to be a good year for the citizens of the Hebrew state. As both fans of cannabis legalization and Jewish people at Passover seder would say “Next year in Israel.” 

What are your hopes for Israel’s impending legalization? Talk our ears off in the comments!

Photo Credit: Tiia Monto (license)


Paul Barach Paul Barach

Paul Barach is a Seattle-based freelance writer, editor, and author with experience creating well-researched, edited web articles covering cannabis news, culture, history and science. Paul is a regular contributor to PotGuide and has also contributed to publications such as, SlabMechanix, Litro, and The Trek. He prefers to spend his free time outdoors and most recently hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. So far he has only fallen into the La Brea Tarpits once. You can follow him on Instagram @BarachOutdoors and stay up to date professionally through his LinkedIn page.

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