Israel led the world in cannabis research—but what could it learn from others about decriminalization?

Opinion piece by Chair Dreifuss and Commissioner Stoltenberg, published in Ha’aretz on Sunday 5 March 2017.

Link to article in Hebrew. English version below.

Israel led the world in cannabis research—but what could it learn from others about decriminalization?

Israel is widely recognized as a global hub for medical cannabis research, with a legislative framework that has enabled considerable advances in understanding the properties of the plant. Furthermore, allowing access to this medicine today benefits tens of thousands of patients, easing symptoms of cancer, epilepsy and other diseases.

This result-oriented approach, based on scientific evidence, should inspire the appropriate response to the recreational use of drugs. The announcement by the Israeli government on 24 January 2017 to introduce scaled penalties for offenses involving cannabis consumption, however, is only a shy step, which may not provide the positive outcomes that society as a whole requires and that the government is seeking.

No harm is caused to others when a person uses drugs. Why, therefore, maintain civil penalties in the form of fines for the consumption of cannabis, and threaten criminal proceedings in the case of a fourth offense—and why restrict reforms to cannabis?

As such, the tiered law proposed by the government implicitly upholds repression as a policy, thereby sustaining the view that drugs are an evil that must be eradicated and that people who use them can be forced into abstinence. This is an impossible goal. Reducing the harms caused by drugs to society, however, and providing our children with the possibility of more balanced and productive lives are not. This was our experience as policymakers in Switzerland and Norway, and it is mirrored in that of our fellow colleagues of the Global Commission on Drug Policy who held the highest offices in their respective countries.

In continuing to pursue the illusionary goal of a drug-free society, this reform maintains the unbearable contradiction between enhancing harm reduction measures to mitigate the real harms of current drug control policies, while upholding the prohibition framework of which these harms are a proven consequence.

Imagine, for instance, a young woman or man, who consumes drugs, thereby engaging in an act that some may find morally reprehensible, but that is inflicting no harm on anyone except potentially themselves. In the great majority of cases, such recreational use will have no bearing on the person’s future. US President Obama himself, for example, admitted to having tried both cannabis and cocaine. Exposing that young woman or man, however, to the criminal justice system because the substance she or he chooses to consume is criminalized, unlike other psychoactive substances such as alcohol and tobacco—has more chance of ruining their prospects and changing their life for the worse. It also means greater exposure to risks and harms that would not otherwise occur if the substance were decriminalized and strictly regulated.

We now have a wealth of experience from countries that have decriminalized, such as the Czech Republic, Portugal, and recently Jamaica, not to mention several US States. In Portugal, which de jure decriminalized almost 16 years ago, the number of people who use drugs has not risen dramatically, and even fallen among the younger populations—the most vulnerable. Inversely, France has one of the most repressive anti-drug policies in Western Europe yet the highest rate of cannabis consumption in the region.

Evidence shows that there are many benefits to decriminalizing the consumption of drugs. These include a notable increase in the number of people accessing treatment, a substantial decrease in injection-related HIV transmission, and less strain on the criminal justice system. Drug offenders made up 44 per cent of the prison population in Portugal in 1999, but this fell to 21 per cent by 2008. Neither did people “flock” to Portugal from other countries to take advantage of decriminalization laws. Finally, there have been proven financial savings and public health benefits since decriminalization in Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Once we shed the moral reflex, conditioned by decades of prohibition-led propaganda and one-sided information, which considers drugs evil and people using them as somehow weak, worthy of contempt and marginalization—and therefore criminalization—we can begin to embrace policies that respect individual rights and deal with the reality of drugs in a pragmatic and efficient way.

Well-designed and implemented decriminalization in Israel should be based on the positive experience and lessons gathered in other countries, and part of wider measures of drug law reform that include prevention, harm reduction and other health services, substitution therapy, as well as social and economic integration programs.

For these reasons, we hope that the Israeli government will seize this opportunity to take a bold step towards implementing truly effective drug policy reforms, and that the proposed law will fully decriminalize at least the consumption of cannabis.

Ruth Dreifuss, Former President of Switzerland and Minister of Home Affairs, Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

 Thorvald Stoltenberg, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norway, and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees