As recently as November, it seemed as though Israel was cruising toward nationally legalized cannabis by summertime. But that effort has stalled at the side of the road, and its proponents are unsure how to get it going again.
For a while, it certainly looked like smooth sailing. A Knesset vote last June sent two legalization bills, drafted by Ram Shefa and Sharren Haskel, to the review stage of ratification, at which point they were thoroughly dissected by the Special Committee on Drugs and Alcohol. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn declared that adult use legalization was expected to be enacted by the summer, and that the bills were examples of “significant, holistic, and responsible reform, which shows the State of Israel isn’t ignoring reality and is going in the footsteps of developed countries.”
However, following these developments, Israel’s potential foray into legalized cannabis suffered major setbacks. The primary obstacle: the dissolution of the Knesset, the unicameral national legislature of Israel, following the failure of Israel’s ruling coalition to come to a budgetary agreement before its December 23 deadline. Voters went to the polls Tuesday to elect a new Knesset. Meanwhile, all legislation that was going through the chamber has been put on hold, and the Special Committee on Drugs and Alcohol has been entirely dissolved.
The dissolution of the Special Committee came at a particularly unfortunate time for proponents of legal cannabis. The head of the committee, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, had stated her intention to fuse Haskel and Shefa’s bills, one of which formally legalized adult-use cannabis and the other which set up a plan for its regulation. But because this process was not complete when the Knesset dissolved, the majority of the components of the potential bill—governing such items as taxation, importation and exportation, and regulations concerning driving while under the influence of cannabis—are still up in the air.
Israeli lawmakers may also have to contend with structural challenges in passing a legalization bill. In an interview with Cannabis Wire, Cotler-Wunsh cited “inter ministerial collaboration” as a case in point. The Special Committee on Drugs and Alcohol, for example, was directed to consider legalization through the lens of “addictions,” a framing that Cotler-Wunsh said highlighted a disconnect in the ministerial definitions surrounding drugs and alcohol.
“Addictions don’t yet have a single definition in all of the ministries,” Cotler-Wunsh said. “Addiction is an illness according to some of the ministries and it isn’t according to some of the other ministries. This has severe implications. Regulations surrounding potency, education, and healthcare become more blurry, and people can fall between the cracks.”
Legalization has additional challenges as well. For one, there is no formal database for assessing the effects that adult use legalization will have on Israelis. Israel aims to follow the Canadian model for adult-use legalization, and Cotler-Wunsh points to that country’s StatsCannabis database as a suitable blueprint for Israel’s data collection initiative.
Cotler-Wunsh added that such data collection is crucial to any legislation that may pass after the election. “Learning from the Canadian experience, I have to say the imperative for data collection stood out, and data collection that informs policy, and then of course the policy will hopefully inform the data collection,” Cotler-Wunsh said, “and that is something that Israel hasn’t done.”
Cotler-Wunsh, like Justice Minister Nissenkorn, emphasizes a “holistic” legalization process, one that incorporates all facets of government, whether it be education or defense. However, to achieve that, Cotler-Wunsh believes that the implementation of cannabis reform must be overseen by a body outside of the ministries.
“I believe there has to be an independent budgeted entity to monitor and advise the new legislation. One of our responsibilities, as parliamentarians, is to not only legislate but is to also supervise, to oversee the executive branch’s work,” says Cotler-Wunsh. “It’s very important that we create a framework that, first of all, is able to create this holistic inter-ministerial collaboration, but is also able to collect the data that informs the policy and ensures that all the ministries know how they can contribute.”
Ultimately, the uncertainty of Israel’s political structure has trickled down to affect the future of legalization, though for how long remains to be seen. The Blue and White Party, one of the architects of the proposed bills, has lost a significant amount of support in recent weeks, while Yamina, a party that opposes legalization, has gained steam. It could be that the new Knesset that is seated does not have the same impetus to push legalization as its predecessor.
Still, Cotler-Wunsh is hopeful that the process will resume after the elections. “We’ve set out an excellent report for the next Knesset to come in and review, should they choose to,” she said. “With the time and the financial commitment from the government, it is very possible to reach these goals when the new Knesset convenes.”