28 April 2016
Here’s the story. Like the Netherlands, Israel is a country that appears to encourage R&D and use of medical cannabis but when it comes to recreational use attitudes haven’t changed.
Twenty people a day are arrested in Israel for using soft drugs. In most cases they are ordinary citizens, young people starting their lives with a criminal record. Over 20,000 drug-related files are opened annually, more than half of them for personal use.
Following criticism by the public and media of police enforcement policies regarding consumption of soft drugs, former Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino declared in May 2015 that “it’s high time that the police and the state examine the traditional approach to cannabis.”
Danino said that “increasing numbers of citizens want and demand an approval of personal use of cannabis. The police have traditionally opposed this. There were only a few hundred permits for using medicinal cannabis in the past. Today 20,000 people have such permits.”
Danino then set up a committee, headed by Maj. Gen. Meni Yitzhaki, to look into enforcement issues.
Danino’s comments were made at the end of his term, and there were those who said that he was merely trying to curry favor with young people before retiring. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan objected to establishing such a committee, realizing that this was a volatile issue left on his desk by Danino.
On his second day in office Erdan referred to Danino’s comments: “As someone who used to be the head of [the anti-drug NGO] Al-Sam, I obviously have to examine the former commissioner’s position, but I’m not binding myself in advance. In my worldview, the government sets policies and the police have to do all they can to enforce the law and not send messages of change. This could be misinterpreted by the public and by policemen on the beat, who have to catch and arrest drug users.”
Despite Erdan’s wish to stop the committee’s operation it continued working, but the public security minister realized that he had nothing to worry about. The committee finished its work after a few months, during which it examined the data and talked to investigators, intelligence officers and prosecutors, who all presented their data and interests. The data was also presented to the Public Security Ministry, but a request by Haaretz to obtain the minutes of committee meetings or its findings, based on the Freedom of Information act, was turned down.
“We’ve decided to deny the request,” said the police, arguing that this was an internal investigation conducted by a committee headed by the head of the investigations and intelligence departments, and therefore its recommendations and documents constitute information that is excluded from the Freedom of Information act. They claimed that there was classified material in these documents, even though they were handed over to the Public Security Ministry uncensored.
People with knowledge of this material say that the committee determined that enforcement policies should continue as they are. The committee’s arguments related mainly to police operations against drug dealers.
An intelligence officer told Haaretz that “in order to reach small and large dealers, I need customers who are ordinary people. I need access to their mobile phones and I need to wait for them under the dealer’s house as they carry out the transaction, and to have them come to court and identify the dealer.”
The police have targeted hydroponic cannabis growers as part of their campaign. In 2014 there was an increased number of indictments of people suspected of growing cannabis in this form. The police still believe that the best way of reaching dealers is through customers
MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) was in New York last week, where she represented Israel at a United Nations conference that dealt with drug use and its implications. Each country was requested to present its enforcement and treatment policies. Zandberg also encountered a blank wall when approaching the police and Public Security Ministry in an attempt to obtain information about Yitzhaki’s committee, about any willingness to make changes or whether there were any recommendations.
“Despite the huge changes in global trends and updated approaches that were presented at the UN, to my regret Israel’s position with regard to decriminalization is conservative, stereotypical and entrenched,” Zandberg told Haaretz.
“The last person who was in touch with reality was Commissioner Danino. Since his tenure the police and the minister are preventing not only changes but any discussion of these issues. The Western world already knows that criminalization is part of the problem, not the solution. Countries that still believe in stiff penalties and criminalization are countries like Russia, Sudan and Afghanistan.
“In many countries there is a declared or de facto decriminalization, and Israel too should move in that direction. The police still see individual users as tools and not as people, and that’s the first thing that has to change.”
A senior police official said that in practise, police policies have not changed and will not change for many years. He pins this on the police’s limitations in finding dealers through other means that would prevent the criminalization of ordinary citizens.
“We as the police have a duty to act through the courts in anything related to citizens’ privacy. The police don’t have the means to deal with the issue without affecting consumers, the citizens. If we could leave them only as sources of intelligence, without bringing them to court, we’d save ourselves a big headache, but unfortunately we’re not there and in Israel the police have to present all the investigative material in court. Therefore, no changes will occur in this matter. Our job is to catch criminals even if someone pays the price along the way – after all, these people [soft drug users] have broken the law.”
Recently, attempts were made to reach an understanding with the police regarding personal use of soft drugs without changing the law, leaving it to the discretion of regional commanders to set this problem as a low priority. The idea was to put this on the same footing as the police’s approach to prostitution – the police does not enforce prostitution laws except in cases of human trafficking, which is almost non-existent in Israel. The police is interested in new laws that will help officers better deal with synthetic drugs that are much more dangerous than cannabis and hashish.
The police are looking for the go-ahead to go after users of synthetic drugs, since with these drugs officers can only arrest dealers, not users. There were attempts to make it easier for the police in this regard, since there is general agreement that action must be taken with these dangerous chemicals. In exchange for new laws, the police would be asked to ease up on cannabis users, but the police does not appear to be interested in going that route.