Jerusalem — It may sound counter-intuitive, but Israeli anti-drug and health officials were the driving force behind the cabinet’s decision this week to support legislation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana under certain circumstances.

The bill, which the Knesset will likely pass, would impose fines on users the first three times they are caught with a joint or two, as well as mandatory anti-drug counseling. The fourth time, their possession would be considered a punishable offense.

“We are not decriminalizing cannabis,” Yossi Harel-Frisch, chief scientist of the Israeli Anti-Drug Authority, told The Jewish Week. “What we are trying to do, on the one hand, is to reduce the amount of people using it because we know the drug is dangerous, especially for children and youths whose brains are developing and are vulnerable to damage both cognitively and behaviorally.”

On the other hand, Harel-Frisch said, “We don’t want to criminalize every young person who happens to be at a party and tries using cannabis once or twice for leisure.”

Once a young Israeli has even the hint of a criminal record for drug abuse “you won’t have the same range of options in the army and in jobs throughout your life,” he noted. “We wanted to reduce this negative outcome.”

The Israeli government felt an urgency to introduce this legislation because the use of marijuana — which Israelis call cannabis — has doubled during the past few years, Harel-Frisch said.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Israel since the early 1990s. Coaster420/Wikimedia Commons

While marijuana use among Israeli teens aged 15 to 17 has traditionally hovered between a relatively low 5-6 percent (when compared to European countries), that number has risen to an alarming 10.2 percent, according to the most recent (2014-15) statistics.

“That is an enormous jump for us,” the scientist said, adding that, when more recent statistics are analyzed in the coming weeks, “we’re concerned we’ll see this rate has gone up even more.”

Harel-Frisch attributed the increase to worldwide trends, but also to the fact that medical marijuana is legal in Israel, the world leader in cannabis research and development.

The downside of this phenomenon “is that young people hear cannabis is good as a medicine, so they think it’s not dangerous” to use recreationally,” Harel-Frisch said. At the same time, there is a “small but vocal” cannabis lobby that has aggressively pushed for the total legalization of recreational marijuana use via PR campaigns.

Israeli officials began to look to other countries for ways to curb marijuana abuse about four years ago, as drug use soared. They rejected the total legalization model adopted by five U.S. states, North Korea and Uruguay because they felt it would promote drug use. They opted, instead, to look at marijuana use not as a crime but as a public health concern or social problem.

“We started to deal with the issue not with the tools to fight crime but as a public health problem, with education, prevention and counseling. Look at Portugal. When a person is caught they have up to 72 hours to appear before one of 18 committees” that help get them into counseling. 

Harel-Frisch and others will be closely tracking the effects of the legislation, assuming it is approved, and will present their recommendations in two years. 

Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a world-renowned researcher on medical cannabis in Israel, said the legislation “is right.”

“Medical cannabis is an excellent drug to treat pediatric epilepsy and helps children in most cases.” – Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, Hebrew University

“We have a percentage of young people using marijuana recreationally and that means a huge number are breaking the law.” Without at least some decriminalization, Mechoulam said, “they will still be breaking the law but will have a criminal file that will follow them throughout their lives. That doesn’t make sense” for very occasional young users. 

Mechoulam, who works in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at Hebrew University, underscored that laboratory-created medical marijuana and marijuana bought on the street are two very different things, and expressed hope that the more liberal regulations will lead to less stigmatization of marijuana prescribed for everything from pain management to nausea. 

“Medical cannabis is an excellent drug to treat pediatric epilepsy and helps children in most cases,” said Mechoulam, whose decades-old research on the effects of specially formulated medical cannabis on children’s seizures was all but ignored until about a decade ago, when scientists from around the world rediscovered his work and began to build on his research. 

Tracey Shipley, a Jerusalem-based addiction counselor who launched a drug-free, alcohol-free and smoke-free club and entertainment space for youths, said there are pros and cons to partially decriminalizing marijuana. “It can be a slippery slope when you start legalizing drugs,” she said.

Shipley believes that when most teens get high “they aren’t thinking about what’s going to happen” legally. “They get high due to peer pressure or because they’re not coping with their lives. It’s the same reason people drink,” she said. 

“From what I’ve seen in this country. I think it will open up a door. It gives our kids the message that it’s okay to get high,” Shipley said, “and that’s not a message we want to give our kids.

Seated with some friends on the lawn of Hebrew University’s sprawling Givat Ram campus on a warm, sunny March day, Amitai Meyer said the legislation “is a step in the right direction.   “I like to smoke marijuana occasionally and any law that makes it easier to do this is a good thing,” Meyer, a physics student, said while smoking a thin hand-rolled tobacco cigarette. “It gets my mind off my books, it improves my creativity. I like it,” he said.