Lessons from Israel's Knesset: Politicians Come Clean on Pot Smoking, Clear the Air

The Flag of Israel's Green Leaf Party, which espouses marijuana legalization and libertarian economics.

The Flag of Israel's Green Leaf Party, which espouses marijuana legalization and libertarian economics.

Israel's political class is confessing en masse to smoking marijuana or having smoked the herb in the past, as elected leaders on both sides of the legalization issue come clean. So far, a dozen lawmakers, mostly on the left, have stepped forward.


What triggereed the pronouncements was an economic report that showed how much money for the tight economy is being lost penalizing something that most Israelis have at least tried once, albeit illegally. A study released this month outlined a $450 million economic boon, with legalization saving the Jewish state NIS 700 million ($198 million) through lower enforcement costs, while bringing in NIS 950 million ($268 million) in new tax revenues, according to a study by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, an economic policy think tank.


The public pronouncements began after opposition leader Knesset Member Shelly Yachimovich confessed to smoking the banned substance, though not in the past 16 years. Also from the left-wing Labor Party, Prof. Avishay Braverman, Eitan Cabel, Miki Rosenthal, and Stav Shaffir smoke the stuff, while Cabel said he had tried pot as a student, but decided it was not for him.


From centrist Yesh Atid, Pnina Tamnu-Shata, Yoel Razbozov, Adi Kol, and Yifat Kariv admitted to smoking, but Kariv said she had tried marijuana on vacation in Jamaica, but did not like it and has not tried again since. From Meretz, Ilan Gilon, Tamar Zandberg, and Michal Roisin have also admitted to its use.


Still, most ministers and MKs, mainly from right-wing political parties, denied any such experimentation, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, although his denial contradicts reports by acquaintances who said they smoked pot with him 20 years ago, according to the Israeli press.


During the past elections, Ale Yarok, the tiny Green Leaf Party, threatened to expose 18 politicians who were on record as being publicly against marijuana legalization, but who had been photographed by Green Leaf supporters smoking the herb. Ale Yarok Party chief Omer Moab, a Hebrew University economics professor and a former top adviser to Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz when he led the Finance Ministry, has supported marijuana legalization, along with anti-socialist approaches to reforming the old thorns of the Israeli economy.


But rather than just money from the marijuana, Israeli society, which has blossomed from turning sand into silicon chips, also appreciates the science that underpins it's global growth.


The potent component in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, was identified in 1964 by Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and researchers today are finding hope for treatments for life-threatening cancers and debilitating multiple sclerosis from the plant. In 2012, an Israeli company called Tikkun Olam created and began marketing a strain of cannabis without the mind-altering THC, ultimately, the main reason why authorities today oppose public use of the substance.


While Israel has allowed marijuana for medical use since the 1990s, the substance is still considered illegal, and only about 9,000 out of Israel’s 7 million citizens have legal access to it.


Proponents hope the media’s running tally on who has and hasn’t smoked may clear the air for a more honest debate, though some insist on remaining above the fray.


Reuven Rivlin, former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, the latest to pronounce on the subject, told Twitter followers on Monday, “If you were wondering, I hereby declare: I have never smoked marijuana. I was born with a natural joie de vivre.