Netanyahu considers legalizing cannabis

Benjamin Netanyahu  photo: Meir Amiri

The prime minister's new tune follows the surge in the polls by Moshe Feiglin's Zehut Party, which openly advocates legalization.

If Zehut Party chairman Moshe Feiglin was looking for an issue to get himself into the next Knesset after a four-year absence, he has found it. Feiglin, formerly associated with issues such as the Temple Mount's Jewish status, has made legalization of recreational drugs the main platform of his party. Other politicians have noticed Feiglin's good showing in the polls and jumped on the bandwagon.

One of the major politicians who did so is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On a questions and answers event on the Likud TV Facebook channel yesterday, one of the questions dealt with legalization of recreational drugs: "I would like to hear about your attitude towards the cannabis and legalization issue." Netanyahu gave a surprising answer: "I have led several changes in this area," he answered. "I increased the use of medical cannabis. We brought Israel to one of the highest levels in the world.

"Secondly, they told me that there is a global market, so I allowed farmers to cultivate it and make it an important export sector for Israel. I'm now going into the question that you raised, and I'll give you an answer soon. Imports may also be considered later."

The asking of this question was no coincidence. The questions that Netanyahu answered on Facebook are filtered by his assistants, so no question appeared there by accident. Netanyahu is an experienced politician with no peer in sensing the public's mood. He understands that the sympathy for Feiglin in recent polls, some of which predict that he will receive enough votes to enter the Knesset, is not a result of his basic rightwing platform, which lies somewhere between MK Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) and Adv. Itamar Ben-Gvir, both of whom are running for the Knesset on the Otzma Yehudit ticket; it results from his liberal platform, headed by legalization of cannabis.

It is clear that in recent weeks, Feiglin has "concealed" aspects of Zehut's platform associated with the extreme right in Israel, among them taking control of all of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip and applying Israeli sovereignty to all of these territories, taking control of the Temple Mount from the Waqf and giving it to the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, etc. Instead, Feiglin is talking mainly about the issue of legalizing the use of recreational drugs in his platform.

If his showing in the elections matches his support in the polls, projections are that Feiglin will get 120,000 votes. 50,000 or more of these voters are supporters of legalization who in previous elections voted for the Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) Party, which is not running in the current campaign. Support for legalization is probably greater among young voters, and possibly also among consumers of medical cannabis and their families, who are fed up with the tough obstacles set by the Ministry of Health's bureaucracy to obtaining medical cannabis.

This is exactly what Netanyahu was referring to in his answer about increasing the use of medical cannabis. The complaint is legitimate, but ignores the many difficulties on the way. At the end of his answer, Netanyahu appears to promise favorable consideration of general legalization, not just for medical cannabis.

Netanyahu's answer can be interpreted in several ways. One is clear - he wants to gain rightwing votes attracted to Feiglin because of his advocacy of legalization and wants to make it clear that he is there, too, and only he will decide whether or not recreational drugs will be legalized. It can also be interpreted in the opposite way: Netanyahu regards the very rightwing Feiglin as a potential coalition partner, and since Zehut probably gets most of its support in the polls from center-left voters in Tel Aviv seeking freedom to use recreational drugs, he is encouraging it by making the legalization issue legitimate and important in the political elections discourse.

This analysis is being reinforced by leftwing parties Labor and Meretz, which quickly stressed that they, too, support legalization, and thought about it even before Feiglin and Zehut. The small center parties also chipped in. Minister of Finance and Kulanu chairperson MK Moshe Kahlon announced that he would erase the criminal records of people who previously smoked cannabis. Gesher Party chairperson MK Orly Levy-Abekasis announced that as Minister of Health, she would streamline distribution of medical cannabis.

Feiglin has had an effect before receiving a single real vote at the ballot box. The four remaining weeks before the elections will show whether he peaked too early, or whether the current trend will persist to the elections. Quite a bit of this depends on how Netanyahu handles the issue. Some in Israel Police will also probably say that the arrests by the police reported today of the leaders of the Telegrass ring gave Feiglin the push he needed to get into the next Knesset.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 12, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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Benjamin Netanyahu  photo: Meir Amiri
Benjamin Netanyahu photo: Meir Amiri
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