A few years back Israeli cannabis smokers grappled with the notion that their drug money often enriched the country’s foes. These days, they’re more likely to light up marijuana produced in Tel Aviv basements or villas outside Jerusalem than hashish smuggled in from abroad.
“Marijuana has quietly become the main product here,” said Daniel Nahum, a former paratrooper who first noticed the change when he began smelling pot in bohemian neighborhoods of Jaffa, an ancient port city south of Tel Aviv.
The shift in Israel’s cannabis supply is an unintended effect of tighter border security. While Israelis long smoked hash from neighboring Arab countries, a new fence and more vigilance on the borders have thwarted shipments. In response, Israeli dealers are increasingly growing their own.
“While we are successfully foiling attempts to smuggle hash, we are also noticing a spike in seizures of home operations,” said police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld.
A surge in African migrants entering the country from the Sinai desert spurred Israel to build a 230-kilometer (143-mile) fence along the border. The six-meter-high barrier, topped with barbed wire, was completed in January after two years of construction. Stronger patrols after the second Lebanon war in 2006 and the civil strife in Syria had already restricted supplies from the north.
“From a public interest standpoint, this is a positive development,” said Boaz Wachtel, founder of Alei Yarok, or the Green Leaf Party, and a key figure in bringing medicinal cannabis to the country. “The stuff grown inside Israel is of higher quality. Some hash coming in from Lebanon was just clay mixed with sap.” Even better, Wachtel says: Drug money is no longer going to places “that shoot missiles at us.”
The changes come as the debate over marijuana intensifies in Israel. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a journalist who became a politician, drew media scrutiny earlier this year when he denied ever smoking pot. Israelis were skeptical that the former model and actor, dubbed by the Haaretz daily the “prom king politician,” had never inhaled.
A barrage of anecdotes from people claiming to have shared a joint with Lapid didn’t help his credibility. One rival, 53-year-old Shelly Yachimovich, who heads the Labor party, last month seized the initiative by saying she had smoked pot.
Medical marijuana is tightly controlled in Israel, where scientists have led global advances in understanding the health benefits of the plant. About 9,000 patients suffering from diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis are using the drug. Three quarters of Israelis believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses, according to a survey commissioned by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.
The dwindling supply of cheaper hash from Arab countries is costing Israeli smokers. Black market marijuana has risen to about 100 shekels ($28) per gram from 70 shekels three years ago, said Wachtel. That’s about four times what medium-quality pot costs in California, according to priceofweed.com, which collects anonymous reports.
Moshe Feiglin, a Knesset member from the leading Likud party, is pushing to ease access to medical marijuana via a law that would allow all doctors to prescribe the drug. He last year penned an op-ed in the Yediot Aharonot daily titled “God Owns Cannabis Patent.” Though the Health Ministry opposed the bill, it said it would propose an alternative plan.
“The vision is that from age 21 every Israeli citizen will be able to go to a pharmacy and buy cannabis under very strict regulation,” Feiglin said in an interview. “This might be good for our economy and would help improve the quality of the medicine, but for me this is above all about liberty.”
Attitudes toward recreational use are more conservative than in the U.S. Only 15 percent of Israelis say they’ve used marijuana and 26 percent support legalization of the drug, according to the Institute for Market Studies. That compares with 52 percent support for legalization in the U.S., according to a March survey by the Pew Research Center. In a report, the Market Studies institute said legalizing marijuana would generate $452 million in annual economic benefit from taxes and law enforcement savings.
“Recognizing the enormous financial gains that would come from legalization demands that the government take a serious look” at the idea, said Yarden Gazit, a research fellow at the Institute and co-author of the report.
In the meantime, Israeli growers are sprouting to feed the black market, estimated at $700 million a year, according to the Market Studies institute. A decade ago about 70 percent of Israeli cannabis came through Egypt and Lebanon, Wachtel estimates. These days less than a third comes from those two countries and Jordan, and the rest is local.
While recreational pot smoking is illegal in Israel, authorities rarely press charges against people holding small quantities, according to Gazit. Tamar Zandberg, a 37-year-old member of the Knesset from the left-wing Meretz party, last month proposed legislation to fully decriminalize casual use.
“The time has come to stop the ill-advised and wasteful policy of targeting cannabis users,” Zandberg wrote on her blog.
Though the exact organizations that benefit from the hashish trade are not known, attacks on Israel from militant groups operating in the Sinai area have intensified in recent years. In Lebanon, cannabis is grown in the fertile Bekaa Valley, a stronghold of the anti-Israeli Hezbollah.
Nahum, the former paratrooper, says that while the price has gone up, his pot-smoking buddies don’t complain too much because the quality has improved.
“I had been telling my friends not to smoke hash coming from Arab countries already before the marijuana market began booming in Israel,” Nahum said. “The hash they were buying was coming from groups that often have an anti-Israel agenda, and no one knows what went into it.”