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Articles - International & national drug policy
Written by Menacham Horovitz   
Saturday, 01 March 1997 00:00

Dr. Menacham Horovitz
Institute of Criminology
Faculty of Law
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
March, 1997

Israel is a unique social laboratory leading from Utopia at the time of its establishment in 1948 to moral panics in 1970's and 1980's resulting in repressive policies.

The Israeli society showed at first a particular large and perhaps unrealistic degree of tolerance towards the deviate from accepted social norms. These attitudes may have had partly religious roots. Also the fact that half of the Jewish nation perished during the Nazi Holocaust, contributed to the efforts to provide a "new and better life for the survivors".

Theodor Herzl in his Utopia (in Greek - "a place that doesn't exist") "The Jewish State" wrote that even the offenders in our midst will be rehabilitated as farmers on the land. Israel looked for humane and scientific ways to deal with deviance.

The memories of his experience as a Jew in Poland led the Minister of the Interior in the first Israeli Government in 1948, to refuse responsibility for Police and Prisons. Incidentally, Israel so became the only country (to my knowledge) to have a Minister of Police and Prisons, renamed only recently as Ministry of Internal Security.

Yet the process of the "In gathering of the Exiles" from all over the globe, from widely differing social and cultural backgrounds and modes of life, the need of achieving maximum integration in the shortest possible time pressed in the direction of enforcement of conformity.' This was at that time the theory of Israel's social policies.

During the British Mandate there was no big drug problem.' The Military Commander declared import, export, growing, sale and use of cannabis as a criminal offence. In 1931 on the basis of the Dangerous Drug Ordinance of 1925,3 130 offenders were convicted, 71 received prison sentences from 15 days to 1 year.

Before 1967 drug use and abuse was largely considered a medical problem and only slowly became a social and criminal issue after the end of the Six Day War.   Volunteers from Europe and North America flooded Israel to help in a variety of ways, including working on Kibbutzim. Many of the volunteers introduced psychoactive drugs, mostly Hashish to middle class youth, including Kibbutz youth. The opening of boundaries increased the traffic, also amongst the Arab population. Before 1967 drugs were used by immigrants, often coming from countries where drug use was coon It was also a way of dealing with difficulties and frustrations in the process of absorption,--,

Since the 1970's drug dealing, and drug use to a lesser extent, are seen as a major threat to Israel's society and its external and internal security. Organized crime developed in which major dealers are involved, often with global connections. Petty property crime committed by users and addicts sometimes were accompanied by violence against the defenseless victims, like the elderly. Underpriviledged" youth were drawn to drug trafficking and the successful became "role models".

The Dangerous Drug Ordinance (New Version) of 1973 was amended several times (1979, 1989). Maximum penalty for dealing in Drugs is 20 years imprisonment and a 25 fold fine of the maximum fine for serious offences. Providing drugs to a minor (under 18 years) is punishable with prison (mandatory) up to 25 years, the most severe punishment except life sentence. According to our law, a youth of 18 who gives a cigarette containing hashish to his girlfriend of 17 years, must get a prison sentence (from 1 day - 25 years). But if he rapes her and causes severe injuries, he may - according to our law - be put under probation.

Yet recently punishment and welfare policies have become intertwined. Courts were given the option, when convicting offenders who are in the process of treatment to give a probation order with a condition of treatment. Also when a conditional prison sentence has to be activated the same provision can be applied. Probation orders for drug users are frequently given.' Juveniles using drugs and arrested for the first time and willing to receive treatment, may be warned by the police and not prosecuted.

In 1958 only 0.4% of all those arrested for a criminal offence were suspected of drug offenses.5 In 1994 their number constituted 4% of the total of criminal files, nearly 60% of them for use only. Juveniles constituted 3% of all those arrested, 50% of them for personal use.6 Of course, these figures may state only something about police activities at different times.

Sentences for drug dealers increased from 1-2 years (61%) in 1966 to 2-10 years (40%) in 1994.' Remember that the maximum sentence is 20 years.

In the shadow of the criminal law there are open and hidden struggles over "territories" in the "treatment zones" between the medical establishment and other treatment personnel. Those are mostly trained in Social Work, sometimes in Sociology, Psychology and Education. The opposing interests are represented by the Ministry of Health vis-a-vis the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. New Laws, (Law for supervision of facilities for the Care of Drug Users 1993, and the National Health Law, 1995), force them to co-operate defending themselves against infiltration by outside private initiatives, sometimes for financial gain. "There is good money in treating addicts" say some professionals who went from the public sector to the private one.

In theory there is a general recognition that you have to provide for many treatment approaches for a variety of drug users and addicts who ask for help. No one has a solution for everyone. Neverthelesss adherents of different treatment ideologies and practices fight among themselves.8

Israel is periodically in the throngs of a "Moral Panic", a concept which became a household word in Sociology after the publication by Stan Cohen "Folk Devils and Moral Panic", dealing with Modes and Rockers in England.9 "Moral Panic" related to drugs appeared in Israel at the beginning of the 80's and was described in detail by Ben-Yehuda and Goode.10 A "Moral Panic" is created around a problem, considered a threat to society, its moral values, health or sometimes stability, without considering its quality and prevalence. It needs moral entrepreneurs who want to enforce behaviour according to their value system. They are found in our parliament in all parties, sometimes joined by government agencies trying to increase their influence and budget. Also lobbies are joining not only to remedy perceived social ills, but to strengthen their status and organizational interests. The media are looking for the deviant, the dangerous, threatening and frightening and from time to time there is "mutual feeding" and the result is a deadly cocktail (metaphor). The moral panics divide between those who are morally right and those who are wrong. The 1982 panic started when the media reported that half of all high-school students use drugs.. All previous scientific researches stated that 3% - 5% were involved (Goode and BenYehuda). There developed a struggle between Police providing the data and asking for more resources and the Ministry of Education accused of hiding the facts. The Chairperson of the Knesset Commmitte (belonging to the opposition) accused the Government on Television with conspiracy of neglecting a major social issue.

The press co-operated by their headlines. The panic died down with the tension on Israel's border with Syria (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, p. 195). From time to time comes a resurrection. The media play a crucial role. We know more about the birth of a moral panic, its social contents and functions, but less about its death or "demise" in the words of Goode and Ben-Yehuda.

Some examples from the Press:

I. A popular evening paper reported from Goa in India that thousands if not tens of thousands of Isareli youth attended a drug festival. The Israeli Drug Authority was reported to organize an airlift to bring the 'lost sons and daughters' back home.

II. A popular evening paper reported 6 weeks ago from the Knesset Drug Committee that last year 79 persons died from an overdose of drugs, nearly a 100% increase in 5 years. Drug dealers mix heroin with rat poison and thereby increase the death rate according to the police. The Deputy Chairman asked the minister of Health to establish immediately a hotline for drug addicts." (For what purpose?]

III. A very popular newspaper" reported that 70 youngsters in Tel-Aviv tried to commit suicide after an acid party. This was a day before the annual meeting of the 'No Drug' branch in Tel Aviv.

IV. The same paper described in the leading article of 30.7.92, the drug problem in Israel as a 'National Diaster" which can be compared with the Civil War in Bosnia.

V. A popular evening paper reported 10 years ago about a meeting of the Israeli Government on the drug problem. The ministers heard the report and were sitting stunned. The Inspector General of the Police and his assistants pointed to the possibility that within two years, every 5th Israeli will have a drug problem.13

I will not document statistics on addicts and users in the service of moral panics. They are functional to support repressive policies, increased budgets and organizational interests.

Information and educational campaigns to prevent drug use often contribute flavour to moral panics in addition to manipulations of statistics. A poster published in 1971 by the Israeli Government stated "The number of hashish users in Egypt is approximately 5 million. In the 'Six Day War' everyone could see the type and quality of the Egyptian soldiers. Don't delude yourself that there is no connection between the two facts."

Or posters on buses in 1995 showing a man without a face, underlined by the slogan - "Drugs wipe out a person - this is a fact" published by the Government War on Drugs Authority.

The Drug Authority for war against Drugs was established by law in 1988 under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office.14 It is interesting to note that in the English version it is called the "Anti-Drug Authority of Israel", and the "War Against Drugs Law - 1988" has been translated into "Drug Control Authority Law - 1988".'5 What semantics can do for your image!

Discussion of legalization or decriminalization of drug use - especially hashish and marijuana never succeeded to stimulate a serious public debate. It was considered the province and privilege of a few academics, out of touch with reality.16 The 'Crusaders' for legalization, who came mostly from the world of bohemia and fringe society were either ridiculed or condemned as a danger to Israeli society. Accusations were levelled that they had financial interests in legalization. '7

At the end of 1994 the Knesset Drug Committee appointed an expert committee to examine the implications of legalization. The motive appears to have been to put an official end to any "legalization lobby". The final report was signed by five government officials, two representatives of Anti-Drug organizations and a representative of the War Against Drugs Authority and one representative of the Legalization Lobby. Two academics appointed did not take part in the proceedings and did not sign the report. The only academic was the Chairman, a known researcher in pharmacology."

The result as expected, no noticeable changes. The Knesset gave a formal burial to the Cannabis Lobby (perhaps only temporarily).

Now at the end, what. can and should Israel learn from European countries and cities:

First of all, try and detach itself from official American Drug Law Enforcement models and rethoric. There is no universal drug policy and the war against drugs cannot be won. It is very difficult for my country but it can be done.

Secondly, join the "Frankfurt Declaration"19 signed by a growing number of cities. Especially the paragraphs that state that possession and consumption of small amounts° of drugs should not be prosecuted, separation in law between cannabis and other illegal drugs, distribution of sterile syringes and needles to drug addicts, and medically controlled prescribing of drugs to long term users.

I hope that changes in Israel's drug policies are not a dream and will come about, not only on moral grounds, but on a rational basis, in a perhaps irrational society when it comes to drugs.


1.   M. Horovitz (1965). Probation in Israel in "The Prevention and the Treatment of Offenders in Israel", Report to the 3rd U.N. Congress, Stockholm, Government Printer, Jerusalem.

2. Y. Caspi (1996). Dangerous Drugs Policy, Control, Enforcement - Criminal Trial, Tamar Press, p. 115 (Hebrew).

3.   Y. Kedmi (1988). On the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, TelAviv University Press, (Hebrew).

4.   Personal communication from the Directorate of the Adult Probation Service, Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

5. I. Drapkin and S.F. Landau (1966). Drug Offenders in Israel: A Survey, British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 6,' No. 4 (Oct. 1966).

S.F. Landau (1970). Comparative Research on Drug Involvement in Israel, before and after 1967, in Drug Addiction in Israel. Symposium,, Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, Hebrew University, Publication No. 17 (1970). (Hebrew).

6.   The Drug Market in Israel (1995). Israel National Police, Intelligence Department, Drug Unit.

7.   Y. Caspi (1996). s.a. p. 214. See also R. Alroy (1990). Punishment of Drug Offences, War Against Drugs Authority, Jerusalem. (Hebrew).

8.   I. Mahagina (1997). The Struggle about who is the 'boss' of treatment of Adult Addicts (opiates) in Israel between 1988-1966, M.A. Thesis, School of Social Work, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. (Hebrew).

9.   S. Cohen (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics, London, McGibbon and Kee.

10. E. Goode and N. Ben-Yehuda (1994). Moral Panics, Chapter 11, Blackwell and Oxford (U.K.) and Cambridge (U.S.A.).

11. Yediot Aharonot Newspaper 19.2.97.

12. Yediot Aharonot Newspaper 24.5.93.

13. Yediot Aharonot Newspaper 3.8.87.

14. War Against Drugs Authority (1995). Annual Report No. 6.   (Hebrew).

15. The Anti-Drug Authority of Israel (1992). Policy Handbook, Jerusalem.

16. D. Bein (1970). Legal Aspects of the Drug Problem in Israel in "Proceedings of the Symposium on Drug Addiction in Israel. Symposium,, Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, Hebrew University, Publication No. 17 (1970). (Hebrew). M. Horovitz (1987). The Drug War in Israel - No Way Out? Ha'aretz Newspaper 22.4.87.

17. Sh. Sandak (1997). The Abolition Area, Diary of a Voyage for Legalization of Cannabis in Israel, Gal Printer, Tel-Aviv. (Hebrew). Observation of the author (M.H.) during sessions of the Drug Committee of the Knesset 1995-1996.

18. Report of the Expert Committee on Legalization of Cannabis to the Knesset Committee on 'the War Against Drugs, 15 May 1995. (Hebrew).

19. First Conference, European Cities at the Centre of Illegal Trade in Drugs, Documentation, Frankfurt a/Main (Germany), 20-22.11.1990.


Our valuable member Menacham Horovitz has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.