Words and Photos by Ben Hartman
In a part of the world known for its divisiveness, could weed be a force of good bringing together politicians from opposite sides of the political spectrum?
That was the hope at a Tel Aviv legalization rally last Thursday night, which drew a few thousand participants from the right and left, conservative and liberal, Jewish and Arab.
Cannabis, like politics, makes strange bedfellows, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a stranger pairing than far-right lawmaker Moshe Feiglin with Tamar Zandberg from the left-wing Meretz party, both of whom spoke at the rally.
Zandberg -- who in April made headlines for saying she likes to smoke a joint while watching “Game of Thrones” -- told the rally “we and all the hundreds of thousands of others who aren’t here but like us, smoke in their spare time, say that we are not criminals and there is no reason to harass us!”
Beginning with a small, somewhat confused march from the “Bima” national theater -- where dozens chanted “the people want legal weed!” -- the rally was held to support a bill proposed by Zandberg to decriminalize recreational marijuana use and to extol the virtues of medical weed. The demonstration featured none of the violence of an unapproved rally a month earlier in Jerusalem called “the Big Bong Night,” during which police -- including mounted officers -- arrested dozens of protesters.
Though Israelis are often more tolerant of marijuana than their political leaders, times have been tough lately for local potheads. A hash drought that began a few years worsened as construction finished on the Egyptian border fence, which was built to stop illegal migration from Africa. Bedouin smugglers that used to bring hashish and sandy, low-grade bud over the Egyptian border in truckloads have had to improvise, settling for tossing bricks over the fence from atop ladders. Meanwhile, prices for hash have nearly tripled.
The drought led to the rise of “Mr. Nice Guy” and other synthetic cannabis which until recently were sold openly at kiosks across the country. In addition, organized crime figures and everyday Israelis have begun building growrooms throughout Israel, which has spawned busts on a weekly basis in suburban houses, schools, and earlier this month, atop a nursing home in the city of Ashdod.
Also, while over 11,000 people are licensed by Israel’s Health Ministry to use medical marijuana, it remains significantly more difficult to obtain than it is in states in the US where it is prescribed. Nonetheless, medical marijuana has flooded the black market, helping smokers survive the drought.
“The way that society has looked at it has changed, but not the way politicians do,” said Eli Kaupp, a 33-year-old Tel Avivian, as a reggae band warmed up onstage.
Like others at the rally, Kaupp spoke of the influence of pharmaceutical companies and the links between big business and politicians.
One unlikely champion of legalization has been Moshe Feiglin, well-known for being one of the most right-wing politicians in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature.
Last year Feiglin, a speaker at the rally, proposed a bill allowing any doctor in Israel to prescribe medical marijuana and to permit patients to grow their own.
Feiglin, whose wife takes medical marijuana for her Parkinson’s, said he doesn’t see a contradiction between his conservative views and his support for legalization.
“Not at all, the opposite even - this is about freedom, this goes with my support for personal freedom,” Feiglin told HIGH TIMES.
Whether law enforcement, conservative lawmakers and religious Israelis will catch up to Zandberg, Feiglin, and their like remains to be seen. For demonstrator Moshe Ufnik, though, the future is assured.
“We need to legalize the fucking plants, and by law or by street it will change.”