Pro-Pot party poised for parliament in Israel

TEL AVIV, Israel — Dressed in sneakers, khaki pants and a sweatshirt, the chairman of Israel’s pro-marijuana Green Leaf party takes a drag from his cigarette.

“If it was up to the youth, I would be the Prime Minister of Israel,” Boaz Wachtel says, sitting on a worn-out sofa in his Tel Aviv office. That may be a pipe-dream, but the prospect of Wachtel and his party getting into parliament is not.

Some pollsters say Green Leaf — buoyed by support from young, urban, secular Israelis — could win two seats in the 120-member Knesset in the March 28 election, leading the charge of small parties.

The ultraliberal party, whose platform includes legalizing marijuana, gambling and prostitution, was twice before on the verge of gaining access to the halls of power. In 2003, it was just 7,000 votes short of a place in parliament. This time, Wachtel promises to break through.

“If I didn’t think we had a chance of getting into the Knesset, I wouldn’t be wasting my time,” he said.

Despite widening its platform to include a dovish attitude toward Palestinians, Green Leaf has remained firmly on the fringes, and public opinion experts say the legalization of marijuana is not a campaign issue in Israel.

“It is more like an ‘in your face’ thing, like saying ‘we are turning our back on the political establishment and we will vote for someone who is against the mainstream,'” said researcher Tamar Hermann of Tel Aviv University. “People don’t take them seriously because everything they say is taken as if it is said under the influence of drugs.”

Israel is no stranger to political fringe parties. Other candidates vying for parliament this year include an ex-spy chief representing pensioners, a fishmonger and a puppeteer campaigning to do away with bank fees for transactions.

In the past, single-issue parties campaigning on men’s rights in the family and the establishment of a national casino have also made a run. But no one has gotten as close, or attracted as much attention as Green Leaf.

The party’s past election campaigns have included a jingle with the national anthem played to the beat of trance music. During Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last summer, they recommended settlers roll up a joint and relax.

On Feb. 20, two of party’s candidates for parliament were arrested after trying to break into a high school to protest the party’s exclusion from mock elections there. Green Leaf petitioned the courts to be allowed to join the vote, but was rejected.

The latest public official to lash out at the party was Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister and a candidate from the hawkish Likud Party, who recently said, “legalizing drugs is insane. It starts with a cigarette, leads to a joint and ends with cocaine.”

Wachtel said the criticism and media exposure have only helped Green Leaf. He said his party represents an alternative culture of people who care about the environment, civil rights and personal freedom.

But he acknowledged that drugs were the great unifier for his motley crew of candidates for parliament, some of whom had their official portraits taken with sunglasses and a glass of beer in hand.

“The common denominator is the love of cannabis,” he said.

Yet the 47-year-old Wachtel is hardly your typical hippie.

Educated in the U.S., he has become a respected lecturer on the Middle East water crisis. In the 1980s, he was the assistant to the military attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and served on a team of Israeli representatives to former President Ronald Reagan’s space-based anti-missile shield program.

It was there he first became interested in alternative drug-abuse treatment. In 1999, he established Green Leaf. He stressed his party does not promote drug use, only its decriminalization, like in the Netherlands.

According to a recent survey, 16 percent of Israelis said they had tried soft drugs at least once. In 2005, 12.5 tons of marijuana and 922 kilograms of hashish were confiscated by Israeli police.

“People in Israel are slaves of the status quo,” he said. “We try to liberate this plant and the people who consume it from these horrendous laws and penalties that cause much more harm than the use of cannabis.”

He pointed to world leaders who have tried pot, including former President Bill Clinton, who said he didn’t inhale. “So I don’t see the difference,” Wachtel said.