March 6 (UPI) -- The Israeli Cabinet approved the decriminalize of marijuana, calling for fines instead of criminal penalties, Israel's public security minister announced.
Under rules approved Sunday, marijuana possession will remain illegal, but first-time offenders found with marijuana in public will face a $270 fine. Fines will increase until a fourth offense, when criminal charges will be filed.
While Israel maintains sentencing guidelines of heavy fines and incarceration for marijuana possession, recent official policy has amounted to de facto decriminalization, with fewer than 200 arrests in 2015, The New York Times reported. Israel is also at the global forefront of research into uses of medical marijuana, and private industry is working to turn marijuana farming into an industry which includes exports.
Gilad Erdan, public security minister, said the new policy will "emphasize public information and treatment, instead of criminal enforcement."
The Cabinet recommendations -- which offer no guidance on how a new law will differentiate between growers of small amounts for personal use, users of medicinal marijuana and larger-scale commercial enterprises -- must still be approved by Israel's parliament, the Knesset. When decriminalization was first proposed, Knesset member Tamar Zandberg commented, "Israel is advancing toward a new era, and it seems that legalization of marijuana is just a matter of time."
A government committee will begin to prepare recommendations on implementing the Cabinet's decision within the next two months.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Cabinet on Sunday that "On the one hand, we are opening ourselves up to the future. On the other hand, we understand the dangers and will try to balance the two."