JERUSALEM – Asking politicians whether they ever smoked pot can produce answers that range from silly to squirming. But when Israeli opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich was asked the question this week, she just said, “yes.”
In an interview broadcast Wednesday on the Knesset Channel, the 53-year-old lawmaker said she had smoked marijuana on a number of occasions as a younger woman, the last time about 16 years ago. She is the first senior Israeli politician to make such an admission.
Facebook users welcomed the politician's candid answer -- even if she had previously suggested otherwise -- and responded with good-natured humor, including by inserting a laughing Yachimovich into a photo montage of Eric, Kelso and Steve from the television sitcom “That '70s Show.”
Soon, Facebook users were turning Yachimovich's signature "Hi, it's Shelly" line, which she uses to open her posts, into "High ... it's Shelly."
"Unlike others, I'm at peace with my past," Yachimovich said in the interview, taking a swipe at Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whom she said has a habit of forgetting details about his past.
Asked the same question earlier this year, Lapid responded it "wouldn't harm me politically if I said I smoked grass, but I didn't. I decided at a young age that I'm against it."
Lapid, a high-profile media anchor and socialite before taking up politics, added his past indulgences included smoking cigars -- an even more egregious admission in some circles, given the popular association of cigars with hedonism and corruption.
Shortly after the interview, "I smoked a joint with Yair Lapid" testimonials started popping up on social media and in mainstream news reports, raising doubts about his answer. But Lapid did not back down.
“Why in 2013 can't an Israeli politician just say he smoked marijuana when he was young?” a Haaretz newspaper editorial asked at the time.
Yachimovich has bones to pick with Lapid, whose economic and budget policies she fiercely opposes. She may also have other reasons for owning up to the pot use in her past, as she seeks reelection as leader of the Labor Party, with its large contingent of young Israelis.
The interviews tapped into an ongoing debate about marijuana use in Israel, both medical and recreational.
Cannabis is listed as a dangerous drug in Israel. As such, patients must obtain a permit from the government health authorities to use the drug for medical reasons.
The number of permits issued has tripled in recent years, and Israeli health officials claim the country tops European nations in medical distribution of the drug. But the number of permits still falls short of demand from patients, who say bureaucracy and fears the occasional recreational user might abuse the system deepen their suffering.
Bills proposing increasing access to medical marijuana have been proposed, but face an uphill battle. Legalizing the drug altogether is not on the agenda.
Yachimovich said she does not advocate legalization but does support easing restrictions on medical use.
A pro-legalization party named Aleh Yarok -- or Green Leaf -- has been trying to win seats in parliament for several years, so far unsuccessfully. Before the January elections, they threatened to "out" parliamentary candidates who had smoked pot but opposed legalizing it and "expose their hypocrisy."
An unexpected argument for legalization came recently from the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, which estimated legalizing marijuana and taxing it like cigarettes could generate about $450 million a year for the Israeli economy.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.