Israel dope dealers boost business with high tech smokescreen

Jerusalem (AFP) –


It only takes a tap on a smartphone to reveal it: a world of dealers posting photos of their products and promises of top-quality marijuana.

"It's like e-bay," one Israeli user, who declined to give his name, told AFP. "Thousands of pictures of weed."

Telegrass, an Israeli platform for drug-dealing, has won praise from its users but sparked alarm among drug counsellors and police.

Amos Dov Silver, a 33-year-old Israeli, founded it in March as a channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

A dual Israel-US citizen, he now lives in the United States "for fear that he'll be arrested" in Israel, according to Haaretz newspaper.

Telegrass lets sellers list their wares and prices, exchanging self-deleting messages with buyers to set up deliveries.

"We don't know exactly how many people are using the platform, however we have over 100,000 registered users," Silver told AFP in an online chat. "We will have better statistics in the future."

The platform is in Hebrew, as is Silver's open Facebook page, which hosts general discussions and news on marijuana-related issues and says it has 22,442 followers.

"Ground zero is Israel and therefore we work mostly there. However we plan to grow internationally in the future," he said.

- 'A phenomenon' -

The Israeli buyer, who asked to be identified only by the initial J, said the platform creates a marketplace "where you can buy weed and its products anonymously online with small risk" and with a wide range of product choices.

He added that the communal nature of Telegrass gives individual buyers a degree of security.

"If you get screwed by a seller -- you pay for five grams of weed and he only gives you three -- you have someone to go to," he said.

Sellers have to undergo identity checks to be able to post, he said.

"Their details are in the hands of the people who run the system" and they can sanction rogue dealers by removing them from the service, thereby hitting their trade, he said.

J added that while the buyer must identify him or herself to the seller, the latter has a strong interest in deleting that information after the transaction is completed so as not to leave evidence.

Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that online drug trafficking was a "phenomenon" in Israel, although he did not comment specifically on Telegrass.

"Police are taking action against individuals who use apps to try and buy and sell mainly marijuana," he told AFP.

"We're tracking phone devices and individuals who are trying to make transactions and arrests are made accordingly."

Silver describes himself as a marijuana legalisation activist who is not in it for financial gain.

"The motivation is 100 percent ideological and the goal is legalisation," he said. "I get a basic living income."

Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

- 'Robin Hood of cannabis' -

There is a certain level of tolerance for marijuana use in Israel, with the government in March approving a plan to partially decriminalise it in favour of fines and treatment.

The plan, based on recommendations from a committee set up to study the issue, applies only to instances of personal use. Producing, selling and buying cannabis would remain criminal offences.

The plan has yet to be implemented, but Orit Sternberg, of the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, said that the publicity surrounding it created a public perception that legalisation was just around the corner.

She told AFP that it was no coincidence that Silver launched Telegrass at exactly the same time.

"He exploited the momentum in a very clear and commercial way," she said.

"Although there was absolutely no change in legislation, young people understood that it was alright and he is riding that wave."

Opponents of Telegrass say it lulls both sellers and buyers into a false sense of security, arguing that the pre-deal identity checks required of both sides leave them open to blackmail and extortion.

Silver's supporters retort that setting up transactions online in advance is less hazardous than trusting chance encounters in clubs or on the streets.

Sternberg said Silver "is becoming a kind of hero... the Robin Hood of cannabis, as if he is giving them a safer and better life."