Online pot mogul indicted for managing massive drug marketplace

Prosecutors say Amos Dov Silver ran Telegrass as an organized crime operation, trading in not just marijuana but also LSD and cocaine, and encouraging minors to deal drugs

Telegrass founder Amos Dov Silver appears at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court for a remand hearing on August 18, 2019, after being extradited to Israel from Ukraine. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Telegrass founder Amos Dov Silver appears at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court for a remand hearing on August 18, 2019, after being extradited to Israel from Ukraine. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

The founder of a massive online Israeli marijuana marketplace was indicted Monday on organized crime, drug dealing and extortion charges.

Amos Dov Silver, a pro-cannabis activist who prosecutors insist is far more dangerous than his supporters believe, was taken into custody three weeks ago after his extradition from Ukraine, to which he had fled earlier this year to escape Israeli law enforcement.

Telegrass, the sprawling forum he founded that used the Telegram messaging app to connect drug dealers and consumers, was shut down in March and dozens of people connected to it, including Silver, were arrested in Israel, the United States, Ukraine and Germany, authorities said.

At least 28 people have faced indictments in the case, charged with managing or facilitating the extensive drug trade on Telegrass forums, which authorities believe reached as many as 200,000 buyers throughout the country and earned Silver’s organization as much as NIS 60 million ($17 million).

In Silver’s indictment hearing Monday at the Central District Court in Lod, Judge Ido Druyan-Gamliel ordered Silver remanded for the duration of the legal proceedings in his case and set the next court hearing for October 23.

A screenshot of a Telegrass marijuana menu. (Screenshot)

Prosecutors say that despite Silver’s self-styled image as a social activist — he asked the court on Monday to force the Prisons Service to serve vegan meals — Telegrass actually constituted a massive, for-profit and highly dangerous drug trafficking operation.

Silver “led Telegrass, a crime organization, and organized, directed and supervised the organization’s activities, directly and indirectly, in order to advance the criminal activities of this crime organization,” the indictment read.

He was personally and directly involved in tens of thousands of transactions through the network, it adds.

The indictment charges Silver with allegedly encouraging minors to buy and sell drugs on the service, including direct assistance to minors in finding dealers on the network willing to sell them the drugs.

It says he also managed forums that went beyond trading in marijuana, offering hallucinogenic drugs like Ecstasy and LSD, as well as cocaine.

Amos Dov Silver (Screen capture: YouTube)

Of the estimated 3,000 drug dealers who operated through the service, at least 250 were minors, the indictment says.

It details alleged concerted efforts to ascertain the identities of would-be dealers on the service in order to ensure they weren’t undercover cops, as well as sophisticated methods for collecting a cut from each drug deal brokered on the forum.

He is also accused of physically threatening a former employee to keep her from revealing the identities of dealers on the network.

The investigation into Silver, a dual Israeli-American national, began in early 2018, and has involved hundreds of witnesses and a massive undercover operation on the part of the cyber division of the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 unit specializing in major crimes and corruption.

Silver was arrested by Ukrainian police in March at the request of Israeli authorities, but managed to flee the officers who accompanied him to Kiev’s Boryspil airport for his flight to Israel three weeks ago. He was recaptured by Ukrainian authorities in the city of Uman, some 200 kilometers south of Kiev, the following day. He was reportedly planning to cross into Romania and flee to the US.

Telegrass founder Amos Dov Silver appears at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court for a remand hearing on August 18, 2019, after being extradited to Israel from Ukraine. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

In a statement announcing Silver’s capture, Ukraine’s SBU security service said it had detained three of its own employees suspected of helping Silver escape.

In the years before his arrest, Silver was an activist for cannabis legalization, including organizing The Big Bong Night in 2014 — an audacious cannabis legalization protest in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem.

He has insisted that his actions were motivated not by profit, but by his belief that recreational drug use should be legal.

Israel has taken steps in recent years to make medical cannabis available and is poised to become a major exporter of the crop. Recreational use of the drug remains illegal, though the Public Security Ministry partially decriminalized it in 2017, setting fines and treatment for initial offenders instead of criminal procedures.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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