Police bust major cannabis-trafficking network, arrest 42 top members

Authorities unmask managers of anonymous online network Telegrass; crackdown, which includes arrests abroad, comes as Netanyahu vows to weigh pot legalization

Illustrative photo of drugs (Orel Cohen /Flash90)
Illustrative photo of drugs (Orel Cohen /Flash90)

The Israel Police on Tuesday morning announced a major crackdown on a mass cannabis distribution network, arresting all of its suspected members — 42 people in total in Israel, the United States, Ukraine and Germany.

The operation effectively shut down Telegrass, one of the country’s largest drug sale networks, which had been operating via the Telegram instant messaging app.

The announcement came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was looking into the possibility of legalizing recreational cannabis use, in an apparent reaction to the surge in polls of a rival right-wing candidate who has made the issue a central plank of his platform.

The network had thousands of dealers and tens of thousands of users, including minors, who could anonymously order drugs — largely cannabis but ranging to stronger substances such as cocaine and MDMA as well — with a few taps on a smartphone, police said. Employees were allegedly paid in cash, Bitcoin or drugs.

In this file photo taken on March 20, 2018, the website of the Telegram messaging app is seen on a computer’s screen in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

Police added that those arrested included Telegrass’s leader, his three deputies and other high-ranking members. Those arrested in Israel were set to be brought for a remand hearing Tuesday at either the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court or the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court.

The leader, who lives in the US, was arrested in Ukraine and Israel will request his extradition.

All the employees of Telegrass operated anonymously and the platform promised anonymity to clients as well, making use of Telegram’s strict privacy policy and message encryption. However, police said they were able to identify all of the network’s managers following a covert investigation that lasted several months.

Police accomplished that by operating an agent who worked for the network and gathered evidence, Channel 13 reported.

In February 2018, the full list of some 3,500 Telegrass dealers was leaked online, including names, personal details and incriminating videos.

In a statement, police said they suspect dozens of tons of drugs worth hundreds of millions of shekels had been sold via Telegrass, which it branded a “crime syndicate for all intents and purposes.”

They said the 42 arrested people were taken for questioning under caution on suspicion of managing and funding a criminal organization, trading and providing dangerous drugs, brokering drug deals, money laundering, disrupting court proceedings, conspiring to commit a crime, tax offenses and more.

The statement called it an “international case,” adding that Ukrainian, American and German authorities had also been involved.

Police raided dozens of homes and offices, seizing money, drugs and “technological means used by the organization.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Likud MK Moshe Feiglin at the Knesset, July 2, 2013. (Flash 90/File)

On Monday evening, Netanyahu was asked on the “Likud TV” Facebook stream for his opinion on legalizing marijuana use, and said he was “looking into it and will have an answer soon.”

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 politicians recently said they would consider relaxing enforcement.

Netanyahu’s statement came after a recent increase in support for the pro-cannabis and quasi-libertarian Zehut party, led by firebrand former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin.

Feiglin famously sparred with Netanyahu for years from inside Likud before leaving the party in 2015.

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