Hours before local police raided his hotel room in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 12, Telegrass founder Amos Silver was brazenly cavalier in an interview with Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: “The police can’t do anything,” he said. “They have no way of getting to us.”
Telegrass, the cannabis trading platform created by Silver, has become the preferred marketplace for hundreds of thousands of Israelis — and tourists — who seek to purchase recreational marijuana illegally.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Telegrass, based on the Telegram instant messaging app, revolutionized the local drug market — and created a major headache for the Israel Police.
But last week, Silver’s green streak ended when police arrested 42 people from the platform’s highest echelon both in Israel and abroad — including Silver himself.
The Telegrass website was also taken over, with a message on the homepage reading in English and Hebrew, “This site was seized by the Israel Police.”
The Israeli police were quoted as saying that the foreign arrests were coordinated with law enforcement agencies in the United States, Germany and Ukraine.
“You can break my spirit and maybe even destroy my soul, but you are making a terrible mistake,” Silver wrote from Ukrainian prison Tuesday in a letter to the Israel Police, according to the Ynet news site. “The distorted and bizarre picture that you are trying to paint, while violating and trampling on my basic rights in order to have me convicted of a crime I never committed, [is destined to fail].”
How did a young man who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Safed become one of Israel’s most wanted? What was the secret of Silver’s success, and what led to his eventual downfall? And do the recent arrests spell the end of the online cannabis trade in Israel?
Watch street protests on behalf of Amos Silver in Tel Aviv
‘The state should make space in prisons for half a million people’
This reporter first met Silver nearly a decade ago when I was a media studies student at Tel-Hai College, and had heard about a young activist determined to promote cannabis legalization through unconventional means.
At the time, Silver was under house arrest at his home in Safed for possession and trafficking of hashish. In a small, disorderly room, Silver outlined his vision for legalization of recreational marijuana in Israel.
“If all the citizens decide to spark up a joint wherever they please, the situation on the ground will have an impact on the government,” he said.
Silver wasn’t all talk. During that 2011 interview he smoked several times from an improvised bong, and showed me a small marijuana plant he’d cultivated — all while under house arrest.
“If my cannabis use is so problematic and dangerous, why am I not in full custody?” Silver said. “According to the state I’ve committed a serious crime. If the government was being honest with itself, it would have to make space in the prison system for half a million people.”
Silver’s courage and determination seemed formidable, but at the time there was no way of knowing just how far he’d take his crusade.
Setting fire to convention
Amos Dov-Silver grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Safed. As a teenager, he entered a course of rigorous religious study in Jerusalem, but left the program at age 15 as he began to question, and ultimately abandon, his religious lifestyle. At the same time, he also embarked on what would be a long romance with the cannabis plant.
Silver performed his mandatory service as a combat soldier in the Nachshon battalion of the Kfir brigade — but even the rigid military culture didn’t deter him from carrying on with his habitual cannabis consumption.
“I was never afraid to tell people that I smoke weed, even in the army,” Silver said. “I even used to bring my bong to the military base and take it with me on guard duty.”
When Silver completed his military service, he continued with his straightforward approach to cannabis use. When he was picked up and questioned by police in 2012 over possession of a small amount of hash, he not only didn’t deny the accusations — he immediately admitted that he’d also helped his friend procure some.
At least in the eyes of the police, this was tantamount to admitting to being a drug dealer.
“The policemen were pleased, because from their point of view I had made a confession — but I didn’t see it that way,” Silver had said in 2011, referring to his first arrest. “Not that I have a problem with cannabis dealers, but I wasn’t one. I simply went to get some hashish for myself and a friend asked me to pick some up for him, too. If I buy tomatoes at the store, and bring a kilo home for my neighbor, does that make me a tomato dealer?”
The Big Bong Night
In April 2014, Silver organized the most audacious cannabis legalization protest in Israeli history: The Big Bong Night.
At the time, smoking marijuana in public spaces was much less common in Israel than it is today, and police were still actively arresting people in possession of even small amounts of cannabis.
Silver called for a “cannabis smoking protest in a public space.” The public space he chose for the protest was the Wohl Rose Park in Jerusalem — which happened to be located directly in front of the Knesset.
Along with a few other activists, Silver ran an intense online campaign that drew a lot of attention — including from police.
Watch Amos Silver invite the Israel Police to the The Big Bong Night
Several hours before the event, the police announced that they had arrested Silver for “inciting and soliciting,” but this did not prevent over 1,000 protesters from massing at the Wohl Rose Park and sparking a smoky pro-marijuana demonstration the likes of which the country had never seen.
Dozens of police gazed in astonishment as hundreds of participants casually smoked joints and bongs right in front of their faces, without an ounce of fear. The ice began to crack.
In the months following The Big Bong Night, Silver continued disregarding anti-marijuana laws until he was again arrested on charges of selling several grams, and possession of 150 grams, of cannabis. Once again, he immediately admitted to the charges.
The court sentenced him to nine months in prison, of which he served seven. Shortly after his release, Silver, whose late father was American and who holds US citizenship, decided to head stateside.
There, in the US, far from the reach of the Israel Police, Silver turned his Facebook page into a platform for cannabis trade in what would turn out to be a precursor to Telegrass. Cannabis dealers back in Israel would upload photos of their merchandise and tag Silver, enabling them to sell their product at home with relative anonymity.
There were soon dozens of Israeli dealers selling cannabis on Silver’s page. A friend of his with a background in information systems security recommended that Silver transfer all of his page’s activity to the Telegram platform, which was considered safer and with better encryption. He named his budding business Telegrass.
The Amsterdam experience
Telegrass emerged into a vacuum that had existed in Israel for years. Quite a few people grew cannabis, and many consumed it; but there was no one to serve as middleman for the two groups — mainly due to fear of getting arrested.
The number of cannabis merchants using Telegrass grew from tens to hundreds, and was soon in the thousands. Due to the influx of supply, cannabis prices dropped by nearly half — from NIS 100-120 (roughly $28-$33) per gram a few years before, to packages of 10 grams for NIS 600 ($166) or less.
The platform also changed the nature of the transaction itself. Prior to the introduction of Telegrass, customers often had to meet face-to-face with shady characters, or enter dangerous neighborhoods. Customers using the platform didn’t have to leave the house. In urban locations such as downtown Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the average delivery time for a shipment was 20 minutes or less.
“The platform was very comfortable and very inviting,” Koby, who used Telegrass for over a year, told The Times of Israel following Silver’s arrest last week. “The dealers were organized by region: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and so on — the whole country was covered, including Eilat and Kiryat Shmona.”
“The dealers’ new offerings were automatically updated in each group, so it was actually kind of like a menu,” Koby said. “It listed what products they had, which strains, how the plants were grown [whether indoors or outside], and of course, the price.”
Competition caused dealers to begin branding themselves. Whereas before, “a Telegrass dealer would throw you a bag of buds in a simple sandwich bag,” said Koby, “today most of the dealers market themselves with branded bags. The consumer experience is like you just walked out of an Amsterdam coffee shop.”
Of course, a platform facilitating the trade of illicit substances has its dark side. There have been cases of fraud, theft and even sexual harassment.
“Obviously we have problematic cases,” Silver told Israeli media last year. “But we are taking great pains to prevent this, and when it does happen we have our ways of fixing things.”
The measures Silver was alluding to involved leveraging the dealers’ personal information. New dealers who wished to register with Telegrass had to photograph themselves with their product, as well as supply a photo of their Israeli identity card.
In multiple interviews with the news media, Silver was careful to point out that Telegrass went to great lengths not to publicize a dealer’s identity card, and did so only as a last resort.
The Telegrass management also invested a tremendous effort in stemming sexual harassment and established a team dedicated to handling that alone, after some dealers offered women clients the option of paying with sex rather than cash.
‘I encourage dealers to sell to minors’
Within a few months of Telegrass’ launch, over 100,000 Israelis had registered on the platform, ordering and receiving cannabis in less time than it took to get a pizza.
The numbers only increased with time, and Silver was soon elevated to the status of local hero for managing to beat the system.
“Telegrass succeeded on such a large scale mainly because there was a man who was willing to put himself out there and associate a face with the organization,” said the editor of the Israeli magazine Cannabis, Oren Lebovitch, in conversation with The Times of Israel last week.
“Telegrass is certainly not the only online cannabis platform, but when people see a real face, it conveys reliability,” Lebovitch said.
Silver’s outspokenness brought him trouble, however, as he began issuing controversial statements to the media.
“As a supporter of the idea that minors under the age of 18 should be allowed to buy cannabis, I gather boys who can’t find a dealer willing to sell to them and I try to help with that. I encourage dealers to sell cannabis to minors,” he told Israeli media.
The statements angered many, including within the cannabis-friendly community.
“I think they made a significant marketing mistake by selling to teenagers,” said Lebovitch. “This kind of behavior is not accepted in the public eye and creates antagonism, giving the police more drive to put an end to it.”
The fact that the platform also facilitated the selling of hard drugs further discredited it. Though Telegrass administrators issued a statement that they banned the few dealers offering heroin or cocaine, other substances such as LSD and MDMA were officially allowed and even had their own channel on the platform.
‘Guys, I was arrested and am in a Ukrainian police car’
The party came to an end last week with a special operation conducted by the Israel Police in coordination with law enforcement officials in the US, Germany and Ukraine, leading to the arrest of 42 senior Telegrass administrators, including Silver himself.
According to a report in the Israeli Cannabis magazine, police ambushed Silver in a sting operation when an undercover agent posing as a fan of Silver’s invited him to a wedding ostensibly being held in Kiev last week, even going so far as to purchase his airfare from the US.
Shortly after Silver landed in Ukraine, local forces accompanied by Israel Police agents raided his hotel room and arrested him. Despite likely facing many years in prison, Silver remained calm and even covertly posted a video of himself to YouTube from inside the police car, updating fans about his situation.
“Guys, they arrested me, I’m now with the Ukrainians,” Silver said. “The Israeli police raided my room in the middle of the night. I’m now inside the police car, and the officers just went out to smoke a cigarette, and didn’t notice that I still have my cellphone. I feel fine. They are probably going to extradite me to Israel.”
Watch Amos Silver’s message to fans from inside the Ukrainian police car
‘The online cannabis trade will stay the same’
The Israel Police celebrated following Silver’s arrest. Chief Superintendent Moshe Sheetrit told Israeli media that “we put an end to the criminal organization called ‘Telegrass.’ We arrested the managers of the network that allowed the operation of this application; without them it cannot function. This is integral, because we have taken away the anonymity of the web — everyone who thought they were immune in using this application, we proved today that we know who the director is, who the dealers are, who is buying it, we know everyone.”
The police force’s pride in making the bust is understandable — Telegrass was extremely public in its flouting of the law — but it remains questionable whether it truly believes this large-scale operation will bring an end to the online drug trade in Israel.
For his part, Silver maintains an almost messianic vision of leading the Israeli people to cannabis-filled enlightenment.
“Telegrass will continue to exist even without me,” Silver wrote in his letter to the Israel Police. “Nobody on earth, including in Ukraine, is going to destroy the idea. I am strong. I will fight to the end against the dictatorial, criminal, and non-democratic regime that the Israeli government leads while ignoring a fundamental principle.”
“I am grateful for the privilege of waging the struggle for the idea of legalization. I call upon all my friends and all my supporters, covert and open, to wage this fight, which is utterly just, together with me,” he said.
“It is reasonable to assume that the online sale of cannabis will continue to be exactly the same,” Lebovitch told The Times of Israel. “Telegrass is only one group among many — it is just the most famous.”
According to Lebovitch, the Israeli cannabis market will likely go through an “adjustment period,” after which it will return to business as usual.
“Things will probably be more complicated, and it will be harder to get good prices, at least for a few days,” Lebovitch said. “But the situation will balance itself out. Some of the dealers who were active in Telegrass have already moved on to other groups such as Weed4U, The Underground, and similar platforms.”
While the police can pat themselves on the backs over a job well done, it appears that there is no turning back the clock. Until there is regulation reform on cannabis trade in Israel, the online market seems certain to continue to be an integral part of life for more than half a million Israeli cannabis consumers.