Telegrass: Civil Legalization via Digital Disobedience

The cannabis delivery app, called the “Uber of Weed,” is revolutionizing the industry,
and bringing cannabis legalization closer to reality in Israel.

Israel is recognized for having the world’s highest ratio of cannabis users, according to the the country’s Anti-Drug Authority (IADA), which reports 27 percent of 18-65 years olds used it within the last year. Yet, despite this fact, cannabis remains illegal and access in Israel is limited. Telegrass is changing that.

Telegrass is an Israeli-based, cannabis delivery app that operates under the encrypted messaging system, Telegram. In just eight months, the app has grown to host more than 100,000 users, a number that’s rising daily.

How it works:

It’s through the anonymous platform, Telegraph, that Telegrass functions. The system can anonymize content, and be programed to delete sent messages. Telegram hosts 100 million active monthly users, and delivers 15 billion messages daily, reported its website.

Telegrass allows its members to buy, sell and converse about cannabis. The app can be downloaded for free via Telegram’s website. It’s accessible to almost anyone with a smartphone, but deliveries are only done within Israel (which means tourists can use it). Once downloaded,
users are invited to join channels, which are broken into geographical regions based on location. Examples include Tel Aviv, or the West Bank.

There are more than 35 sub-channels; some deal exclusively with the trade of large quantities of cannabis, others act as discussion forums for topics like music, cultivation, etc.

Channels are where dealers showcase their products with photos and price points. Products range from flowers to edibles, merchandise, and equipment. Buyers contact dealers directly, make a purchase, and have their product delivered directly.

Not just anyone can become a Telegrass dealer, explained Amos Silver, the app’s founder. There are currently 2,000 dealers, and more than 1,000 more waiting in the wings. In order to become a dealer, users must submit records, including their official identification card, to administrators. This is how administrators keep members in line; users remain anonymous via usernames, but the app’s managers retain their details — such as their address — in case of an incident.

The platform is secure and self-regulating; it’s got its own enforcement mechanisms, such as an HR department which addresses sexual harassment, assault or other issues affecting members.

When complaints are reported, managers work to find solutions with members. If offending users refuse to resolve issues, Telegrass revokes membership. In extreme cases, said Silver, “we publish them on our Wall of Shame.”

In one case, a dealer was robbed of more than 60,000 new Israeli shekels (NIS), and suffered a broken hand. In response, the Telegrass members responsible for the crime were posted on the Wall of Shame. “Thousands and thousands of people see their I.D. cards, and know what they did,” said Silver.

“We don’t have police, we don’t have an army, and we can’t judge them. The tool we do have is shame,” Silver said.  Sometimes, he added, these posts motivate families of offenders to compensate victims. “We have a story of one guy who robbed 10,000 NIS [worth of product],” Silver explained. The father of the robber asked that his son be removed from the Wall of Shame in return for the money stolen.

“He did. He paid the money. It was a happy ending. For me, it was better than police treatment,” said Silver, highlighting the higher rate of accountability within the Telegrass community than outside of it.

Silver recognizes that the anonymous nature of the platform means it can be a “goldmine” for bad actors. However, he believes Telegrass is doing a better job of fighting crime than police. For instance, because of the way the app is designed, Silver said Telegrass “has slowly created a map for bad guys in Israel,” he explained, “When something bad happens, we know what neighborhood it is in. We already know who the first suspect is […].”

The Man Behind the Revolution:

Telegrass is run remotely from the U.S. by Silver, 33. He moved to America two years ago after becoming Israel’s so called “first political prisoner of the struggle for legalization,” a title which he finds both funny, and motivating. Silver cannot go back to his home country, as the Israeli government has labeled him an international criminal. He lives a nomadic life in America. During our interview, he speaks about his travels to Alaska to catch a glimpse of a Grizzly bear, a road trip to Seattle, and about his time in Northern and Southern California.

Silver grew up in an orthodox family in the town of Safed, outside of Jerusalem. “When I was 15, I left the way of life I grew up in. I left my family — I left everything — for an independent life for myself in Jerusalem.”

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. That’s when he was introduced to cannabis, which he’s used ever since. When Amos went into the army, he continued to consume it. Cannabis gave him stability and strength, but also, shame. He saw it as an addiction he’d eventually need to kick, he said. “I thought it was something bad – but it really helped me.”

This understanding made him feel sorry for himself, he said, and for the millions upon millions of others who carry guilt, or the weight of a bad self-image on their shoulders. “It’s wrong,” said Silver, “Even if nobody is there to judge you, or take you to jail, [this negativity] when multiplied is what leads to a sick society.”

But, Silver has been judged and jailed for cannabis use/possession on multiple occasions by Israeli officials. In 2012, he was detained, interrogated and placed on house arrest. In 2014/15, Silver spent seven months in prison for trafficking cannabis. It was when he was on house arrest that he decided to be more candid about his use.

Social Media to Encrypted Application:

“So what I did was I posted a picture on Facebook of myself smoking from a bong,” he said. That was in 2012, when such an act was deemed outrageous.

“Thousands of people started to ask me for help,” Silver added, “some wanted weed for their cousins, mothers, sons,” he explained, some said they “couldn’t eat, sleep and wanted to die [without access].”

Naturally, he tried to make as many connections as possible. He established a fake Facebook profile, which allowed others to post, share photos and make purchases under false names. His profile hosted 30 different dealers and thousands of clients.

“And then, it become too much for me,” he said. Silver was about to shut things down when a friend mentioned Telegram — the secure messaging system. Soon after, Silver and Telegram joined forces, and Telegrass was created in March 2017.

The move allowed Telegrass to add managers and extend its security and operations. The app has grown from 35 dealers to approximately 2,000. “It’s still growing every day,” said Silver, who added, “We give jobs to people. We’ve created 2,000 [new] jobs.”

In the near future, Silver said that Telegrass plans to introduce new channels, two of which he hopes will connect members with lawyers and doctors. “[Telegrass] is one place to find everything,” he said.

Telegrass Brings Cannabis One Step Closer to Legalization:

Tomer Oliel, CEO at Cannaprenuer, an international cannabis investment group, explained that Israel is “so advanced, but [still] so behind.”

Though the Israeli government officially decriminalized cannabis use in March 2017, Oliel said it has yet to take effect.

The country certainly does well at attracting research and investment, but cannabis remains highly illegal there, he said. “The situation in Israel is not as bright as it seems.” He cites several recent incidents where Israelis were jailed for use/possession. One such event occurred in September 2017; a 19 year old award-winning gymnast and Israeli Air Force soldier was jailed on suspicion of selling cannabis on base. She died while in custody just days after her arrest, according to “The Times of Israel.”

There are more than one million recreational consumers and 30,000 medical cannabis patients in Israel, according to the IADA. Reported consumption has risen significantly from 8.9 percent in 2011, to nearly 30 percent in 2017.

Oliel said there is a good explanation for such high rates. “[To] our people, cannabis as medicine is well known,” he added. “A lot of the population suffers from PTSD or stress, and they are drawn to cannabis [….].” Populations who live near the border of the Gaza Strip, home to nearly 2 million people, are especially prone to trauma, Oliel noted. Three years ago, during the the war between Hamas and Israeli forces, many along the borders were running for shelter every few minutes.

“Everyone in Israel has to serve in the army,” said Oliel, who served in the second Lebanon War. Many who’ve served find cannabis helps them generally cope, relax and sleep.

There is a lot of need, but little access for Israelis. Oliel said the government remains the gatekeeper of medical cannabis. Sources vary, but as little as eight licensed medical marijuana farms exist in the country. As of last year, there were just over 30 doctors that were able to prescribe medical marijuana; this year, the Israeli government has extended the amount by 100.

Still — demand has far outpaced supply — and Telegrass is filling this gap. “We are not going to wait [for legalization to happen]. People on this platform have spoken,” Oliel said.

Both Oliel and Silver see this as an act of civil disobedience, or as they say, “civil legalization.”

“There’s a civil war against the prohibition of cannabis in Israel,” said Oliel. And Telegrass is on the frontlines.

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