Closure of Israel’s Border With Egypt Seeds a New Domestic Industry: Homegrown Pot
Marijuana smokers lament a ‘drug drought,’ but now enterprising Israelis—including settlers—are stepping in to meet demand
For some Israelis, the government’s newly completed, $400 million border fence with Egypt looks like a way to stop terrorism. For others, it represents a visible effort to halt illegal immigration from Africa. But for one sector of the population, the fortified 150-mile barrier stands for something else entirely: drugs—or, rather, the lack thereof.
“When the border was open, there was cheap hash,” said Amos Silver, who is 29 and lives in Tel Aviv. “Now it costs three, four, five times as much.” Silver is used to smoking marijuana daily, preferably from a bong, but the recent police crackdown on smuggling tunnels that run underneath the Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Egypt, as well as the new fence, have made Silver’s habit increasingly difficult to maintain. “What I don’t have is security,” he told me. “I don’t know whether I’ll have something to smoke tomorrow.”
Before Israel pulled out of Lebanon, in 2000, most of its smuggled drugs came across the northern border. The security restrictions that followed pushed the drug trade south and west, where it has been run for the past decade predominantly by Bedouin tribes from the Sinai Peninsula. In Gaza, 20 percent of the Hamas-ruled budget had gone into maintaining the smuggling conduits, Israeli military assessments show. Hash proliferated in Israel during those years; according to Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority, about 100 tons of marijuana and 10 tons of hashish were smuggled into the country annually, most of it from Egypt. (Trade in cocaine and heroin from Jordan also existed and continues to exist but to a far lesser extent.)
But the widespread drug trade took a hit in 2010, when Israel began construction on the 15-foot-high barbed-wire fence along the Egyptian border. Since its completion in December, the number of drugs coming into the country has dropped drastically—and prices have soared. A “plate” of 100 grams of hash that sold two years ago for 2,000 NIS (about $570) costs up to 5,000 NIS (about $1,400) today. Small amounts of marijuana still filter in, either through Jordan or by way of motorboats crossing the Red Sea. But most dealers have lost their suppliers and have nothing to sell their customers. “You can’t get it through the old channels. You have to find them. There are no more dealers who come to your home,” said Yair, a regular marijuana buyer who asked not to be identified by his last name. “If you have a high level of connection, you pay 100 shekels [a gram]. If you don’t, you pay 160. And even then you may end up with junk.”
Now instead of forking out more shekels—or weaning off the drug altogether—marijuana smokers are increasingly solving the problem by resorting to homegrown solutions, police and activists say. Just this month, officers from the police’s central district, which includes Tel Aviv, busted four locations used for the growing and distribution of more than 100 kilograms of marijuana. A news report by Israel’s Channel 1 called the shift to homegrown weed “the hot trend of the big city.” “Consumers didn’t stop,” Oren Lebovich, the editor of Cannabis, a website that supports the legalization of marijuana, told me. “People started growing it at home,” he said, adding that he buys his own drug supply from friends who produce it. (Both he and Silver were willing to speak with me on the record as part of some activists’ move to “come out of the green closet.”)
One smoker who lives in Tel Aviv and asked not to be identified for fear of run-ins with the police told me that many of his friends who used to smoke “brown”—meaning hash—have switched over to growing and selling “green”—marijuana—out of their apartments. “They buy equipment for 1,500 shekels and can then sell kilos of the stuff commercially for 70 shekels a gram. It’s huge money. It’s become a business like any other.”
The trend isn’t confined to Tel Aviv. Large amounts of homegrown marijuana have also been seized in Jerusalem over the last year—including from an octogenarian couple. And police in the southern district of Lachish last summer arrested dozens of farmers, as well as several migrant workers from Thailand, suspected of growing cannabis in hothouses in the Negev, alongside other crops. “It’s very hard to live off of growing peppers and tomatoes. The salary isn’t what it used to be,” one of the farmers told police investigators. “So, we started growing marijuana.”
Police refer to illegal greenhouses as hydroponic labs, a method of growing plants without the use of soil. But the hydroponic method is costly—it entails expensive lighting equipment and water pumps—and most of the homegrown cannabis in Israel today is believed to be produced on peat soil, a less expensive method. Yet stores that specialize in hydroponic gardening—so-called “hydro stores”—have sprung up all over the country, catering to the shift from imported hashish to locally grown marijuana. Helping distribute the drug is illegal in Israel, and storeowners don’t publicly acknowledge selling materials for the purpose of producing it. “What the clients then do with the equipment doesn’t concern us,” the owner of HydroShop in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim told me over the phone. Still, findings from Cannabis show an uptick in the shipping of the plant’s seeds into Israel, and one person who works closely with the hydro stores told me he estimated that there are 60,000 people in the country who grow and distribute marijuana.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the increasing role of Jewish settlers from the West Bank as drug distributors. According to an article published last year by Ynet, lax police enforcement in the territories makes it easier for settlers to get their hands on marijuana, likely coming in from Jordan, not Egypt. One settler who lives in the West Bank, identified as Assaf, told Ynet that Israel’s drug shortage helps, however circuitously, bring different sectors of the population together. “Tel Avivians always arrived here to drink wine and enjoy the view, but they would come and go,” he said. “The dry spell made it so that they now come and want to stay here—at least for the night, because it’s hard to drive home after [smoking].”
Using and distributing marijuana is officially illegal in Israel—except for medical use, which has been prevalent in Israel since the 1990s. But directives given by former attorney general Meni Mazuz to the police in 2003 stipulated that no indictments should be made against first-time—or even second- or third-time—offenders caught possessing a small amount for personal use. (Mazuz reiterated his stance last June: “We shouldn’t deal with light drugs for personal consumption. It’s not worth it—not on the individual level, and not on the level of wasting enforcement resources.”)
But police officers continue to make over 20,000 drug arrests every year—seemingly torn between a law that states one thing and a legal order that states another. This contradictory policy is perhaps a reflection of the way in which the issue is viewed by Israeli society at large: While 9 percent of Israelis use cannabis, according to the United Nations World Drug Report of 2013—and experimenting with harder drugs is considered a rite of passage of sorts for young people who complete their military service—a recent survey shows that only 26 percent of the public supports making it legal. (By contrast, in the United States, 10 percent use marijuana, while almost 60 percent of the public supports legalization.)
Although the shortage in imported cannabis is “choking consumers,” according to Lebovich, he nevertheless described it as a “blessed” change. “People are now growing a healthier product,” he said. Then, as if echoing regular police talking points about how the smuggling trade has helped finance Hamas in Gaza, he added: “And they’re not funneling money to anti-Israel organizations.”
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