Israeli Cannabis Dealers Wage Charity-Based PR Campaign

By Ziv Genesove on May 23, 2018

"If the state does not want to take taxes from us like a legitimate business, we will transfer the money to those who we see fit," said the online trafficking project Telegrass. After the Israeli authorities rejected its request to pay taxes on its sales, Telegrass donated the tax money to various non-profit organizations. "This is only the beginning." 

A range of green hills, clear mountain air and the sounds of goats and cows mingle under the rooster's dawn cry. Sharon Cohen wakes up at her animal sanctuary for another morning round serving breakfast to its residents.  

For nearly 10 years, she's been caring for the various animals who made their way to the farm, in most cases after serious accidents or criminal neglect. Maintenance of the place costs about NIS 50,000 a month (approximately $14,000), and it functions without the support of the state, run only from donations. Throughout the existence of the farm, Sharon encountered quite a few types of donors, but she never imagined that a co-op of illegal cannabis dealers would join the list.

"Suddenly a biker comes with a bag full of bills"

"Wednesday I get a phone call from an unidentified number," Cohen recalled. "He says to me, 'Hey Sharon, we do not know [each other]. I'm talking [on behalf of] the Telegrass, and we want to donate NIS 42,000 to your organization."

The Telegrass community in Israel is an illicit-drug marketplace associated with the encrypted messaging application Telegram. Cannabis is the primary drug bought and sold on Telegrass, which has been described as "like Uber but for weed."

"At first I did not understand what it was all about," said Cohen. "I was sure it was a joke—why would cannabis dealers donate me money?—but in less than an hour, a guy appeared on a motorcycle and pulled out a black bag. I looked inside and was amazed to find a huge amount of bills… After the guy with the motorcycle left the place, I was left in shock. I felt like I'm in a movie or something. It was such a bizarre incident. I sat down and counted the bills one by one—there was exactly NIS 42,000. I consulted with several individuals and eventually made a decision that I would receive the money and deposit it in the bank."

Cohen does not feel she needs to apologize for receiving "dirty" money. She suggests that, since cannabis is already becoming legal in more and more places around the world, there is no problem receiving money that comes from profits on the illegal crop.

"These resources would go to criminal organizations," she argued. "Instead, this money will fund more food and treatment for unhappy animals. 

Half a salary for smoking a joint 

The story of the contribution from the cannabis dealers was published in the largest media outlets in Israel and spurred public discourse about the need to regulate the cannabis market in the country.

Israel is widely considered a "cannabis superpower," thanks to its advanced agricultural technology and the medical cannabis research promoted by the Israeli Ministry of Health. Regarding cannabis for recreational use, though, Israel is still operating like a developing nation: More than 20,000 criminal cases are opened each year based on personal cannabis use, and people may still find themselves in jail for growing a plant.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in public pressure on Knesset members (The Israeli Parliament) to change the situation, and earlier this year, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced a plan that would shift drug policy toward "decriminalization with responsibility." However, most cannabis consumers in the Holy Land view this as a farce since the police still allows itself to conduct invasive searches in people's homes and to fine people between NIS 1,000 and 3,000 (approx. $275 to $850), a sum that equals a half-month's salary for many citizens.

"It will help us support the children" 

A short time later, a new report emerged that Israeli cannabis dealers made another contribution. This time, they donated NIS 30,000 (approx. $8,500) to an organization that deals with autistic children and adults.

"I was very excited to receive the donation, and it will help us support the children," said Avigail Dar, the director and treasure of the association. He's also the father of a son with autism.

Like Sharon Cohen's farm, Dar's association does not receive government support. For this reason, all donations, especially of this magnitude, immensely help with the effort, which sometimes encounters difficulties due to lack of funding. Moreover, the fact that various nonprofit organizations see nothing wrong with receiving money from cannabis dealers epitomizes how far the public consciousness has shifted in Israel.

"We don't accept money from criminals" 

The media loves these Robin Hood-type stories, and it seems the Telegrass managers succeeded in a brilliant marketing exercise that promoted its cannabis trade project on every possible platform. However, it appears the donation campaign also led to increased public discussion in Israel regarding the growing need for full market regulation.

"The truth is that, before we started with these donations, we contacted various factors in the country and tried to examine how we can pay taxes to the public coffers," one of the project managers told PRØHBTD. "But after weeks of sending us from one party to another, we received a final answer: We were told that no official institution in the country can accept money from criminal activity such as dealing drugs and prohibited materials. "

Telegrass kept pushing but to no avail. The manager continued, "We insisted, we tried to explain that our project is rolling over a quarter of a million shekels every month, an astronomical sum that we would gladly transfer to the public, but they remained steadfast in their position and claimed they were not taking money from criminals."

"This is only the beginning"

In the end, the Telegrass managers understood there was no chance that the state would agree to take the money so they turned to Plan B: donations to various organizations operating in fields close to their hearts.

"We decided that, if the state refuses to look at us as a legitimate business and take taxes from us, we would pay the taxes on our own initiative," the Telegrass manager explained. "I have no doubt the great publicity these actions generated in the media has reached the highest levels, and it will take time, but eventually they will understand their mistake."

The police continues to pursue members of the Telegrass community, but public sentiment continues to change. 

"We are getting many reinforcements from the Israeli public on the idea," he continued. "This is only the beginning. We will continue to donate money to various bodies until the state gets some sense and regulates the cannabis market in Israel." 

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