Detective “Ronen” of the Tel Aviv police sits in an unmarked cruiser casing a
kiosk on Ben-Yehuda Street on an overcast afternoon earlier this month. He knows
they’re selling synthetic marijuana and budget amphetamines round the clock. Any
day now he’ll raid the place.
But not today.
He admits it doesn’t
really matter if he rolls in with search warrants and drags the owner out in
cuffs; the kiosk will be back in business in no time.
For all its hi-tech
bluster, one of the top success stories for the “start-up nation” has been the
matchbox booths that sell mostly synthetic marijuana as well as capsules of
speed, which have spread like wildfire across Tel Aviv in the past few years. In
conversations and a tour with Tel Aviv police earlier this month, it became
clear that there is little plan and less deterrence for dealing with a
quasilegal drug trade that has become part of the landscape of the
“The dealers know that it’s not covered by the anti-drug laws and
to get a new formula banned it takes around six months. So what they do is they
just sell all they can of a certain type until it’s made illegal and then they
make a new formula,” says Detective Eran Auster of the Lev Tel Aviv police
Auster says that when a store is busted for selling herbal
marijuana substitutes (“synthetic cannibinoids”), the most police can do is get
a court order to close the store for a few days on suspicion of selling illegal
substances; but since the drugs aren’t illegal under Israeli law, no charges can
be brought. In the case of “hagigat,” the blanket term given for all the forms
of speed sold in NIS 25 capsules at kiosks across Tel Aviv, only certain strands
are illegal. If another strand becomes illegal (a process that takes several
months), dealers only need to tweak the formula to create a new one that is legal
According to Auster, the fake marijuana and kiosk speed industries
are homegrown Israeli through-and-through.
Dealers have learned how to
make the compounds for the synthetic weed or order it from abroad, and then add
it to herbs like lemon verbena, which is typically grown and processed on
moshavim and farms in central Israel.
He and Ronen (who asked not to be
named because he handles police informants for the central Tel Aviv police) then
begin looking on a USB drive for pictures from a 2011 bust in the ramshackle
Argazim neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, where had they caught two Sudanese men
spraying lemon verbena with a chemical compound in a vacant lot, part of a 100
kilo bust that – if it had been real marijuana – would have been a major
The businesses have little overhead, and with virtually no risk
of arrest, it’s easy to understand how they’re a growth industry. Each NIS 50
bag of synthetic cannabis costs at most NIS 6 or 7 to produce and each NIS 25
pill of hagigat has a production cost of about a half a shekel, according to
The center of the trade is on Allenby Street near
the intersection with Ben-Yehuda, where a few clusters of kiosks are set up one
after another, each covered with graffiti of marijuana leafs and mushrooms with
teenage stoner banners like “Amsterdam,” “skunk” and “feel” as well as the words
“incense store: not for human consumption” written on the walls.
now-closed store had a painting of the founder of political Zionism, Theodor
Herzl, in his famous shot leaning over a balcony in Basel, his eyes bloodshot
The typical kiosk is about the size of a large walk-in closet, empty
except for a few shelves stocked with bags of synthetic marijuana and rolling
papers, usually with a single male employee in his early 20s listening to music
on a laptop, his eyes glazed over like those of the graffiti Herzl.
when police get a court order to close the kiosks, because there are so few
expenses they lose very little if they are shut down for a few days.
The only businesses that suffer from a short closure are the large convenience
stores and mini-markets that also sell speed and synthetic marijuana. Because of
this, most of these kiosks have stopped selling drugs, which have become almost
exclusively the domain of the shoebox operations on Allenby and elsewhere in
central Tel Aviv.
“If you take a guy who’s got a mini-market with ice
cream coolers, produce, stock, and you shut him down for three or four days, he
can lose his business. But one of these guys, what are they going to lose if you
shut them down for the week?” Ronen asks, adding that for most mini-markets it’s
no longer worth the risk. He says this also goes for convenience stores that
sell lotto tickets or run “Toto” or “Winner” sports books, because police can
call the Toto or Winner offices and have them close down the store.
does, however, point out a couple of kiosks on Ben-Yehuda that still sell
hagigat along with cigarettes, milk, and magazines, saying that in some cases
the hagigat pills are the only thing keeping the establishments open.
doesn’t want to take a risk so he only sells it to people who he knows or are
regulars, so he only sells say 40 to 50 or so a week. But still, that’s an extra
NIS 1,000; without it, he might have to close the business,” Ronen
The most common form of synthetic weed is “Mr. Nice Guy,” which
began to spread across Tel Aviv a little over three years ago when there was a
serious drought in the hash market. It filled a void before the local homegrown
cannabis and medical marijuana supplies began to soar.
Synthetic cannabis also has the added draw of not being detectable in urine exams or blood tests.
Though little research has been done into the effects of synthetic cannibinoids, they can be habit forming and cause nausea and reportedly, hallucinations. Clemson University chemistry professor Dr. John Hoffman, who created a recipe for synthetic cannibinoids in 1995, said in an AP article in 2010 "people who use [smoke] it are idiots".
it’s easier to get and people don’t need to worry about getting arrested,”
Auster says, adding “it’s also perfect for dealers who are trying to make easy
money with less risks. Most of them are people who used to deal weed or hash and
didn’t want to get in trouble any more.”
Hagigat first came on the scene
several years earlier, and was sold openly in kiosks as a party drug derived
from the ghat plant, sold in capsules that are swallowed or emptied out and
snorted. Its name is a combination of the Hebrew word “hagiga” (“party”) and
“ghat,” and its active ingredient is the same as ghat – cathine. Eventually a
ban was enacted on hagigat derived from cathine, so suppliers started making new
strands based on different types of methamphetamine.
bears little resemblance to its forebears and includes all types of fillers cut
with the speed, including aspirin, lactose and even, according to Ronen,
“You snort that in one nostril, sahlav will come out the
other,” he cracks.
A darker side of the hagigat trade has made the press
in recent months as police have warned of a rise in intravenous use of the drug,
mainly by drug addicts in south Tel Aviv who can’t afford heroin or don’t want
to risk getting arrested every time they shoot up. Police have expressed fears
that it could lead to a rise in HIV infection in Tel Aviv, an assertion given
some backing by a report last week by the Health Ministry that there was a
significant outbreak of hepatitis A in 2012, with 69 cases as opposed to only
seven the year before. Nearly 20 percent of the cases were young drug-addicted
and homeless men in south Tel Aviv and Bat Yam.
According to Auster and
Ronen, the hagigat sold south of Menachem Begin Street – a de facto border
between north and south Tel Aviv – is of a different make-up that more easily
dissolves in water, making it more suited for injection. As opposed to central
and north Tel Aviv, where hagigat is largely seen as a party drug, near the
central bus station its a new drug of choice for dead-enders in need of a
cheaper and easier fix, according to police assessments.
While it is
apparent that both detectives are concerned about the public health risks posed
by the kiosk drugs, whose long-term effects on users have not been closely
examined, they also seem personally annoyed at their powerlessness in stopping a
drug trade that is out in the open and anything but harmless.
store right there? It’s the size of a box, and the owner, after just a few
months open, was able to build a villa,” Ronen says as he tools down Allenby in
“That’s what they said? They said we’re all getting rich
from this?” exclaims the man behind the counter at a synthetic weed store on
Allenby a few days later. “No one gets rich off this. Look at the convenience
stores and the prices they ask for stuff; they’re the ones getting
The 31-year-old man, who asked to be referred to as “Makaveli,” an
alias of rapper Tupac, whose music is blasting out of a set of speakers on the
counter, says he makes a little over minimum wage to work at the store, which
pulls in between NIS 1,000 to NIS 2,000 per day.
As he speaks, a regular
comes in and buys a NIS 50 bag. Makaveli pockets the cash and pencils the purchase
on a notepad. He says the store doesn’t exactly keep records of their sales for
taxes. He also says that from what he understands, the rent is between NIS 4,000
and NIS 5,000 per month.
Makaveli admits that the herb he sells doesn’t
give the same high as the real stuff and can sometimes give you a headache.
Still, he says, people have grown to like it and prefer to know they won’t get
arrested – a fact he says probably won’t change any time soon.
they [police] want it to be like this,” he says. “They know that if one day they
really, really come out and close down all these shops, they’re just going to
sell it in the streets or alleys. It’s not going to go away.”