Terra Incognita: The great dry up of 2010

The lack of available marijuana in Israel is leading many to grow their own, which could reduce money to illicit networks.

Hash stash (photo credit: Israel Police)
Hash stash
(photo credit: Israel Police)
To some people, Israel mityabeshet (Israel is drying up) reminds them that there is a water shortage in the country. But for others, the term evokes a different kind of dread – the ‘drying up’ of the marijuana supply.
According to one source, it all began in December last year. Before then, the cost of marijuana was much lower than it is now. Ten grams (about the size of a finger) of hashish cost around NIS 200, while today it costs NIS 500. Then, 100 grams could be found easily, but now such quantities are hard to come by. Hydro (i.e “grass”) used to cost NIS 60 per gram; now that amount runs at NIS 100-150, if it can be found at all.
It is estimated that prior to 2009, 110 tons of marijuana were coming into Israel every year. In the old days there was a plethora of varieties. Hash is comprised of compressed THC, taken from the cannabis plant. In Israel it comes exclusively through Arab countries and is generally sold to big Arab dealers here who then pass it on to Jewish ones. It is also “bulked up” with chemicals. The money paid flows back to sources in Egypt and, to a lesser degree, Lebanon.
Many of the hash shipments that come into Israel also travel with smugglers involved in the weapons and sex-slave trade, according to police. It is thought that the same people smuggling to Hamas in Gaza are also involved in smuggling drugs into Israel via Sinai.
The effect of a recent police crackdown was immediate.
Everyday users found that their local sources, friends and dealers, no longer had any to offer. The country became dry almost overnight. People became desperate. One man paid NIS 2,000 for 100 grams of chocolate. Another bought some sort of compressed shoe polish. These weren’t naive college students who, in the US would go out to buy grass and end up with oregano, but people who should have known what they were buying.
There are lots of theories about the great bust that caused the country to run dry. A serious police effort to shut down local cultivators began in the fall of 2009. There was also a crackdown by Israeli and Egyptian police on both sides of the border, which resulted in shipments being seized. This may have been due to increased surveillance in regards to traffic in weapons and people in Sinai.
For a while, in the spring of 2009, the rumor was that there were hashish reserves buried underground. The drug kingpins believed the police were watching these hidden stashes. A few major dealers in the south were arrested, and there was fear by others that the police had infiltrated their operations from a high level.
In February, the major dealers began to break into their “reserves,” and drugs began to appear on the market again, albeit in very small and expensive quantities.
In June, there were protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against the lack of marijuana. A July 15 rally scheduled for Rabin Square in Tel Aviv was banned by the city. A puppet appeared on YouTube videos complaining about the lack of grass. Another video showed a guy calling all his old friends from high school to find marijuana. People who used to smoke in reasonably public places found themselves assailed by strangers desperate for a toke.
Several newspapers such as Yediot Aharonot reported on the “dry up.”
There is a sense, among the public that is partial to such things, of a national emergency.
AS THE source, C., who lives in constant fear of the police, rolls another joint of his fresh, home-grown product, he explains why the current situation might be good: “because of the terrorist connections associated with the hash that comes in with weapons from Egypt and Gaza. The police need to accept that medical marijuana (stressing the difference between hash and marijuana) in the West is catching on; why are they suppressing a plant grown in nature when there are more pressing social problems… marijuana should be legalized and taxed, and it should be legal to grow it in your own house, as is the case in several places in the west where it has been de-criminalized.”
The most recent bust was on August 1, 2010 when 800 kilograms of marijuana were seized at the Egyptian border by Israeli police in an action that resulted in two Beduin smugglers being shot, one fatally. The other escaped from the hospital shortly thereafter.
Now people here are attempting to grow the plant in or near their own homes. They order seeds from Amsterdam which arrive in non-descript packages (like pornography in the US).
Like their North American peers, tokers in Israel are learning about “hydroponics” and the “old-fashioned” method of growing weed on balconies.
My friend elaborates: “People are setting up crazy grow systems… a friend in Tel Aviv who studied engineering set up a special system with water flowing continuously… a friend on a kibbutz has gone into growing and hooking us up during the dry spell.”
One resident of Lod who left his house for three months returned in February to find that it been turned into a weed farm. For others, leaving Israel (at least on holiday) has become the only way to get to their favorite means of relaxation. One thing is certain: For a segment of the population, the first half of 2010 will be remembered as The Great Dry Up of 2010.
The result may well be an indigenous industry that, despite being illegal, could reduce the money flowing to illicit networks in Egypt and Lebanon.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.