In February 2019, Amos Dov Silver, a slight man in his mid-30s who often wears his shoulder-length hair in a bun, received a Telegram message inviting him to a wedding in Ukraine. The sender had worked with Silver for more than two years and wanted him to stand in for his father at the altar. “As you know, I don’t have a family,” he wrote. Silver agreed, and the following month, he flew from Arizona to Kyiv. Less than 48 hours later, he awoke to find five Israeli police officers standing in his hotel room.

Silver, an American-Israeli from a Hasidic background, started using his Facebook page as a marketplace to connect marijuana dealers with buyers in 2015, after years of loudly advocating for the drug’s legalization in Israel. This was four years after the emergence of Silk Road, which quickly became the gold standard for decentralized, anonymous marketplaces operating on the darknet. Founded by the American Ross Ulbricht (whose online nom de guerre was “Dread Pirate Roberts”), Silk Road was estimated to be worth over $1 billion within two years of its founding, selling everything from pot to AK-47s. As the website grew in notoriety, Ulbricht became a model for a new generation of digital drug kingpins — and, with his arrest in 2013, a harbinger of what might await successors like Silver. 

When Israel decriminalized recreational marijuana use in 2017, Silver and a team of coders and managers transferred their service to the Russian messaging platform Telegram. The app is popular with activists and journalists around the world because of its end-to-end encryption, which means that the cryptographic keys needed to decrypt a message are stored with only the sender and receiver. This makes it essentially impossible for anyone, even the app maker, to decode an intercepted message. Thanks to this built-in anonymity, buying drugs through Telegrass became as easy as ordering a pizza. Unlike traditional drug cartels, Telegrass leadership doesn’t profit from individual deals; instead, to advertise their wares, dealers pay 420 shekels ($122.25) for access to the platform. Unscrupulous sellers are kicked off and get their names posted on a “wall of shame.”

When Telegrass arrived in Ukraine in 2017, its operators found conditions perfectly suited to running a black-market business. A permissive legal landscape and weak rule of law — as well as the large number of visiting Israelis — made it a natural candidate for Telegrass’ expansion. Additionally, while most countries mandate some form of identity verification to purchase a SIM card and register a phone number, Ukraine — along with Israel and the United States — does not, making it impossible for law enforcement to trace Telegram accounts registered under a phone number.

Soon after Telegrass launched in Ukraine, thousands of competing channels emerged, with the most popular attracting tens of thousands of subscribers. The old style of drug dealing, based on face-to-face interactions between consumers and dealers, disappeared. Viacheslav Markov, dean of the Faculty of Cyber Police at the Kharkiv National University of Internal Affairs, has said that 90% of drug sales in Ukraine now occur via Telegram. Viacheslav Safonov, the deputy head of Ukraine’s Department for Combating Drug Crimes, concurs. In addition to being better for advertising, the new system is safer for dealers. When buyers knew who they had purchased drugs from, there was an inclination to “share” that information with law enforcement when pressed. Now, that’s no longer possible.

In prosecuting Silver, Israeli authorities claimed that “Telegrass changed the face of crime.” Less than two years after his arrest, it’s unclear whether Silver was personally responsible for transforming the drug market or if he was simply an early and influential adopter of technology that would become the status quo. Whichever is true, it’s clear that, in many parts of the world, the system that Telegrass perfected has become the dominant model for buying and selling illegal drugs.

In Kyiv, graffiti advertising Telegram drug channels is visible on nearly every city block, with tags directing buyers to @go420, @Kushcrew, or @kyivweeds. David Plaster, who runs the Kyiv-based nonprofit Anomaly, said his organization painted over more than 15,000 tags over the last 18 months, half in the capital alone. But as soon as the graffiti is eliminated, more appears. And removing it has little impact on business. Marijuana, which is grown in outlying cities near Kyiv, accounts for an estimated 13 billion hryvnias ($500,000,000) in sales per month across Ukraine. The operations are decentralized, so employees often have no idea who they’re working with, or for. That means that even if low-level dealers get busted, suppliers and distributors remain hidden from law enforcement. “Even with a sting operation, faking a channel, you can only get the buyer; it doesn’t help with the supply chain,” Plaster explained. “You can’t crack that closed loop.”

Once a customer joins a drug channel on Telegram, a bot will typically respond with a menu of items available for purchase. On a typical day, offerings might include a popular strain called Gagarin, named for the Soviet cosmonaut, which is advertised as a hybrid with “aromas of mint and blueberry,” or a strain called White Russian, which is earthy and spicy with “cheese flavor.” When a customer makes a selection, an anonymous operator will send a link asking for payment via cryptocurrency or through an encrypted payment platform, which in Ukraine is usually EasyPay, a Belarusian e-payment platform that allows money transfers to be made via a phone number rather than a bank account. After the money is received, the seller will send an image that includes an address or GPS coordinates signaling where the drugs are hidden.

That day, March 12, law enforcement agents from Israel, the U.S., Ukraine, and Germany arrested 42 people in those countries in connection with Telegrass, the encrypted drug marketplace that Silver co-founded and ran. Directed by the Israel National Cyber Directorate, the bust marked the final stage of an international operation to take down the enterprise, which, by 2018, grossed an estimated $17 million a month in sales. Telegrass was one of the world’s biggest app-based drug markets, and, from Israel, it migrated to Germany, Ukraine, and other countries in Europe, spawning countless copycats.

The main downside of a fully anonymous marketplace is that it lends itself easily to fraud. Common scams include sellers accepting money before deleting a Telegram conversation or simply giving buyers phony drop-off locations. “[The channels are] often operated by men in prison who send these messages on their phones,” an anonymous buyer told Rest of World, adding that he would frequently have to try four or five different services before finding one that worked. Safonov, of the country’s anti-drug office, confirms that this kind of fraud makes up “one of the main types of ‘earnings’ for prisoners,” who will offer products at lower price points to target “novice consumers and those trying to save money.”

High levels of police mistrust have also contributed to theories that police are not only protecting the drug trade but actively participating in it. Telegram user @glodov, who advocates for marijuana legalization in Ukraine, claims that certain drug delivery channels are operated by police as avenues for extortion. He cited an instance in which a buyer went to pick up a package and encountered two officers waiting for him. “They tell you that you need to pay $100 or $200, and then they will leave you alone,” he says. “They want you to pay not to go to jail.”

(This kind of institutionalized corruption hearkens back to an earlier era: In the post-Soviet 1990s, the country saw a boom in criminal gangs, with police often functioning as their enforcers. While Ukrainian officials initiated a massive police overhaul in 2015 to address structural problems in the force, only 7.7% of officers lost their jobs. Most appealed their dismissals and were eventually reinstated.

Safonov also acknowledges that there has been illegal collaboration between authorities and dealers, even recently. In one notable instance earlier this year, former police officers were found operating a methadone and amphetamine lab in an industrial building on the outskirts of Kyiv. But, he insists, this was an exception for an otherwise by-the-book force: “Bad grass grows in every garden.”

Regardless of who is selling, Telegram is, by design, extremely difficult to police. “With an end-to-end encrypted app, users can reasonably expect that investigators won’t be able to access their chats,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, Associate Director of Surveillance and Cybersecurity at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. While not all Telegram data is end-to-end encrypted, the company stores data in multiple centers controlled by different jurisdictions, to ensure that no government can access its systems. According to Pfefferkorn, “Companies such as Telegram and Signal intentionally minimize the amount of user metadata they store, precisely so that there is less that can be handed over to law enforcement if investigators come knocking.” (According to Telegram, while it will not interfere with private chats, it will block public channels it deems illegal, such as those belonging to terrorists and narcotraffickers.)

Even on an individual level, built-in accountability features can be easily circumvented. For instance, while each Telegram account must be linked to a mobile phone number, virtual phone numbers, such as those provided by Google Voice, can be used to obscure a user’s identity. And the app does not require users to disclose their phone numbers in private chats. This is a point of pride for Telegram, which was banned in Russia for two years on national security grounds. “To this day,” the company states on its website, “we have disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments.”

“[Dealers] know that police are reading, but they don’t care.”

An anti-narcotics inspector with Ukraine’s National Police force in Berdyansk, a coastal city in the east, confirmed that authorities have found Telegram to be essentially impenetrable. “There is no channel to the dealers,” he said. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, the inspector said that this market basically operates in the open. “[Dealers] know that police are reading, but they don’t care,” he remarked, noting that the police have never positively identified a seller on a Telegram channel without help from informants or other sources of information. Attempting to unmask phone numbers, the inspector added, would be a waste of time.

As the drug trade flourishes on encrypted platforms, governments have turned to the public to keep an eye on the sector. In September 2019, the Faculty of Cyber Police at the Kharkiv National University of Internal Affairs in Ukraine launched a Telegram bot called “Stopnarkotik” to block channels advertising drugs. The bot asks the public to send authorities photographs of graffiti advertising online distributors and of Telegram tags of drug sellers — the online equivalent of the “If you see something, say something” campaign. Since the program’s launch, more than 18,000 photos have been sent, and more than 20,000 tags have been reported. Markov, the dean who oversees this program, says that more than 1,200 email addresses linked to drug distributors have also been blocked. Yet at best, the bot poses a temporary inconvenience for anonymous dealers, who maintain lists of consumers that they are able to transfer from one channel to another.

Since the advent of encrypted platforms, data collected by Ukraine’s Department for Combating Drug Crimes shows that seizures of illicit substances have risen precipitously, with a more than fivefold increase in cannabis seizures between 2015 and 2018. While there is no definitive way to track whether Telegram dealing has led to an uptick in drug use, the numbers certainly indicate growth in the market. And perhaps as a result of Telegrass, anonymous internet-enabled drug dealing is now commonplace in Central Europe and in many former Soviet republics. In Germany, drug dealers follow the same script as Telegrass, and the most popular Telegram channels have upward of 8,000 subscribers and menus that are updated daily. In Belarus, streets in Minsk are covered with graffiti blasting the names of Telegram channels. And in Russia, drug dealers use darknet marketplaces such as Hydra to move their products.

After Silver’s arrest in Kyiv, he spent six months under house arrest before a Ukrainian court rejected his appeal for refugee status and mandated that he be extradited to Israel to stand trial. Late on the night of August 15, 2019, Silver was being escorted through Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport by two police officers, when he suddenly managed to evade his handlers. Security footage later showed that, when one of his guards was stopped for a routine luggage search, Silver simply ducked under a rope and ran for the exit.

The Telegrass founder was discovered two days later, hiding out in student housing in Uman, a city 130 miles south of Kyiv with a sizable Hasidic community. He surrendered to police and was finally extradited. Upon his arrival in Israel, he was charged with running a criminal organization, drug trafficking and brokering, and extortion. He remains in prison awaiting trial, and because of his brazen advocacy for marijuana legalization, is something of a cult hero. The Israeli press has closely followed his escapades, and his escape from Kyiv’s airport was widely covered by the Ukrainian and Russian media as a testament to the incompetence of Ukraine’s security personnel. In January, while still in prison, Silver launched his latest campaign: a bid for a seat in Israel’s Parliament, with legalization at the top of his agenda. (He did not win.)

While Silver’s story parallels that of Silk Road founder Ulbricht, who is currently serving two life sentences with no possibility of parole, Silver’s messianic drive also echoes that of the man who made his marketplace possible, Telegram founder Pavel Durov. As politicians and law enforcement agencies around the world push for backdoors that would enable investigators to access conversations within encrypted apps, Durov is fighting his own crusade for data privacy. In 2014, after years of resisting Russian government demands for user data from VKontakte, the Facebook-like social media site he founded in 2006, Durov liquidated his remaining shares and went into self-imposed exile. He left his homeland and vowed to wage a global “digital resistance” against government incursions into privacy. “As the political situation in the world becomes more unpredictable, more governments may try to block privacy-focused apps like Telegram,” said Durov recently.

“As the political situation becomes more unpredictable, more governments may try to block privacy-focused apps like Telegram.”

This has proven somewhat true: While Russia has lifted its Telegram block, the app remains banned in China, Pakistan, and Iran (despite being the country’s most popular messaging app). At the same time, Telegram was the platform of choice among Hong Kong protesters last summer, who used it to organize rallies and request essential supplies. In Russia, Telegram channels operated by anonymous bloggers are widely used to correct misinformation released by the state. In Ukraine, where violence against journalists is not uncommon, members of the media rely on the platform to protect sources and their colleagues. Meanwhile, Durov has maintained that the company does not have the capability to provide backdoors for law enforcement without also inadvertently providing them to bad actors.

As authorities around the world struggle to deal with encrypted platforms, the stakes are high. In a country like Ukraine, where democracy remains fragile, the prospect of sensitive data being used to target political dissidents is more than a hypothetical. Just over six years ago, as the Euromaidan protests were challenging Ukraine’s then-pro-Russia government, KGB agents requested VKontakte data on the movement’s leaders — which Durov refused to provide. He re-registered Telegram in Dubai, and despite state pressure from Russia, has continued to protect user privacy. 

Meanwhile, even with Silver in jail, Telegrass remains the biggest cannabis seller in Israel.