Gram by gram

Meet the next generation of digital black markets for illegal drugs: fully decentralized, pay-by-crypto, and end-to-end encrypted bazaars.

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.