Not Your Stereotypical Drug Dealers

A hefty amount of the marijuana grown in Israel comes from home laboratories.

There is nothing to divulge the secret that lurks behind the door of apartment 6 on the third floor of an old building on Shlomo Hamelech Street. Nothing about the bland plastic handle, the peeling paper or the blocked peephole in the center of the door offers a clue to what goes on inside. It’s a standard old-time Tel Aviv apartment, two and a half rooms, plus a run-down balcony. There’s a bathroom with a shower and a small kitchen that was renovated a few years ago.

The tenant is named Moti (not his real name). He’s a 37-year-old bachelor who is slightly balding but still looks younger than his years. He shares the place with a large brown mongrel dog that is drowsy most of the time. The two share the smaller of the two rooms. It’s crowded, with Moti’s bed, a clothes closet, television, sofa, computer table and a red cushion, on which the dog lolls most of the day. “It’s a bit of mess here,” Moti apologizes as he makes his way gingerly between the objects strewn on the floor. “But you get used to it,” he adds, placing a hand on the handle of the door that leads to the other room.

It’s hard to decide what batters the senses most powerfully when the door opens: the strong lighting, the noise of the bellows, the heat or the pungent aroma of the marijuana plants. Each is surprising in its intensity. Together, they flood the brain and leave you somewhat dizzy.

For the past three years, the larger room in Moti’s pad has been the site of a hothouse for growing marijuana. According to most estimates, there are many others like it across Israel. Some are smaller closet-sized or even tinier and others are huge, with a potential yield of tons of the drug every year. Just two months ago, police detectives raided one such mega-lab, which operated in a total area of 400 square meters in a hangar in the Or Yehuda industrial zone. The police report maintains that it was the largest and most professional hothouse to be uncovered here. Hidden cameras, installed at the site ahead of the raid, show the three suspects, dressed in white cloaks like lab technicians, devotedly tending to the pot in the pots.

Accelerated life cycle

“Everything is geared to give the plants the optimal growing conditions,” Moti says, closing the door behind him. The idea is to extract the greatest possible mass and the highest quantity of active ingredients in the shortest possible time. “There is nowhere in nature that this plant enjoys such amazing conditions,” he says, gazing with fatherly pride at his magnificent crop.

All the walls of the larger room in Moti’s flat are dual-layered. The first layer is a soft insulation material, to prevent the noise of the nonstop air conditioners and bellows from bothering the neighbors. The second layer is made of sheets of aluminum foil, which act as reflectors to shine the light more effectively on the plants’ leaves. Next to the walls and all around the room are eight large plastic tables. Ten or so pots stand in close formation on each of the tables.

“Each group like this consists of plants of the same species and from the same growth cycle,” Moti explains. He dubs the eight tables “grades,” from first to eighth, like at school. Hanging from the ceiling above them are eight 600-watt light bulbs. Lights of that intensity can be found in street lamps or soccer stadiums. In Moti’s place, they descend and rise above the plants by means of a system of chains and cables, in accordance with the plants’ rate of growth. At every given moment, the plants receive as large a dose of light as possible. This accelerates their growth, so that within a few short months they go through the life cycle of a full year.

The two air conditioners, which are working full blast, are barely able to cool the heat of the lights. If they were to stop working, Moti says, the delicate leaves would burn in an instant. The water that is produced by the air conditioners is collected in large plastic pails placed in the corners of the room and is used to water the plants. Tap water contains chlorine, which is liable to stunt the growth of the plants, he explains.

Also at work in Moti’s domestic hothouse are two industrial filters, attached to electric air bellows. This, he says, is the only way to prevent the smell of the plants from coursing through the building’s stairwell every time he opens the door. The apartment also contains other security mechanisms, mostly to prevent police detection of the hothouse. Small closed-circuit cameras pan the street, a space detector turns on the light on the stairwell and a towel is spread on the floor whenever someone enters the apartment, in order to prevent the aroma from seeping out through the crack under the door.

The sleepy dog is also supposedly part of the perimeter defense system. Its barking was supposed to keep inquisitive types at a distance. “But I bungled things in his case,” Moti says with a smile. “He is a dog who just doesn’t bark.” Probably, Moti adds, because he is too high.

In the past few months I visited several other apartments across Israel in which marijuana is grown illegally. The operation in each of them is almost identical to Moti’s. One hothouse, for example, exists in a plastic closet on the roof of an apartment building in Petah Tikva. The area of four square meters is used by a young man named Amir to grow dozens of plants. He has four tables and appropriate lighting, a two-horsepower air conditioner and a charcoal filter with an electric bellows. Because of the limited space available, Amir uses two-tier grow tables and cultivates only species of weed that grow sideways rather than upward.

Another hothouse, this one run by Lior from Tel Aviv, has only seasonal plants. They are grown in a special tent, which Lior erects every three months in his Rishon Letzion apartment. The black tent has optimal growing conditions, but because of its small size Lior has only two or three plants at a time. Immediately after the harvest he dries out the crop and stores it in a freezer. Everything he grows is for his own consumption. He then dismantles the whole apparatus tent, mobile air conditioner, advanced lighting system and filters and takes it to a friend’s apartment (in rotation). The friend will set it up in his place and embark on a new three-month growing cycle.

Tomato, cucumber, weed

It is hard to say how many apartments, partly or fully, are currently being used to grow marijuana in Israel. Senior police officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited a figure of a few dozen. “No more than one or two hundred, tops” one officer said authoritatively. However, growers and others who are deeply involved in the industry claim that the law enforcement officials don’t have a clue. They say there are many hundreds, maybe thousands, of secret home growers. In any event, everyone agrees that in the past few years, and especially in the past few months, the phenomenon has proliferated rapidly.

Because the cultivation or consumption of marijuana for nonmedical purposes is still banned in most countries, the home crops are usually grown clandestinely, in inner rooms or behind false walls. Fearful of going to jail, most homegrowers are also reluctant to be exposed or cooperate with the media. “Nothing good can come of an article like that,” I was told more than once.

The data on the purchase of the equipment needed to grow weed at home are also of no use when trying to work out the scale of the phenomenon. Many of the items and materials are purchased in ordinary home appliance and electrical goods stores and in plant nurseries. There are also a few stores, some of which sell only via the Internet, that specialize in equipment for growing plants at home. Formally, they are no more than gardening supply shops, but some of them are known among pot growers as the main providers of fertilizer and equipment for their purposes. I called a few of the stores, but everyone I spoke to pretended not to know what I was talking about and declined to be interviewed for the article once they were told that it was about growing marijuana.

“We sell equipment for homegrowing,” one of them told me. “What you choose to grow tomatoes or cucumbers is none of my concern. I’ve heard of marijuana, it’s a type of plant, and I have nothing more to add.” Other importers and sellers of equipment for growing plants at home sang the same tune.

Most of the information about the phenomenon comes from reports published by the various law enforcement agencies. But all you can get from them is trends, not scope. In contrast to Israel, the picture in most other countries is clear. According to most testimonies and data, homegrowing of marijuana throughout Europe and North America has soared by tens and hundreds of percent every year for the past decade.

According to the biannual report of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Britain, issued in April 2012, the police uncovered 7,865 small sites apartments and storerooms that were used for growing marijuana across Britain in 2011. That represented a rise of 15 percent over 2010 and of 150 percent since 2008.

In Canada, which is considered one of the leading countries in this regard, the police estimate there are more than 50,000 growers, with an annual sales turnover of $20 billion. The crops from British Columbia alone, which are extremely popular in the United States, yield an annual turnover of $7 billion.

The Israeli authorities have yet to issue formal data on the subject. Spokespersons for the Anti-Drug Authority told me they had never heard of the phenomenon. All requests to the police for information or for interviews were turned down. Nevertheless, a perusal of communiques issued by the police districts indicates that in the first three months of this year, raids were carried out, on average, every two weeks on an apartment or a storeroom used to grow marijuana. In the past few months the average has increased to almost one raid a week.

At the beginning of May, for example, a coordinated raid was carried out on two apartments. In the first, in Petah Tikva, the police found hundreds of plants weighing a total of 40 kilograms; and in the second, in Rehovot, another few dozen. At the end of May, a hothouse in Kiryat Ata was raided. The owner claimed he was growing the drug for his own use, but 93 plants weighing a total of several kilos were seized at the site. Two days later, the police uncovered a similar hothouse, this one containing 32 plants, in Midrach Oz, a Jezreel Valley moshav.

A week later, at the beginning of June, detectives from the Rosh Ha’ayin station raided a marijuana hothouse in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox city. The police communique stated that ten plants were found in a hut there, being grown by a 39-year-old man. In mid-June the Haifa police found thousands of marijuana plants at a private home in the city. A police spokesman described the haul as “the largest laboratory seizure of its kind in Haifa.”

Most police and media reports mistakenly call the home hothouses “hydro labs,” referring to the hydroponic method of growing pot. In this method the plants are nourished with water and fertilizer directly into the roots, which are planted in a neutral growing medium such as tuff or clay pellets. According to some of the growers who were interviewed for this article, the hydroponic system enables better control of the plant’s development and enhances the quality of the final product. However, it is considered more demanding than soil growing and requires a far higher financial investment and a great deal more work.

A few years ago, most of the high-quality homegrowing used this technique, but nowadays soil is the favored medium. Paradoxically, some growers maintain, the decline in the prestige of the hydroponic method was a major reason for the accelerated development of the phenomenon. It turned out that by combining the hydroponic methodologies with soil, equally high-quality crops could be grown for less money and far less work. The favored growing medium in Israel today is shredded coconut shells mixed with peat.

From ‘Weeds’ to weed

There are many reasons for the increase in homegrown marijuana in Israel. One of them is the determined police battle against the country’s crime syndicates, which traditionally played a major role in the illegal drugs trade. The army’s deployment on the northern border since the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, restricted one of the main smuggling routes into Israel. And the building of the fence along the border with Egypt, now in its final stages, has seriously hampered the smuggling of drugs from Sinai. Most estimates say that nearly 100 tons of marijuana and its products crossed that border every year. In their absence, something has to fill the vacuum.

But there are also global reasons behind the rapid spread of the phenomenon throughout the Western world. Beyond the basic desire of most growers to achieve a better high, other factors include changing worldviews, botanical research and the use of advanced technologies.

Naturally, the Internet has also played a key part in the birth and growth of the phenomenon. Surfers can find a limitless amount of information about how to grow pot at home. A Google search (in Hebrew) using the words “growing marijuana” turns up more than six times as many results as a search for “growing wheat.” If you Google “homegrowing” (gidul beiti), the first three options that appear for automatically completing the phrase are “marijuana,” “hydro” and “grass,” in that order. Tomatoes are in seventh place, after “homegrowing of cannabis.”

Other contributing factors are the succession of recent economic crises in Europe and the United States, the increasing recognition of the efficacy of marijuana treatments in medicine, and the total failure of most countries in the battle against marijuana and its products. Popular culture has also played an important part, in the form of television series featuring completely normative characters who have started to grow drugs at home, such as in the Showtime television series “Weeds” and movies such as “Saving Grace.”

Lior, who uses a tent in rotation with a friend, says he got his inspiration from “Weeds.” He is now 42, and since completing his army service in a combat unit has smoked marijuana every day. “A psychiatrist diagnosed me as suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder in the wake of events I went through in the first intifada,” he says. “For years I tried pills and treatments he recommended, but nothing helps and calms me like a joint. I know this is still a controversial issue and that the medical establishment in Israel does not yet recognize the medical effectiveness of marijuana for PTSD. But for me, even if it’s illegal, it is at the moment the only medicine. The only way I can sleep at night is by smoking, and also the only way I can function on an everyday basis.”

Amir, from Petah Tikva, relates that for years he bought “my medicine” from drug dealers, but after viewing “Weeds” decided to grow it himself. “The series made me see more clearly that it is, after all, a plant, something natural, which could have grown wild in the garden of the house. Of course, I knew that before, but for years, because of society’s attitude, I viewed my smoking as illegal and forbidden, something brokered by underworld figures.

From this point of view, the series placed the plant in the right proportions and made it something more concrete and accessible. For me, it created a shift of consciousness from the criminal arena to something natural that grows in a hothouse.”

Evolution of a grower

“I tried to grow marijuana plants for the first time four years ago,” Moti says. “I planted a few simple seeds in a plastic pot on the balcony. I had no great expectations, but I was delighted when two of the seeds germinated within a few days. I was sure I was on the right track and that I would soon be able to smoke my own stuff. But one day, a week or two later, I got home and found the plants had dried up. They just did not adapt to the conditions.

“That was a quick, crushing failure,” he continues, “but it made me want to understand what had gone wrong. Out of curiosity, I started to research the subject on the Internet. I found a huge amount of material: explanations about the different species, techniques for growing, genetic enhancement, and so on. I started to learn about the plant’s botany, about soil and fertilizers.”

Following a website forum recommendation, Moti decided to try his luck again, but this time under strict laboratory conditions inside his apartment. He spent NIS 1,500 on first-stage equipment and started to grow one plant in a closet. “The results were good but not good enough,” he says. “I wanted to improve. I read more articles and deepened my knowledge. I upgraded part of the equipment and bought high-quality seeds abroad that were developed especially for homegrowing. I started to grow two plants in the closet, then four. Gradually the operation expanded. When the closet became too small, I turned the bedroom into a hothouse and moved into the living room.”

Moti’s apartment contains another small space for growing marijuana. It’s actually a closet that was converted into a kind of incubator, a “kindergarten,” as Moti puts it. The young plants develop for a few days under soft white fluorescent lighting before being moved to the grow room. Thanks to the special lighting, which is on 24 hours a day, their roots go deep and strengthen the stem, but the plant does not reach the stage of flowering and producing the active ingredients.

Also in the kindergarten are a few plants that Moti calls “mothers.” The unbroken lighting prevents them from flowering, and they are used as the genetic reservoir of the hothouse. Cuttings are taken from them for new growing cycles.

Moti’s home hothouse produces nearly a kilo of high-quality marijuana a month. He himself smokes about ten percent of that, and sells the rest to a small circle of friends. He makes close to NIS 50,000 a month, on average, from his potted pot. He also has a student job, but only as cover. He spends most of his time cultivating the plants in what he terms a “Sisyphean” endeavor, mostly at night.

For obvious reasons, Moti cannot invite friends to his home. Nor have his family or a maid visited since he built the hothouse. “No one in the world knows what I do, and that is the only insurance policy I have,” he says. He buys the equipment in a number of stores, generally out of town.

He brings the seeds in his jeans pocket from Amsterdam, where they can be bought legally. He always worries, he says, that the flight back to Israel will leave from some other airport in Europe, where an Israeli en route from Amsterdam may attract more attention. He orders the fertilizer via the Internet, but only with his laptop in a cafe. That way, he says, the computer’s IP address cannot be logged.

Moti’s customers also do not know what his part is in the process. “They think I have a good connection to some homegrower and that I am only rounding out my income by selling to close friends,” he says. For the same reason, he has not been able to enter into relationships in the past few years. “It’s only natural that girls want to know a little more about my life. So it always ends when they start to ask questions about my work or become exceptionally curious about what my apartment looks like.”

In contrast, Lior is married and the father of two children. “From the first moment that I thought about homegrowing, I shared the idea with my wife,” he says. “She is my life partner. I could not have hidden it from her, and the idea never crossed my mind. I put up the tent in the security space, which we used mainly as a storeroom. That way the children do not have access to the tent and there is no worry that guests will discover it.”

Amir, who does his growing on the roof in Petah Tikva, finds it easier to keep the hothouse a secret. The entire irrigation and lighting system is computerized. For days, his plants grow without human intervention or human contact. “I observe the plants by means of a network camera, and if I don’t have any ongoing or special treatments to do, I only go up to the roof about once a week to make sure everything is progressing properly,” he says. “In other words, I don’t have a lot of contact with the hothouse and it is not really present in my life.” It’s only during the harvest, when the work becomes intensive, that he spends long hours in the hothouse.

Apart from the fact that they are all criminal offenders under the law, there is no single profile that fits the homegrowers of marijuana. It’s true that they are mostly men aged from 30 to 60, but beyond that the growers come from the whole gamut of social classes and ethnic communities. They include ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs and students in prestigious institutions. Two apartments in which marijuana was grown were discovered in settlements this year. The first was in a religious settlement which is considered to be ideologically driven. In the second case, at the end of April, about 100 plants and a large quantity of marijuana were found in a settlement in the Binyamin region (near Ramallah).

According to data released in recent years by the police in Britain, Germany and Canada, most homegrowers are not involved in any other form of unlawful activity. The same situation is thought to exist in Israel. Many of the growers are normative, productive people who benefit society. The majority say that they used marijuana frequently for many years before starting to grow it. In interviews with growers, most said they are doing it because it’s “cheaper” or “better,” or because they “want to avoid getting involved with drug dealers and other criminal elements.”

A study conducted five years ago in Belgium among hundreds of growers produced similar findings. Most of the Belgian growers took up the hobby solely because they wanted to get higher for less money. Some of the Israelis who were interviewed for this article said they started from “sheer curiosity.” Some cited a medical need, after they or a close relative were diagnosed with a serious illness.

Like many of the growers, Moti speaks in terms of a mission. He refers to dozens of studies which laud the qualities of cannabis and its immense contribution to humanity. An ardent supporter of legalization, he believes that a broader use of marijuana “can only be good for all of us.” That is probably also the reason he agreed to be interviewed and to allow his hothouse to be photographed. In a study of the phenomenon conducted recently in Denmark and Finland, a few hundred small-time homegrowers were interviewed. “They can be considered to possess an ideological orientation of an agricultural way of life,” the researchers concluded.

The use of the word “ideology” is neither groundless nor exaggerated. Homegrowing is interconnected with many global worldviews which have become fashionable in recent years. There are some who see the phenomenon as being part of the green trend.

Homegrowing, they say, possesses salient and deep elements of self-sufficiency, sustainability and even recycling. According to this approach, homegrowing is the only way to achieve full control of the plant’s nutrients and is an ironclad guarantee that it was not sprayed with toxic chemicals. Some of the growers abroad use only organic fertilizers and compost created from home waste materials.

Conceptual approaches related to equality and social justice also nourish the phenomenon. It’s no wonder that calls for the legalization of marijuana continue to top the list of the public’s proposals on the website of the Trajtenberg Committee, which was established by the state in the wake of the 2011 social protest demonstrations. It’s even more popular than demands to abolish the television license fee and reduce the number of ministers in the government.

‘Small farmers’

Quite a few of the growers eventually began to sell their produce. “Growing one plant for self-consumption doesn’t always justify the scale of the operation that’s needed, and the temptation is great,” Moti says. The police and the courts make no distinctions when it comes to the motivation for growing marijuana. Still, Moti and the others who were interviewed for the article can hardly be considered stereotypical drug dealers.

In contrast to commerce conducted by hierarchical crime organizations, the private homegrowers have nothing to do with one another. They have no need for a network of smuggling, storage or distribution. There is no boss and there are no “lieutenants” whose arrest can wreck the activity of an entire supply ring. And, of course, there is no fence whose construction will block the merchandise. The motivation of the homegrowers is also radically different from that of the crime syndicates. Many of them view themselves, in all sincerity, as “small farmers.”

The growers believe that the police don’t have the tools to eradicate their agricultural projects. The autonomous, dispersed nature of the growers means that only undercover work can uncover them. Until recently, many growers say, the electricity meter was one of the major weak points of the operation, owing to the vast, disproportionate amount of power used by the hothouse. However, a few solutions now exist for that as well.

Conquering the world

The thriving home-marijuana industry is increasingly visible on the streets. Consumers and dealers who were interviewed for the article say that, in the past few months, it has become more and more widespread throughout Israel. “There is no more hashish in Tel Aviv, only homegrowing,” one of the interviewees said. A similar picture exists in Jerusalem, Haifa and the other big cities. The cost of a gram of homegrown marijuana in Tel Aviv is between NIS 70 and NIS 150, depending on the quality of the material, the species of the plant and, of course, the skills of the grower.

Homegrown pot is also conquering the markets abroad. Wherever a culture of homegrowing develops, the imported smoking agents are rapidly shunted aside. The British police estimate that 80 percent of the marijuana consumed in the country now originates from homegrowing. In a few of the Scandinavian countries, it’s close to 100 percent.

The owner of a leading coffee shop in Amsterdam says that, “until just a few years ago, I sold mainly hashish from Lebanon, Morocco, India or Nepal. Now, 98 percent of the business is based on local homegrown marijuana. The clients love it, because it’s a lot stronger. We love it, because it is always available and is sold at stable prices.”

The development of homegrowing has led to a decline in smuggling and an increase in distribution, but above all to a rise in the concentration of the active ingredients. Professional manuals and advanced studies about marijuana are now readily accessible to everyone, and in every language, on hundreds of websites. Deep discussions take place in dozens of professional forums about every aspect of growing marijuana, from techniques of genetic enhancement and methods for drying the crop, to detailed recommendations about security mechanisms for concealing the home operation.

The technological advances in recent years have brought about improvements in homegrown marijuana and led to the creation of upgraded types of the drug. The data are still only very partial, though. A decade ago, law enforcement agencies did not usually measure the level of the active ingredient in the drugs they seized.

However, according to most estimates, the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary active ingredient which causes a relaxed state and heightens the senses, has risen by up to hundreds of percent in the wake of the homegrowing boom. This represents a tremendous leap and is an achievement on a par with the enhancement that followed the green revolution in agriculture which was fomented 50 years ago.

Lior, the grower with the rotational tent, holds a master’s in biology and a doctorate in another area of science. He works for an Israeli startup in biotechnology. The studies and the know-how in connection with upgrading marijuana are impressive, he says. “In all my years as a student, I never saw a subject that was researched so thoroughly. I am certain that if the research energies and experiments that were conducted in the field were diverted to other areas, such as the study of cancer, the cure would long since have been discovered.”

Growing concern

Studies published a few months ago in the United States show that the concentration of the active ingredient in homegrown marijuana sometimes even exceeds that in medical marijuana. “The concentration of psychoactive substances is so great that it can no longer be considered a light drug,” says a senior police source. The Amsterdam coffee shop owner relates that the high concentration of THC has led to public criticism of the use of homegrown marijuana. “There were a number of cases in which the use of marijuana with such a high concentration of ingredients caused mental breakdowns,” he says. “That is why the Dutch government has added this form of marijuana to the list covered by the law on dangerous drugs.”

“People have apparently grown marijuana from the dawn of mankind, but never before has it been grown so intensively and professionally,” says an editor on a leading and veteran website on the subject, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is a phenomenon unprecedented in its scope and in its possible implications.”

The same source, who was also a central activist in the movement for the legalization of marijuana in Israel, adds, “The flourishing of homegrown marijuana is ultimately likely to bring about a historic change in the establishment’s attitude toward marijuana. It is, after all, a folk phenomenon. You cannot search every apartment in the suburbs of London and Rome. You cannot arrest all the homegrowers in New York and Tel Aviv. You cannot claim any longer that the money goes to terrorists or to support crime syndicates. This is an extensive phenomenon which is growing from below and reflects the desire, habit and custom of millions of people in the world. It is a phenomenon that changes completely the rules of the game between the authorities and the consumers of marijuana. It may take a little time, but in the end the authorities will also understand that the solution is legalization and not prohibition and criminalization.”

Dr. Yehuda Baruch, director of the Abarbanel Mental Health Center, Bat Yam, is responsible for the issuance of permits for the usage and growth of medical marijuana in Israel. He admits to being concerned about the strength of homegrown cannabis: “We only have research data about the impact of regular cannabis that was common a few decades ago,” he says. “A person that is used to taking marijuana with a 10 percent concentration of THC would ‘take off’ if he used marijuana where the concentration can be four times greater.”

According to Dr. Baruch, this is the reason why, since 2009, no new permits have been issued for homegrown marijuana. According to Health Ministry figures, 8,744 patients are legally permitted to consume medicinal marijuana, of which only 30 are allowed to grow their own. (The permit allows for ten plants, with a maximum height of 1.5 meters.) The police have also requested that no new permits be issued. Of the 12 farms legally permitted to produce marijuana in Israel, only seven are currently active.

Dan Keinan
Dan Keinan