Tel Aviv, Have a Sniff: The Unexpected Places You Can Find Cocaine in the City

It's not legal in Israel, but in more and more Tel Aviv restaurants and bars, one can find patrons sniffing cocaine, sometimes in the open. 'People aren't having sex in the toilets anymore. They're just sniffing'

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Cocaine use is no longer confined to the same shady clubs and bars.
Cocaine use is no longer confined to the same shady clubs and bars.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert

These are the days of coke in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Though it has always been there, and the police reports on the amounts of cocaine coming into Israel have become routine during the past five years, recently there has been a significant change – in access to the drug, in its legitimization and in the places where it is consumed. In a police raid on the Breakfast Club nightclub two weeks ago, 60 grams were seized – a quantity that was greeted by a certain amount of scorn by both patrons and owners of night-life venues. “It’s nothing but a badge of shame for the Breakfast,” scoffed the proprietor of another bar in Tel Aviv. “It used to be that you could find a gram there for every two patrons, but that was back when the whole scene of doing lines was concentrated in two or three clubs. Now it’s everywhere.”

Blowing in Tel Aviv. “We are seeing a troubling increase in cocaine use among teenagers.” Credit: Ilya Melnikov

The change in the quantities that are being seized is related to the horizontal spread of the phenomenon. It is no longer confined to the same shady clubs and bars but rather it is also present in places that have a far more respectable image, from popular chef’s restaurants to the bars frequented by students on Dizengoff Street, the kind of places people go on first dates, which today are often spiced by a line or two. In fact, one especially notable establishment where you’ll find it is situated in Ramat Aviv, not far from the Tel Aviv University campus. But that is still on the margins, a mere curiosity, at least for now.

The names of venues and interviewees will not be mentioned here, partly because the police already have things easy enough when it comes to this matter, but mostly because businesses still prefer not to be identified with cocaine use. “As you can see, quite a lot of families come in here,” says a barman at a successful Tel Aviv restaurant. “Someone will be sitting there with Grandma, and just a moment ago they did a line in the bathroom. It doesn’t bother anyone, and the two can coexist. The atmosphere here isn’t of a sleazy club and you won’t see people going into the bathroom together. People don’t do lines here at the table. There are places where things get out of control, but here we make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

In the opinion of the owner of another Tel Aviv restaurant that also see routine cocaine activity, “There is no need to make this a thing about restaurants. All in all there are four or five restaurants where it happens regularly. I am not nave, and I know that it happens in our place too, but a demarcation has been created between the area where it’s the scene and the rest of the clientele, even if it’s not a physical barrier that is immediately obvious. In most places, it’s still a marginal phenomenon, definitely not something that happens out in the open. You have to understand that the legitimacy of coke use nowadays begins and ends in downtown Tel Aviv. For people from Modi’in, it’s still, ‘God forbid,’ and since we have quite a number of out-of-towners coming in, we don’t want to be identified with it.”

Tel Aviv-Jaffa from the air. The quadrangle of Allenby, Rothschild, Herzl and Ahad Ha’am Streets is the main consumption area.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The quadrangle of Allenby, Rothschild, Herzl and Ahad Ha’am Streets is the main consumption area. The zone. People will go there for a “cellar crawl,” a reference to a number of dimly lit places identified with the scene. During this past year, however, the options have expanded and have moved up to street level.

On a Friday, a bit before midnight, in a bar-restaurant in south Tel Aviv, a place where international stars show up on well-publicized visits, they sell me a watery glass of gin and tonic for 58 shekels ($16). That also happens to be the price of a short line, which may be another reason why the toilets are a scene of action just as much as the improvised dance floor right near them. In most of the toilets, you will find a shelf or a niche in the wall, for the convenience of users. One bar even has added ruler marks on a shelf, for more precise measurement of lines. At this hour, there still isn’t very much traffic, and the line of people waiting to go in is still reasonable. Three young women with heavy makeup emerge together from the bathroom, flashing smiles at the people who are waiting. They are all set up.

"No one messes with anyone who is doing a line or two, if he isn’t walking around with a serious amount of the stuff."

Two hours later, in another bar in the zone, one with a younger crowd and just one toilet stall, the waiting time will become impossible. It’s clear to everyone that the toilet is intended for something other than its original purpose.

Inside the stall an illustration of the times awaits: On the door hangs an ad for a self-defense course for women only and on the silvery shelf below the mirror a joint lies on a scattering of white powder. Apparently it was forgotten there in the wake of consumption of said powder, which has left behind its telltale signs.

“People aren’t having sex in the toilets anymore. They’re just sniffing,” says a female bartender here. “When the wait gets too long, people get impatient and do lines outside the stall. The problem is with those who really need the toilet, especially girls. Men can step outside for a moment. I have already seen someone ask two men if she could go into the stall with them for a moment and use the toilet while they were sniffing.”

A little later, the action can be seen spreading a bit beyond the private areas. On a bench off to the side in a certain bar a young guy is rapidly sniffing from a miniature spoon attached to a gilded chain that hangs around his neck. On the crowded dance floor of a smallish bar, someone puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out a “sniffer,” a little plastic bottle available for purchase for 20 shekels at local tobacconists for the purpose of carrying and distributing the powder. Push a button, and a measured amount is sent into the upper part of the bottle, ready for sniffing.

The gradual move out of the toilets is due not only to the crowding and the constraints of available space, but rather, mainly, to increasing legitimacy. Using has become more accepted and even a kind of status symbol in certain places. Owners of bars and clubs, however, are not crazy about the trend, and not only out of fear of the police.

“Not long ago someone tried to open up on the bar and began spreading lines on his phone. I swept everything onto the floor, in front of everyone, without thinking twice,” relates the proprietor of a bar in the Rothschild area. “I have zero patience for these things. An atmosphere of anything goes doesn’t suit me. It’s the kind of thing that leads to violence.”

A sniffer.

Cocaine is sold in Israel, on average, for the price of 600 to 800 shekels ($170-$225) a gram, an amount that should suffice for about 10 proper lines, assuming it’s of reasonable quality. There are differences of opinion about the quality generally available here. Some consumers testify to a real improvement in recent years while others say that the quality is still poor, certainly as compared to product available in the United States and South America. The quality derives from the concentration of the cocaine, and so it declines the more it is mixed with various other substances, mostly caffeine and psychotropic medications. The relatively high price and low concentration of most of the drug that’s for sale also provide an advantage. For most people, addiction is simply not an option.

“You can’t really afford to get addicted to it,” explains one bar owner, “because you don’t have enough money to buy the quantities that will make you an addict. The people who have a problem are in fact users who are very wealthy, who sit in their penthouses and always have the stuff on hand. In my opinion, they are pitiful and totally lost, but there aren’t a lot of them.”

“It was possible to expect that cocaine would undergo a process similar to the process cannabis has undergone,” says psychologist Dr. Ravid Doron of the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yafo, who in recent years has been studying the effects of the substance on the brain. “That there would be efforts to turn it into something more legal, or that’s considered less terrible, [treated with a] ‘live and let live’ attitude.

“This is not so far from reality,” Doron continues. “We are also seeing this in medicine – medical responsibility is becoming more and more a matter for the individuals in treatment themselves rather than for the doctors. In the United States you can purchase certain medications if you assume responsibility. Also contributing to this is the fact that we are living in an age when a lot of information is available; nowadays people come to the doctor and tell him what he needs to give them.

“My professional position is clear: Most drugs affect the brain cells and most parts of the brain are one-time only, so that what is dead – is dead. Cocaine is the drug that gets to the brain fastest. When it is inside us, it raises our dopamine level by tens of percentage points to an unnatural level, and it is so wonderful that the memory that we are left with is that we have touched the sky. This substance really is ‘fun’ and it sends you flying,” says Doron.

“It’s less effective aspect is that the brain cells can’t stand such a crazy pace and it can kill cells. However, it also doesn’t affect you for a very long time and within 45 minutes the substance disintegrates. Within an hour and a half it’s out of the system.”

Police officers after the raid on the club in Tel Aviv.Credit: Police spokesman

Are you seeing an increase in cocaine’s popularity?

“We are seeing a troubling increase in cocaine use among teenagers,” says Dr. Doron. “Nowadays there are tons of the stuff in the country and when the quantity is up, the prices go down. It has become more accessible. The world today is very fast and instantaneous and this too is a part of the story. Young people see a resemblance between cocaine and Ritalin. If Ritalin increases brain activity by 20 percent, then why not increase it by 200 percent? It’s not the same thing at all, because at that level the nervous system is disrupted and you become overly focused, at a level at which you cannot spread your attention.”

The police raids on the Beit Maariv club, a month ago, in which 110 grams of cocaine in 45 bags was seized, and now on the Breakfast Club, continued to preoccupy the proprietors of nightlife venues this week. “It’s pathetic, it’s all a racket,” says one bar owner. “They shut me down three times because I didn’t cooperate with the police. They came to me and said that they knew I am a good boy and that I don’t break the law. But they asked me for intelligence. What do they want – for us to do rectal examinations of everyone who comes here?”

It is not bothering the clubbers very much. “In this area everyone pisses in an arc on the police,” says a 28-year-old in high tech sales who joins the conversation and describes himself as “a regular user on weekends.”

“No one messes with anyone who is doing a line or two, if he isn’t walking around with a serious amount of the stuff. No one is interested. The police know they can’t really stop it. After all, they aren’t going to shut down all the clubs. I don’t think that a police raid causes anyone to do fewer lines. Maybe it deters the dealers a bit, but in the meantime I haven’t encountered any problem scoring. Today it is just as available as grass is, and people buy through WhatsApp and TeleGram. There is no need to get yourself set up inside the clubs and the bars anymore.”

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