An online smorgasboard for illegal drugs is challenging global law enforcement, with Australians among the many thousands of international consumers weighing risk against the prospect of cheap and readily-available drugs. Chris Shearer reports.
“PERFECT timing,” says Robert, waving an envelope jubilantly in one hand. There’s nothing particularly notable about it except for the blue and green stamp that says it’s from The Netherlands. It is addressed to Robert’s house in Melbourne but the very common surname is fictitious.
Robert tears it open and pulls out two postcards featuring Dutch tulip fields. Each postcard has only ‘Thank-you for your order’ and a name printed on it. But wedged between them is a clear plastic slip that holds two thin, hexagonal ecstasy pills.
“It’s a free sample,” explains Robert, which is not the young man’s real name.
“Basically, if they’re a new vendor or want to promote a new product they’ll offer a sample as a way to get people to buy it or order it. Just to build a reputation.”
The ecstasy comes from the Netherlands but was ordered via Silk Road, an online black market for illicit drugs. Its users like to describe it as an “eBay for drugs” and it seems a pretty apt description.
The site features hundreds of vendors from across the globe offering thousands of products. Silk Road provides a platform for selling consumer goods, too, but it is its extensive drugs menu that gives rise to its notoreity. Like other e-commerce sites, it embodies user ratings, long product descriptions, categories and even a function that allows you to search the wares of domestic sellers only.
It is widely estimated that Silk Road is reaping annual sales of between $30 and $45 million, providing a neat dividend for “Dread Pirate Roberts”, the anonymous figure (or figures) behind the site. It may just be a small slice of the estimated hundreds of billions of dollars of illicit drugs that are sold globally each year, but Silk Road’s innovative purchasing system means potentially anyone can gain access with just a few clicks.
So, how is this all possible? Firstly, Silk Road operates on the bitcoin (BTC), an online crypto-currency not managed by a central authority. Buying bitcoins is legal and remarkably easy. It’s also extremely difficult to trace transactions made with the currency.
Secondly, Silk Road operates on the deep web and can’t be accessed without a Tor browser, which works aggressively to conceal the location and identity of the user. So far, this seems to have largely protected the site’s users and creators from unwanted law enforcement attention, although police across a range of constituencies are increasingly alert to the fast-expanding cyber conduit that has opened a new front in the battle against drugs.
“We know Australians were some of the early adopters among people who were purchasing drugs through Silk Road,” says Monica Barratt, a research fellow at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University. Dr Barratt became interested in the workings of Silk Road after a friend pointed her to an article about the site in 2011.
Last year, she was involved in the Global Drug Survey, an international collaboration involving academics, researchers and media, and was able to include some questions about Silk Road in the questionnaire, including why people used the site.
“The most common response was . . . [that it provided] greater access to a variety of drugs they could otherwise not access,” she told The Citizen. “The second one was access to better quality drugs than they could access. The third one was they found it convenient.
“So, what was really interesting about these three reasons was we could be talking about eBay. None of them were drug-specific reasons.”
Just as the Internet more generally is connecting communities across the globe, the implication of Silk Road’s existence is that it is opening up a world of drugs to many Australians who otherwise would have never sought out, nor made, the kind of connections necessary to engage in this kind of international commerce.
“Robert”, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is one such Australian. The 25-year-old works in the service industry and confesses to occasional use of a variety of illicit drugs. With a friend’s help he first accessed the site in mid-2012.
“It was exciting. Also, kind of confronting to have it all there, you know, out in the open. I had a little look around, flirted with the idea of purchasing, but at that time the idea of buying bitcoins and putting them into your account was way above my head.”
But earlier this year he managed to do so and it didn’t take long for him to place his first order -- 50 ecstasy pills from the Netherlands. The seller had impressed Robert with the detailed terms and conditions, product description and explanation of stealth shipping methods, and was highly rated by previous customers.
The product description called them ‘mortal kombats’ because they had the logo of the popular video game stamped into each deep red pill. Each contained 205 milligrams of MDMA (the core component of ecstasy), potency beyond anything that Robert had experienced in Australia. The fabled ‘white hearts’ that had been pedalled through Melbourne a few years back, and which the old pill crowd still occasionally talked about, supposedly contained just 120 milligrams.
Nonetheless, taking the step from browser to buyer on Silk Road, and ordering 50 pills to his front door, was big. In the end, it was the price that sealed the deal for Robert – on Silk Road, the pills were a fifth of the price of local ecstasy.
“Basically, I wanted to try it out and if it was successful I wanted to have 50 ‘in the bank’, so to speak. Just for, you know, every now and then. And then I wouldn’t have to deal with buying them here.”
So he placed his first order.
“It was startling, really,” he reflects now. “Basically, just press a button and it will say ‘processing’ and it will go to ‘in transit’. Then you wait.”
The Citizen spoke to other Silk Road users whose experience mirrors that of Robert. A student in his early 20s, who lives at home with his parents in one of Melbourne’s leafier southern suburbs, was stunned by what he describes as an online “wonderland”.
“It was a really strange feeling to realise that at the push of a button I could now get any drug I wanted,” says Scott, which is also a pseudonym.
“There are your basic things like pills and weed that come by pretty regularly and it’s not hard to find them in Melbourne at least, or anywhere in the world that I’ve been.
“But once you log in [to Silk Road] and there on the page is a special on oxycontin and then like, you know, cocaine here, heroin there, all these different prescription drugs I’ve never heard off, I’m like ‘holy shit’.”
Initially, he was only curious. But when he was unable to buy drugs locally ahead of a music festival, Scott turned to Silk Road. It took him a little while to master the process, but three days before the festival he placed an order with a domestic seller from Queensland. The price for a gram of speed and a gram of MDMA was similar to what he might have expected to pay on the street -- around $160 and $200, respectively – but most surprisingly the first package arrived in just two days, swifter than had been the case for any of his eBay purchases.
The speed didn’t arrive until after the festival, but now Scott had the Silk Road bug. He and a friend started using the site more regularly for personal use and started wondering about other possibilities.
With the prices of drugs sourced from overseas often selling for as little as one-tenth of the street price in Australia, the economics of supplying friends became compelling.
“We just thought: ‘Hey, we can get a gram for $200 from Australia or we can get it from this seller in Amsterdam -- with better reviews by people saying it’s the best stuff they’ve ever had -- for $300 for 10 grams’. And we just sat there thinking ‘We can sell that for $3000,” he says.
“It was a big thing. It was like ‘Are we going to take this step? Are we going to become . . . ”, and he pauses and laughs, “international drug dealers?’.”
They weighed the risks, researched the trade and decided to try their luck.
Ten grams of MDMA arrived at the home of Scott’s friend’s about two weeks later. Anxious that they could be under surveillance, the pair left the package on the front porch for a few days with ‘Return to sender’ scribbled on it as a precaution.
But on finally retrieving it they immediately divided the contents into individual grams, splitting them among friends for storage. Eventually, they split the grams into 10 capsules a piece until they had 100 caps, which they sold for $35 each.
“So we made a shitload of money,” Scott says. But he was hardly operating in isolation. He soon realised that most serious dealers were also using Silk Road to source their products.
“Apart from maybe weed, there’s not a dealer I know that’s been doing it for a while and is not using the Silk Road.”
Researcher Monica Barratt concurs, claiming Australian vendors who use Silk Road usually import their products from international sellers to on-sell them to Australian Silk Road users at Australian prices. For buyers, she says, the motivation could be mostly about access and convenience.
“But I have a feeling that’s just a small part of it,” says Dr Barratt. “That’s just what we can see. What we can’t see is the on-selling at an individual level.”
Sam, a 25-year-old science student, had never been overly interested in drugs but was intrigued by the notion of Silk Road and the manner in which technology was enabling global access to illicit drugs. His friends had been raving about it, so he set up his own account.
Initially, he hadn’t thought to buy anything but after reading the site’s forums, particularly the positive reviews of Australian users, he felt comfortable testing the system. He placed an order for 50 Xanax pills through a domestic seller, the logic being that the anti-anxiety drug was always good to have if you were stressed out or couldn’t sleep.
“It’s probably easier than [using] eBay,” he reflects. “Because it’s a bit risky, the vendors are a bit more prompt in dealing with the whole situation.” Some orders even come with tracking numbers.
The Xanax arrived two days after he had placed his order. The trade happened so easily that Sam started thinking about the difficulty he was having with paying off his credit card debt. He started buying more Xanax. For $250, he could buy 300 Xanax from a domestic seller, on-selling them 100-a-time for $450.
Surprised by how easily he could move his wares, he started pushing profits back into new orders. He began ordering Valium, too. He was making enough to cover the losses when a couple of purchases never arrived, but wasn’t clearing his debt as quickly as he would have liked. So, he shifted to cocaine.
The first package came in a thick envelope with a big American company listed on the ‘return to sender’ information. It contained seven grams of cocaine, which Sam dispensed within 24 hours.
Using the profits, he bought a further 14 grams -- half an ounce -- from the same vendor. Three days after placing the order, Sam was greeting a courier at his front door, trying not to look anxious despite some sleepless nights. And within another 24 hours he had sold those 14 grams and had decided to quit dealing drugs.
“I only planned to do it once,” Sam says now. “My thing was that I was just going to pay back my credit card.” Which he did, in just a few weeks.
“It’s pretty easy to do,” he adds. “But the stress got to me. I’m not cut out for drug dealing. I don’t enjoy it at all. The money is good, but I didn’t feel calm doing it.”
Despite stories of expediency, of easy access to drugs and profits from trading, authorities claim to be gradually making up ground in their battle against Silk Road.
The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service has been aware of the site since 2012 and say they have seized “a significant amount of cocaine and MDMA” using their “world-class detector dogs and cutting edge x-ray technology”. The national manager of the cargo and maritime targeting branch, John Gibbon, warned Australian users of the risks last November.
“Don’t fool yourself that a shipment is too small to warrant further investigation,” he was quoted in a media release.
“Illegally importing any amount of a border controlled drug, even for personal use, is taken very seriously.
“Those who think themselves safe behind an ‘anonymous’ web handle are potentially wasting their money with scammers, and exposing themselves to prosecution. The risk just isn’t worth it.”
Customs claims that this pressure has led to significant difficulty for Silk Road users in Australia and that overseas vendors are taking notice. In June, one of the biggest Silk Road vendors in the UK announced that it was suspending sales to Australians after the percentage of its packages getting through fell from the high nineties to mid-eighties.
“The problem in Australia for purchasers is that we do have a reasonable, relatively-strong customs set-up and they are looking specifically for packages of this nature,” says Dr Barratt.
“They’re profiling packages. So, if a package comes from certain countries in the world, they’re 100 per cent likely to have a look inside. Even if the vendor says they do great stealth packaging, for Australians there is a greater risk.”
In fact, in February Paul Leslie Howard, 32, was convicted in Melbourne of importing 46.9 grams of MDMA and 14.5 grams of cocaine using Silk Road and was sentenced to three years and six months’ jail. In a nod to the emergence of the online drug market, Judge Damien Murphy observed that “any kid short of money can become a part-time drug importer”.
Robert, Scott and Sam all say they were aware of the case and, while they admitted it was of some concern, each of them thought it unlikely that Howard had been careful enough.
Dr Barratt agrees, to an extent. “The only busts that there have been so far with Silk Road have been related to people being discovered in the very traditional fashions,” she said.
“Then the police go back to their house and find hard evidence that these people were using Silk Road. It’s never been the other way around, where the police have somehow electronically infiltrated Silk Road and then gotten people like that.”
But each of the three importers who spoke to The Citizen came to the same conclusion: that they were taking greater risks than they felt comfortable doing. “I’m studying, I have a quite good paying job,” says Scott. “I’m not living out of home. I earn $500 a fortnight. I don’t need the money.”
He decided to quit the business but his friend decided to stay on.
“I don’t glamorise drug use or drug dealing at all,” says Scott. “I think drugs are great in their essence if used infrequently but they lose their magic very quickly and people have to be aware of that or they run into trouble.”
Despite all these concerns, none of the three have given up on Silk Road completely. They still use the site occasionally for small personal orders but say they could be tempted to use Silk Road again as a supplier for drug dealing.
The concept that has given them access to a world of drugs is here to stay and more Australians appear to be trying their hand, despite the intensifying surveillance by law enforcement agencies.
“It’s following a trend of e-commerce,” concedes Dr Barratt. “Perhaps [the] drugs [trade is] catching up with an entrenched trend that we see in entertainment, music, clothing and so many other discretionary spending items. I find it hard to imagine a way of it really ceasing in Australia. I think if Silk Road dies, the concept will live on. The knowledge of how to do this is out there now.”