Remember Silk Road? It was an online drugs marketplace on the “darknet” — a shady and hard-to-find part of the internet where anonymity is valued.
In 2013 the FBI infiltrated and shut down Silk Road. Many thought that was the end of online drug trafficking.
They were wrong. Instead of going further underground, online drug dealing bubbled up to the surface. It is no longer happening on the secret “darknet”. It’s happening right here, on the regular internet.
This is a screenshot from Craigslist, a trading website. All across Australia, there are drugs ads on Craigslist.
The drug traders use code words. For example, “420”, the term used in the advertisement above, is American slang for marijuana.
This Perth ad for the drug ice (methamphetamine) is more subtle. The clue that the chemical compound offered is not H2O is in the word “shard” a slang term for ice.
But the number of ads offering drugs is lower than it was earlier in 2015.
After some big news stories in March about drug sales online. Victoria Police responded with a sting that arrested one drug dealer. They claim to have had “a number of investigations which have resulted in successful prosecutions”.
The detail in the story of the successful arrest — the drug dealer sold drugs to undercover officers eight times before his arrest — shows the amount of effort police must deploy to collect sufficient evidence.
With that approach, they might not have the resources to sting every dealer. But it has been enough to change the face of online drug dealing. Now buyers are advertising more than dealers.
That leads to cryptic ads like this one from Adelaide.
The code word in this case is glass — yet another name for methamphetamine — so this is likely to be an ad seeking the drug ice.
The risk of getting caught means a lot of dealers and buyers use not only code words on Craigslist but also ways of concealing their private messages.
The preferred messaging platform is the same one used by federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull: Wickr. (In both cases the parties involved send messages they’d rather keep secret!) Wickr is supposed to conceal all traces of messages from the spying eyes of the government. Whether it is actually secure is not clear.
Regardless, some drug dealers simply list their phone number on the advertisements.
It is illegal to possess, use, produce or supply drugs. There’s some ambiguity surrounding whether it is legal to seek to buy drugs (up until the moment of transaction), and when I asked the police to resolve it they chose not to answer my questions. Which could be an answer in itself.
Even if police respond to an advertisement to buy drugs and meet that person in a dark alley, all they will find is a person with a pocketful of cash. That’s not a criminal offence.
They’d probably have to sell the person the drugs first to get an arrest. Police can arrange an undercover sting like that, but thanks to years of police corruption, the paperwork involved in giving drugs to undercover officers to sell is doubtless enormous.
The police effort required to net a street-level user in this way is large, and the courts might only give the perpetrator a warning.
The sting police could use instead is advertising to buy drugs in order to bust dealers. Dealers are understandably wary about responding to online ads for this reason.
But so long as there are lots of buyers online, drug dealers may decide the risk of running into police is sufficiently low to make the enterprise worthwhile.
Are the police winning? The number of ads seeking drugs online suggest there is still plenty of trade going on.
And that’s just on Craigslist. Other trading websites are probably popping up that police are yet to hear about.
In some parts of the world, less harmful drugs like cannabis are now legal. If that keeps people away from dealers who’d like to sell them more addictive drugs like ice, it might be clever.
The dynamic nature of the internet suggests the war on drugs will never be over. We need to pick our battles.