Half a dozen people sit around a lounge room in a funky inner-Melbourne apartment, sipping on beer and wine, each tapping away at a laptop. They’re all on their favourite website competing with people from around the world. But this is no geek-fest full of pasty, anti-social nerdlings who can only relate to pixels on a screen, nor is it a virtual gambling den with members playing poker games across cyberspace.
‘Woo hoo!’ cries a young man in his late 20s. ‘Seventy-five dollar voucher!’ The others are happy about his good fortune and eager to know what he’s going to spend it on. He scans the goods for sale, searching for the best value.
‘I think I’ll get a gram of MDMA from Germany.’
The others nod in approval; that will make eight strong ecstasy capsules, enough to see him through three weekends of partying. They all go back to their computers, calculating purchases and hoping they’ll win their own prize.
Every seven minutes, a lucky user somewhere in the world receives a private message telling them they’ve won anything from $20 to a Macbook Air. Not that it really matters if they win; like pretty much everything these days, the purchases made online are about a quarter of the price they would be expected to pay in a face-to-face transaction in Australia. They win regardless.
The site is Silk Road, a website that has been dubbed ‘the eBay of illegal drugs’. Established a little over a year ago, it’s now a thriving marketplace where consumers of illicit drugs can browse listings of everything from prescription pills to cannabis, psychedelics, cocaine and heroin. Nobody knows who runs it or where the server is located. ‘It’s a certifiable one-stop shop for illegal drugs that represents the most brazen attempt to peddle drugs online that we have ever seen,’ US Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer said at a news conference a few months after the site’s birth over a year ago. ‘It’s more brazen than anything else by light years.’
This little party in Melbourne is celebrating the inaugural Silk Road Great 420 Sale and Giveaway (‘420’ being slang for marijuana and 20 April being the date). The event promises a prize giveaway every 420 seconds until 420 prizes have gone. Every illegal drug purchase puts the buyer into the prize draw and vendors are supporting the event by offering discounts on their wares for the duration of the competition. It culminates in a draw for the grand prize of a trip for two including airfares, accommodation and $2000 spending money.
The apartment where the party takes place belongs to Stacey. She’s probably not what most people envisage when they think of a habitual drug user – Stacey is healthy, attractive and works hard for a conservative financial institution. But habitual she is: if you put all the cocaine, ecstasy and psychedelics she’s gone through in a pile, it would be taller than Ben Cousins.
Stacey has a seemingly endless supply of party drugs, but this wasn’t always the case. Like many others, she struggled to find a reliable supply during the drug-droughts of the early-to-mid 2000s caused by increased policing of ecstasy and several multi-million dollar busts. Since mid-2011, however, droughts have been a thing of the past for Stacey. I have to ask her: even on her generous salary, how can she afford so much cocaine? And where on earth does she get such a steady supply?
She offers to introduce me to her dealer – Silk Road.
‘It’s cheaper,’ she explains. ‘It’s higher quality and I don’t have to meet some guy in an alley or a dodgy apartment – it comes to me. What’s not to like?’
At first I think she’s having me on. She flicks on her laptop and a professional-looking website displays pictures and descriptions of every drug imaginable. There’s cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, Afghan hash, Viagra, steroids and weight-loss supplements. She tells me she has favourite sellers from Europe and North America with whom she places orders and has the drugs sent directly to her apartment via the post.
This all seems completely unfeasible; how have ‘they’ – governments, the CIA, the Feds, whoever – not shut the site down? How do the packages get through customs? How does she pay for the stuff? It’s all too confusing. Or maybe she really is having me on.
I ring my editor at the Age and ask if the paper would be interested in a story. He is more than enthusiastic – not just a story, but a full-page Focus feature. Getting paid to spend hours hanging around a dodgy drug-dealing website is kind of the reason I became a writer.
I Google silk road drugs. Up comes an article giving a step-by-step guide. For lazy readers there is also an instructional video on YouTube. Silk Road, I discover, can’t be accessed through the regular internet – it can only be accessed through Tor, a program that makes identities untraceable and provides access to sites the regular internet keeps out of reach.
I set up a Skype interview with a director of Tor, wondering if he’ll be a criminal mastermind or a hacker. Andrew Lewman turns out to be neither. He points out that Tor, which is mostly funded by the US government, is an important tool for freedom of expression. It allows people operating under hostile regimes to obtain or disseminate information without fear of exposure. The flipside is that it gives access to the ‘Dark Web’, a place where criminal activity can take place without detection, such as black markets for drugs, weapons, stolen identities and illegal porn, as well as forums for hackers and phreakers (people who study, explore or experiment with telecommunication systems and who often work with hackers) talking about whatever it is they do in their own impenetrable language.
Downloading Tor is as simple as a couple of clicks. And there it is – an innocuous little green onion on my desktop; my entry into the Dark Web. Double-clicking the onion feels wicked, as though I’m already doing something illegal. The Dark Web is certainly a place where evil lurks, a home for people who have good reason not to want authorities tracing their web-steps.
Only, of course, it doesn’t really look like that. The onion simply opens up a new window that cheerily congratulates me on now being free to browse the web anonymously. I type in the URL Stacey gave me – a string of mostly random letters and numbers – and am invited to register for my access to Silk Road. Only a username and password are required; there’s no email confirmation, no security questions. A couple of minutes later, a whole new world has opened up to me.
The homepage greets me with pictures of some of the wares I might want to buy: five grams of hash, a gram of cocaine or MDMA, an enticing pile of pink pills, Xanax, something called ‘shake’. They offer enticements: Border-proof delivery! 10% extra on orders over 5g! Underneath each picture is a price, using an unfamiliar currency symbol. Bitcoin, the volatile virtual currency used for online gaming, is the only accepted method of payment at Silk Road. Bitcoin is perfectly legal and can be bought by depositing cash into a Bitcoin exchange’s bank account, with a direction to send it to a specific Bitcoin ‘address’, which is another string of numbers and letters.
I’m surprised to discover that drugs are not the only goods for sale. You can also buy clothes, books, computer equipment and fake IDs. A link that says ‘XXX’ catches my eye. If I click on that link, will I suddenly be drawn into a place I don’t want to be? I decide to ignore it for now, and instead check out ‘Books’. There’s a fairly harmless collection of what I imagine are self-published tomes offering assistance on picking up girls or setting up hydroponic gardens, as well as people offering downloads of ‘banned books’ for about half a Bitcoin. The ‘money’ listing doesn’t offer forged notes, but offers ways of obtaining Bitcoins anonymously.
The drugs’ listing is broken up into sub-listings: cannabis, psychedelics, stimulants, prescription and so on. As I click through them it occurs to me that I’m not as hip and worldly as I thought I was. Half of these drugs I’ve never heard of. There is a sub category called the ‘2-c Family’ – psychedelics in pill, capsule or powder form. The most popular, 2cb, is virtually impossible to come by in Australia without the Road.
According to Silk Road’s ‘Sellers Guide’, the site refuses to sell anything ‘the purpose of which is to harm or defraud’. This includes stolen items or information, counterfeit currency, personal information, assassinations and paedophilia. A recent addition to the list is weapons of any kind. ‘On a moral level,’ the Guide says, ‘we take the high road […] To allow listings of items designed to defraud or harm innocent people would be to stoop to the level of the very people we are standing up to.’
I click on the most prominent of the site announcements on the homepage. ‘Silk Road,’ says the State of the Road address, ‘was never meant to be private and exclusive. It is meant to grow into a force to be reckoned with that can challenge the powers that be and at last give people the option to choose freedom over tyranny.’
Buoyed by this, I send a private message to the author of the address and the site’s owner, an articulate character known only by the name Dread Pirate Roberts. He writes back, informing me that Silk Road is unwilling to talk to the press. ‘I do appreciate you reporting on us, though,’ he adds.
What surprises me most about Silk Road is that it not only exists but, according to the lively discussion forums, hundreds if not thousands of Australians are using it.
Googling silk road drugs also takes me to the personal website of Dr Monica Barratt of the National Drug Institute. She specialises in dynamic drug trends in a contemporary ‘internet-saturated’ context, and she recently completed a PhD on how drug trends are affected by the internet. It seems she’s the closest thing Australia has to an expert. I make an appointment to meet her at a cafe beneath the State Library of Victoria, in Melbourne.
Barratt turns out to be a journalist’s dream. Funky, articulate and passionate about drug reform, her knowledge of Silk Road is extensive. Like many experts in the drugs space, she believes that prohibition policy has been an abject failure.
‘It’s pretty clear from looking at the forums that Australians are very interested in the site and I think it’s pretty clear that they’re successfully using it,’ she says. ‘Silk Road should actually prompt us to reconsider prohibition in its totality.’
This does not necessarily mean full legalisation, she is quick to point out. There are several models between the two extremes. She thinks that Portugal, which decriminalised all drugs around 10 years ago, while not perfect, makes a good case study as a starting point.
Stacey has already told me that any risk of getting caught is offset by competitive pricing (cocaine and ecstasy sell for around a quarter of Australian street prices), quality of product and ease of ordering. She argues that the lively forums providing independent testing of sellers’ wares makes for a safer experience than the traditional back-alley or lounge-room deal because she knows exactly what she’s getting.
Barratt agrees that Silk Road is probably safer than an illegal face-to-face deal. ‘Assuming they’re buying from a reputable seller and it’s someone who doesn’t want to risk their rating by selling something that wasn’t what they said it was, then you’ve got a system where the seller has a really strong imperative to do the right thing by the buyer.’ She also points out that Silk Road has an entire forum dedicated to drug safety, with advice on harm reduction and best practices. ‘There are a number of threads there [by users] seeking help and safer ways of injecting,’ she says.
For Stacey, it’s equally important to minimise threats other than health risks that are associated with illegal drugs. ‘I don’t have to worry about being belted or asked to blow my dealer,’ she says. ‘And I don’t really worry about being ripped off because of the feedback system and dispute resolution system.’
Like on eBay and Amazon, credentials of the seller can be checked through the user feedback system before an order is placed. Payment is placed in escrow until the goods are received and any disputes can be referred to the site’s administrators for resolution.
Several vendors are happy to discuss their experience via private message. All claim to prefer selling through the website over face-to-face dealing, partly because it increases their market to anywhere in the world that has computers and internet connections, but also because of the reduced risk of violence and ‘people don’t call you and disturb you when you don’t want it’.
While he won’t talk to the press, owner Dread Pirate Roberts is an active member of the online community. He has posted several missives on the forums claiming to have created Silk Road in furtherance of agorism (a market anarchist philosophy promoting voluntary exchanges between people by means of counter-economics) and as a blow for freedom.
A simpler explanation may, however, be found in the commission structure – Silk Road receives a cut of every transaction on a sliding scale from 10 per cent of the first $US50 to 1.5 per cent of every dollar over $US1000.
Roberts is not the only one cashing in. One vendor claims: ‘I made it into the Top Ten, and let me just say, the money is GOOD! [Silk Road] could take 50 per cent tax and I’d still be making a killing.’ Another claims to turn over more than $US4000 per day, 75 per cent of which is profit. All of the vendors contacted agree that the commission structure is fair and reasonable. However, cashing out Bitcoin, complains the $4000-a-day vendor, is considerably more difficult due to anti-money laundering requirements that require Bitcoin exchanges and banks to report large or frequent transactions. He juggles about 12 identities to do so.
I need to buy some Bitcoins for research. It’s done quickly and anonymously, and within a few hours $10 worth is in my Silk Road account. I order a copy of an e-book, 100 Ways to Disappear Completely, for about 45 cents. A few hours later, the seller sends me a zip file called ‘Summer Reading’ that contains not one but 14 e-books, ranging from the Anarchist’s Cookbook to 21 Techniques of Silent Killing by Master Hei Long. There’s nothing in there that’s not available on the clearweb and none of them are subject to copyright, but it’s nice to have them all packaged up for 45 cents.
I’m not really sure what to do with my leftover Bitcoins, until I spot the little ‘gift certificate’ link. I buy a gift certificate for Stacey and have it delivered to her Silk Road account.
With the anonymity provided by Tor and Bitcoin, and vendors who are expert at packaging drugs to avoid detection, it seems little can currently be done by Australian law enforcement to prevent users from making online drug purchases.
So, what do I make of all this?
Well, if you start from the premise (as do so many prominent Australians, including health professionals, law enforcement authorities and ex-premiers) that prohibition is a complete failure, I believe that Silk Road is better than the current alternative available to those who wish to use recreational drugs. It reduces the crime, violence and health risks involved in face-to-face deals.
Recreational users who previously bought from a friend-of-a-friend far down the supply chain instead buy directly from sellers who themselves purchase by the kilogram. In doing so, they are cutting out half a dozen or more middlemen. Buyers and sellers alike are relieved at the eradication of violence that is always a threat in a drug deal. The feedback and testing system means that buyers are aware of the quality and purity of the drug being delivered.
Those who want to take drugs will continue to procure them, whether from behind a computer screen or down a back alley. Prohibition impacts price, not availability. If a user’s drug of choice is unavailable, the user is likely to substitute another, possibly more dangerous substance, rather than abstain. Until there is a radical change in drug policy, the online marketplace seems to produce many of the outcomes those championing drug reform hope for.
If ever I wanted proof that criminals are against any relaxation of prohibition laws, it came direct from the owner of Silk Road. After my pro-reform article, ‘The Drug’s in the Mail’ appeared in the Age, Dread Pirate Roberts wrote to congratulate me. He then immediately posted a lengthy, self-serving missive on the Silk Road forums about the dangers of lifting prohibition. ‘Silk Road is about something much bigger than thumbing your nose at the man and getting your drugs anyway. It’s about taking back our liberty and our dignity and demanding justice,’ he wrote. Cynical me thinks perhaps his fear is more about the millions of dollars in commissions he would lose should prohibition be lifted.
Silk Road also raises the question that if drugs can be so blatantly bought and sold with no apparent consequences, what else might find its way to an online marketplace? I delved into the murky bowels of the Dark Web for a follow-up Age feature, ‘The New Underbelly’, and there is some truly nasty stuff in there. I visited chat rooms where paedophiles described fantasies involving pre-pubescent children in graphic detail; exchanged emails with an alleged contract killer; and found marketplaces for weapons, credit-card details and human beings. I did not enter any child porn sites, but I know exactly where to find them. It makes Silk Road, with its philosophy of doing no harm to anyone else and its supportive community, seem positively rose-coloured.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that despite Silk Road cutting out the middlemen involved in drug dealing and providing a safer experience than face-to-face transactions, people are still harmed by the illicit drug trade. For as long as drugs are illegal, the purchase of them contributes to the slaughter of thousands of people at the source, particularly in Central and South America, as drug barons fight to be the sole suppliers of the world’s trade.
Well-intentioned measures of the Afghan government, supported by NATO, to eradicate poppy fields lead to farmers selling their children into sex-slavery to ‘compensate’ traffickers or repay loans. Such atrocities will continue for as long as drugs are illegal and the supply is controlled by criminals. It’s time politicians had the guts to pursue alternatives to the ridiculous ‘War on Drugs’. I believe the best way to frustrate organised crime and reduce drug-related deaths is to legalise, regulate and educate.
Stacey thinks Silk Road is here for a good time, not for a long time. ‘I really am waiting for it all to fall in a heap,’ she says. ‘It’s too good to be true and I’m surprised it’s still going.’
Barratt says: ‘Drug use and the demand for drug use isn’t changing, so if for some reason Silk Road is suppressed or removed, there will just be another supply channel popping up. We can’t just keep thinking we can reduce one bit without another bit popping up – that’s not going to work.’