Many Australians are buying illegal drugs from Internet websites, and having them delivered directly to their front door. We also recently saw a large bust of an internet illegal drug supplier, The Farmer's Market, with members from all over the world. According to TheAge.com, this new frontier of drug dealing, explored through a website called "Silk Road," is just like eBay, complete with vendor feedback, sales, gift certificates, and escrow and dispute resolution services.
Buyers on Silk Road's site's forums claim that their drugs are both cheaper and higher in quality. Customers also like the fact that they can simply have these illegal drugs delivered through the mail, rather than having to meet a dealer in a potentially dangerous environment. A growing number of Australians have abandoned their traditional method of obtaining illegal drugs, in favor of Silk Road's direct mail method.
Silk Road was developed a little over year ago, and it has grown from a small operation to a thriving marketplace where consumers of illicit substances can browse listings of everything from prescription drugs to cannabis, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. The website have removed the possibility for casual users to determine statistical data such as number of members or number of sales, but speculation suggests there are more than 100,000 active buyers and around 5,000 transactions a week, with the average transaction around $100 each.
While not as simple as typing in a URL, any reasonably tech-savvy person can find their way to Silk Road. Buyers place orders with sellers in Europe and the US with the click of a button, and orders are often delivered in two weeks, carefully vacuum-sealed and placed in a regular business envelope, greeting card, or padded envelope.
US Democrat Chuck Schumer said, "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." Authorities say that users can even purchase gift certificates on Silk Road, and at 4:20pm on April 20th, the site took a bold step by holding what it called the "420 Sale and Giveaway," during which it offered prizes to buyers, such as a voucher for the site, an iPhone, or a Macbook Air, every 420 seconds until the 420 prizes were gone. During that event, the site's owner, known as "Dread Pirate Roberts," waived commission on all sales and vendors offered a further discount on their items. They even wrapped up the event with a grand prize holiday for two, including $2,000 spending money.
Australian authorities point out that a "tough-on-drugs" policy has largely failed, and sites such as these have popped up in response. Australia21 believes that options such as decriminalization and regulation may serve the country better than its current "tough-on-drugs" policies. They said, "By making the supply and use of certain drugs criminal acts, governments everywhere have driven their production and consumption underground and have fostered the development of criminal activity." Studies into Silk Road and other similar sites reinforces the idea that supply reduction methods of controlling drug abuse are failing miserably.
For users of Silk Road and other similar sites, the risk of getting caught is outweighed by competitive pricing (cocaine and ecstasy sell for about a quarter of Australian street value), as well as the top quality of the products. Some officials admit that this is much safer than using a street dealer, as they are buying from a more reputable seller and do not have to venture into dangerous situations.
Silk Road has an entire forum dedicated to drug safety, with advice on harm reduction and safe practices. There are a number of threads discussing safer ways on injecting drugs. The feedback and dispute-resolutions also minimize the chances of the buyer being ripped off.
Like many of these other sites, Silk Road can only be accessed through The Onion Router (TOR), which is a program that protects identities by making IP addresses unknown. The recent bust of The Farmer's Market was likely done through tracing various payment methods, as they accepted cash, Western Union, and PayPal. Silk Road only accepted method of payment is through Bitcoin, which is an encrypted virtual currency used for online gaming, and it prevents financial transactions from being traced.
Efforts are being made to combat this sort of crime, although with Bitcoin and TOR it is difficult to trace any of these transactions. One authority said, Drug use and 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 to pop up."
Authorities have several ideas on how to combat this problem, but none of them are foolproof, and some computer experts agree that the federal government "has no chance of beating an existing encryption technology such as the TOR network." Furthermore, this expert thinks it is unlikely anyone has the technology to crack Silk Road at the moment, and privacy laws keep government officials from being able to ask the site's owners for encryption techniques. Anti-drug groups see Silk Road and similar sites as a new frontier in drug distribution, providing very unique challenges. They are also not sure how popular these sites will become, and whether they actually pose a serious threat to society.
Image courtesy of The Age.