Silk Road and the Fast-changing World of Online Drug Shopping
By Alex McClintock
Thanks to online shopping, even 23-year-olds get excited to see the mailman. Will bought his phone and laptop online, along with his shoes and the jacket he’s wearing. The package he’s waiting for now is different: it should contain two grams of cocaine.
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After an increasingly anxious wait, Will hears the postman drop the A4-sized parcel, bound in butcher’s paper, in the mailbox of his inner-Sydney terrace house. His name and address are handwritten in thick black texta.
Will carries the parcel to his bedroom, closes the door and tears away the loose wrapping paper. Instead of a zip-lock bag, he finds Katie Holmes’s face staring back at him from the cover of the June 2001 issue of Teen Vogue.
The tousle-haired engineering student smiles, but a quick flick through the magazine reveals nothing. Will scratches his head. Leafing through the pages a second time more slowly, he catches sight of a shampoo sample.
Underneath, stuck to the glue used to fix the sachet to the page, there is also a tiny foil parcel. Will rips off a corner, inserts a finger and dabs white powder on the inside of his lip like a cop in an action movie: “It’s real.”
“I’ve seen some insane packaging,” Will confides later. “Vacuum sealing, an iPhone case, MDMA disguised as soil samples – but this takes the cake.”
Will is one of thousands of Australians who buy their drugs on the internet. So far he’s arranged more than 50 small importations via Silk Road, an eBay-like website that, a quick browse reveals, sells everything from marijuana and pills by the kilo to fake NSW driver’s licenses. There’s even a stack of 100 counterfeit $50 notes (going for much less than $5000). The only things forbidden are weapons and child pornography.
Silk Road works just like its legal counterparts – vendors try to earn positive feedback from buyers. There’s even a dispute-resolution service in the event that a package doesn’t arrive when and where it’s supposed to. Silk Road is only accessible through Tor, networking software that masks the user’s IP address and location, though customers such as Will are understandably paranoid.
Will uses Bitcoin, a bank- and government-free digital currency, to make purchases. Though Bitcoins are already untrackable, he sends the money through a program that launders it via hundreds of other accounts, just in case. When he gives his address to vendors, it’s in an encrypted form that only they can decode.
There’s one facet of security that software can’t help with: Will still lives with his parents.
“Of course my parents are suss about strange letters arriving for me from the UK,” he says. “But I’ve thought about what I’d tell them – I’d tell them it was workout supplements.”
The use of the postal system to import illicit drugs hasn’t gone unnoticed by law enforcement. In the 2010–11 financial year, Customs seized 1317 postal packages containing drugs. So far this financial year there have been 7000 seizures.
In February, Melbourne nightclub bouncer Paul Leslie Howard became the first person in Australia to be charged for importing drugs bought on the internet. Howard, 32, was jailed for three years and six months for what the sentencing judge called a “smorgasbord drug-market operation”.
An Australian Federal Police operation targeting Silk Road users in March resulted in six arrests and the seizure of 140 packages variously containing LSD, heroin, steroids, MDMA, cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine (ice).
“You’ll often have an envelope with a small amount of drugs inside and in there is also a letter,” says Jim Carroll, the manager of international mail at Customs’ Sydney mail gateway. “And the letter goes something like: ‘If you are the intended recipient, please use responsibly. If you are from law enforcement, go fuck yourself.’
“We take that as a bit of a compliment. We do know that at some stage we had sellers on Silk Road saying that they would no longer sell to Australia because they were losing too many shipments.”
Yet many people selling drugs on Silk Road don’t seem too concerned. NeuroPlex, a 20-year-old pill vendor by night and Melbourne apprentice by day, is more occupied with retaining his 100% positive feedback rating and didn’t even realise the AFP was aware of the site. Another vendor is OzePharma, a 35-year-old Sydneysider who promises next-day delivery around Australia on orders placed before 4 pm. “Being able to sell to people around the country or around the world without sharing anything more than an anonymous username could not be any safer,” he says. “I attempted selling through the street market but it’s a dangerous and competitive and risky market to be in. I’ve seen people killed and houses raided by cops and rival dealers. I wasn’t made to be a street dealer and I never got far with it.”
OzePharma says he has 20 steady clients with whom he regularly chats on the site’s in-built mail service. This sense of community is encouraged by Silk Road’s founder, who goes by the name “Dread Pirate Roberts”, a moniker borrowed from the rakish hero of The Princess Bride. As well as drawing a commission on all sales, Roberts regularly takes to the site’s forums to declaim at length on topics such as liberty, child labour, the environment and, of course, the war on drugs.
“I won’t rest until children are born into a world where oppression, institutional violence and control, world war and all the other hallmarks of the state are as ancient history as pharaohs commanding armies of slaves,” Roberts preached in one such post last year.
Likewise, many Silk Road vendors and buyers appear to believe that the marketplace is a libertarian paradise that takes drugs out of the hands of “real criminals”. Yet it’s hard to get around the fact that illicit drug manufacturing worldwide is still overwhelmingly controlled by violent criminal organisations. At the same time, the biggest challenge to Silk Road may come not from law enforcement, but from competition. Four alternative websites have sprung up recently: BlackMarket Reloaded, Sheep Marketplace, Atlantis and the intriguingly named Russian Anonymous MarketPlace.
For four days across April and May this year, Silk Road was taken offline by hackers. Some users accuse the US Drug Enforcement Administration while others speculate that “Vladimir”, the founder of Atlantis, was behind the attacks, although he has publicly denied this. If he was, it worked – many vendors, OzePharma among them, set up accounts on Vladimir’s website.
“The Silk Road is a prototype – it’s a functional solution that is not as good as it could be,” explains Will. “Where there’s money, there’s innovation. Nobody uses AOL anymore; nobody uses AltaVista as a search engine. In five years, nobody will be buying drugs on Silk Road.”