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A brief history of the online drug trade

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The first online drug deal went down in the early 1970s, when a group of Stanford students used ARPANET – a technical precursor to the internet we know and love – to hit up their boys at MIT for bud.

They met in person and paid hard cash. By the 1990s things were becoming more sophisticated. Websites like the Hive offered practical instructions and sold materials for synthesising MDMA, along with guides on how not to get arrested for being involved in the online drug trade.

Of course those were the wild west days. The cops were totally clueless (what’s an “internet”?) and computers were complicated enough that the “barriers to entry” were quite high. Tack on the fact that there were no search engines  (only difficult to navigate directories) and it becomes clear why the early internet was so rife with questionable activity.

There were rumours, of course – Usenet newsgroups like alt.drugs and alt.sex were generally believed to be under some level of surveillance – but the internet drug trade remained mostly clandestine and free from governmental influences.

online drug trade map
A map of ARPANET nodes from the 1970s.

But policing techniques have advanced roughly instep with technology – most law enforcement agencies now have a dedicated cybercrime unit – so soliciting, buying, or selling drugs on the surface web would be a very bad idea. Most websites ban their users for engaging in that sort of behaviour anyway, making it a fairly fruitless pursuit.

Enter the dark web.

The dark web exists on “darknets” – overlay networks (computer networks built on existing computer networks) that require specific software to access. Most of the time, this software is TOR – “The Onion Router” – an anonymous network that reroutes your internet traffic through a number of computers using the same software. Users aren’t invisible, but they are difficult to trace.

While there’s nothing inherently illegal about using TOR it’s guaranteed to arouse some suspicion. That’s because of what’s on the dark web. Though a lot of the sites are fairly benign – obscure message boards, alternate reality games, book clubs that specialise in unusual literature – there’s also a fair amount of illegal shit. The relative anonymity provided by TOR allows for the creation of true online drug marketplaces, places where users can directly buy and sell illicit substances rather than having to meet in person or cook the stuff themselves.

online drug trade
Ross Ulbricht. Via IBTimes.

The first – and most famous – of these marketplaces was The Silk Road. It was created by Ross William Ulbricht (AKA “Dread Pirate Roberts”) and was described as “a peaceable alternative to the often deadly violence so commonly associated with the global drug war, and street drug transactions, in particular.”

Ulbricht was a hardcore libertarian anti-government type and described his creation as “an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force”. The website’s users could purchase drugs – both legal and illegal – from registered vendors with bitcoin, a difficult to trace cryptocurrency. The drugs would then be mailed or delivered to the buyer’s home, often cleverly hidden inside a package or book so as not to raise suspicion. Users claimed that this method drastically decreased the amount of violence in the drug trade.

online drug site seized
The seizure notice left on Silk Road by the FBI.

The Silk Road was soon pulling in $22 million annually, but the numbers on that sort of operation get bad very quickly. For his part, Ulbricht went slightly mad with power and attempted to hire several (potentially non-existent) Hells Angels to murder a vendor that was blackmailing him. The murders were never carried out, but the FBI soon developed a keen interest in the increasingly-popular service. They were able to infiltrate and seize the site in 2013 – they haven’t actually specified how, of course – forcing customers to migrate to Silk Road 2.0, and Ulbricht was arrested on narcotics charges. He’s currently serving a life sentence in some godawful prison, but there’s a popular theory floating around that the alias “Dread Pirate Roberts” wasn’t just an alias.

online drug statement
An extract from the FBI file on Ulbricht’s ‘murder for hire scheme’. Via Business Insider

The name comes from the film The Princess Bride, where the Dread Pirate Roberts is actually several people. Each “Roberts” hands the name onto his successor before vanishing into the wild blue yonder, creating the near-mythical story of an outlaw with a preternatural ability to evade death and the law. The theory about Ulbricht holds that he was just one in a series of administrators and the man himself seems to confirm that in an interview with Forbes from 2013, saying:

“I didn’t start the Silk Road, my predecessor did. From what I understand, it was an original idea to combine Bitcoin and Tor to create an anonymous market. Everything was in place, he just put the pieces together.”

Of course Ulbricht could have just been trying to throw investigators off, and for everybody else it’s just a bit of fun – the kind of nutty conspiracy that the internet churns out daily.

online drug conspiracy
Alexandre Cazes, founder of AlphaBay. Via Arstechnica.

While the Silk Road was the first of its kind, it wasn’t the largest. The recently shutdown AlphaBay was dealing with in excess of five times the amount of money that its predecessor had, making between $600,000 and $800,000 a day. But its owner, Alexandre Cazes, was substantially less intelligent than your average dark web overlord.

Cazes was a millionaire computer programmer who liked to flaunt his wealth by buying fast, expensive cars and big houses. He also failed to practice even the most basic operational security, and left his public email address –Pimp_Alex_91@hotmail.com – in several otherwise secure communications related to the website. And Cazes wasn’t exactly a visionary either: he posted on a “pickup artist” forum about his love for having sex with Thai women and his hatred for Muslim immigrants. He was arrested by Thai authorities and just recently turned up dead in his cell at Bangkok’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau. AlphaBay has just recently been seized by an international criminal taskforce and users who fled to other sites were snatched up by a similar monitoring operation.

online drug law enforcement
The seizure notice left on AlphaBay.

To some people the dark web represents a sort of wild west. Anything goes and everything is for sale, with the law always close behind. But just as that frontier was crushed by advancing of technology, the dark web is quickly disappearing under a tide of DEA double agents and increased public awareness of its seedier corners.

It remains to be seen whether there’ll be another site as big as AlphaBay – though size is not necessarily a boon for dark web marketplaces given the attention they draw – and it could be that this history winds up being  all there ever was to the short, crazy history of the online drug trade.