Why would young people go to a street corner to buy drugs when they can now purchase any type of high they want from the comfort of their own homes, using a computer and a credit card?
This simple, but revolutionary development led UK- based journalist Mike Power to investigate the emerging Web-based world of “designer drugs” in his new book, Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High. The book, already published in the UK to wide praise will be released this fall in the U.S.
In a conversation with The Crime Report's Managing Editor Cara Tabachnick, Power talked about the rise “designer drugs,” why it's hard for laws to keep up with them, and whether Mexican cartels login online.
The Crime Report: What drew you to reporting on drugs and the Internet?
Mike Powers: I was working as a correspondent in Colombia and Panama, where the civil conflicts on the ground and the drug industry were intertwined. At a cocaine plantation, a worker told me that he could get $1,500 a kilo for cocaine, while the price for a kilo of rice was $25. How could people fight against this economic reality? At that point, I realized that the international war on drugs was unwinnable.
In 2009, I noticed that the types of drugs available were changing along with the way people were using drugs—and what was tying it all together was the Internet. For example, in the United Kingdom (UK), clandestine chemists were tweaking drug formulas just enough to keep it legal—legal highs—and it became massively popular. (The results) were sold online, and users from teenagers to adults were getting high. There were overdoses and deaths. It produced a moral panic. And nobody knew what to do. I was the first person to write about this: how was it that strong designer legal drugs were being sold so easily on the Internet?
TCR: How has the Internet has changed the drug market?
MP: The very first drug ever bought and sold on the Internet was a bag of marijuana. It should be no surprise to anybody that two things (drugs and the Internet) would come together. I don't think it will take over drug dealing completely, but the use of the Internet as a place to do business is lodged permanently into the human consciousness. There is no way to shut it down. This is the way that people buy their drugs now. From the safety of their own homes, on their couches, where they go on to the Web and purchase whatever they want with a credit card. Why would you go and buy a drug on street corner?
Also the very nature of the drugs has changed. With just a simple tweak, chemists can create a compound that is perfectly legal, but produces almost the same exact high as “designer drugs” such as MDMA (Ecstasy). Communities share information on the Internet and are constantly thinking of new compounds, making it almost impossible to track and control them.
TCR: The book discusses the patchwork of inadequate legislation and enforcement around the world, but is criminalizing these operations the answer?
MP: Criminalizing drugs is not the answer. That has been the status quo for many, many years and it hasn't been working. Designer drugs, in some form, are as old as the hills.
Political bravery and will is what is required and are the only things that will change the trajectory. But we first also have to understand the users. We should be asking them what are the dangers and what are the pleasures? If we don't understand motivations we can never hope to create intelligent policy. We need to find ways to help them be more safe in their consumption. We threaten people all over the world with imprisonment and death for using narcotics, yet people still take drugs. The stick doesn't work—it and hasn't for a while—I think it's time to use the carrot.
TCR: According to your reporting, China is the world leader of labs making designer drugs. How can other countries collaborate to shut down these labs? Is it possible?
MP: There are thousands of different drugs. You can ban drugs, but you can't ban chemistry. It's not even the designer drugs; we also have situations where the Chinese are supplying compounds for Mexican cartels through Europe. For instance, the synthetic substance commonly known as Ecstasy has a precursor, PMK, which allows chemists to easily convert the substance into MDMA. Europe has effectively controlled and outlawed this substance, but it is legal in China. And they are producing enormous qualities of these drugs and shipping it to Europe.
In turn, this compound is making stronger, pure Ecstasy. Yet, we aren't catching up and trying to educate younger people on this development and provide possible harm reduction strategies they can utilize to prevent overdoses.
TCR: How can law enforcement keep up with dealers and users who are steps ahead of investigators in technology and information?
MP: Look, this is an unstoppable market. The police are not stupid. They are very highly skilled investigators. But we have to start to think differently. It's not so much can it be done, but should it be done? Is this how we want to spend our money or time? I would argue it's a flawed premise.
TCR: There are no cartels selling drugs on the Internet? Why not?
If you look at online drug dealing industry it's done by post. A kilo or two. In the UK we use 25 tons of MDMA a year; a gram will work for 10 people. How can you move that type of product through the mail? You are looking at a different order of magnitude.
It needs to happen on the ground, between countries. Cartels can't operate without endemic corruption and you can't move this type of goods without someone somewhere being paid off. The drug industry is too lucrative and profitable to not corrupt institutions. Cartels are moving containers. These are not amateurs. They don't have much use for the Internet.
MP: These web sites are the easiest way for drug dealers to reach young people. What can parents do to monitor their children?
Most of our lives are all online. We can't monitor everything; we have to encourage communication and using the Internet as a resource for education on these issues.
While it's for each family to decide for themselves, my approach is to have an open mind and accept drug experimentation. It's part of life, almost a rite of passage, and that is unchanged by the Internet. The more pressing need is to have a full and frank discussion about why people use these drugs.
TCR: Communities on the Web have formed to enable users to find and help each other. In particular Blueprint.com, which has become a resource on “harm reduction.” Can you explain what that means and if this is a direction others should follow?
MP: The Internet allows the sharing of information between arcane people and niche groups that didn't exist beforehand. If you go back to even 20 years ago—we had six drugs in circulation—but now we have approximately 240 drugs. We have a proliferation of drugs about which we need information. Communities such as blueprint.com allow all types of people—users, academics, scientists, families—to come together and discuss different options for these drugs in a relatively safe environment.
TCR: You write about how third-payment systems smoothed the way for these drug transactions. Has the advent of Bitcoin helped or hurt the designer-drug market?
MP: I think Bitcoin and the Silk Road (website) have shown is that it's possible to buy and sell drugs with very little fear of capture. Mainly because buying drugs has become a person–to-person business transaction. There are no cartels or Mexican gangs on the Silk Road— the fear is low, and in its place is a functioning drug market for consenting adults.
Editor's Note: For more on the Silk Road site, taken down by the FBI last October, read TCR's story by Valerie Kalfrin on “Penetrating the Dark Web.”
It's a huge development. It's a market place for drug deals, with all of the familiar resources of a large commerce site. Like with eBay, buyers could rate their dealer. It's a distributed network and a collaborative network, spread between hundreds of users. It's quite a revolutionary principle.
TCR: There is a lot of worry about the rise of these designer drugs, but the largest growth of drug use in the United States has been in the abuse of pharmaceutical prescriptions. Where should we direct our attention?
MP: How (the U.S.) should and would approach it are two very different things. We should look to see if what they are doing is working: what are the goals of law enforcement? Surely policy makers and law enforcement agencies should reduce harm. I would argue they are failing in that. They should revise their position. What the police are doing now is solely carrying out the will of the political class. They are complicit. It's an intractable problem under the current paradigm. We keep on banning drugs and a new drug appears in its place. It's a whack-a-mole effect. We need to stop and think of a new approach.
Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.