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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 16th February 2012

The March edition of Addiction journal is now available online. In addition to the usual mix of items about the widest variety of psychoactive substances, this edition has a letter that introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed.

I’d never heard of the ‘dark web’ nor the Silk Road website until I read this letter from Monica Barratt of Australia’s National Drug Research Institute. Since then, I’ve read and heard more about it though, for reasons that will become clear, I haven’t seen the Silk Road site.

The ‘dark web’ is the name given to websites that are not visible to either search engines or to anyone simply typing the site address into their browser. I’m not going to get into the technical details, and reveal how poorly I understand them, so I’ll just say that you need special software installed on your computer to allow you to see ‘dark web’ sites. The intention of this software is to make you invisible to the sites so they do not know the IP address you are using to connect. It also makes the origin of the sites untraceable.

There are said to be quite a number of ‘dark web’ sites some concerned with subversive activities or child pornography but the Silk Road is a site set up to facilitate the sale of illegal substances. Monica Barratt describes it as the eBay for drugs.

*I say heard because BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast a programme from its ‘5 Live Investigates’ series on 5th February. The programme is no longer available to listen to but this article gives most of the information.

Sellers offer a wide variety of products and, as with eBay, the site includes ratings so potential buyers can have some idea of how good the service they will receive is. Encryption enables buyers to provide details to the sellers including the delivery address without risk of these being intercepted. From what I’ve read and heard* there are various ploys available to reduce the risk of arrest for both sellers and buyers.

It would seem that buyers favour substances that do not have strong smells that might be detected by sniffer dogs in mail sorting offices and sellers use multi-layer packaging to conceal any odours. Of course, studies have questioned the true effectiveness of sniffer dogs and found they respond more to cues from their handlers than actual aromas but the precautions are understandable.

There are other measures that sellers apparently take to avoid identification of their packages and themselves. Typical is to use a variety of different post offices to avoid becoming known at any one and using over-size packaging so that the parcel doesn’t look like the sort of thing you’d use to send a few pills or a few grams of powder.

Buyers, of course, have to be able to physically receive their purchases so they are at more risk of detection than the sellers but, even here, there are measures they can take. Using a false name might successfully deter prosecution because the buyer can claim the package has been wrongly addressed. I don’t know if they use the names of previous occupants of the delivery address but that, of course, would offer credible denial.

Whether such measures are essential is open to question. Much of the pressure from the USA on the UK government to outlaw Catha edulis, khat, is thought to come from the ease with which khat supplies sent by mail bypass the USA’s prohibition of the plant. The authorities don’t have fool proof methods for detecting illicit substances in the mail and they don’t have the resources or the will to prosecute individual buyers of small amounts.

It occurs to me that bitcoin has the ability to undermine other areas of society. It is always said that Barack Obama was the first to use online donations to fund his election campaign. I wonder who will be the first politician to realise that accepting donations in bitcoin is the way to allow large donors to break down their gifts below any statutory limits and do so anonymously.

The only remaining issue that could result in identification of buyers and sellers is payment. Paying by credit or debit card leaves a trail to both parties. But this is where bitcoin comes in. Bitcoin is a digital currency that started as a means of exchange for online gaming and virtual worlds. Now, it has become a more widespread currency. There are sites that will allow the purchase of bitcoin using conventional plastic cards. That transaction is, of course, traceable but once real money has been exchanged for bitcoin, the bitcoin can be used anonymously for any purpose.

It is certain that as knowledge about Silk Road spreads, efforts to shut it down will increase. But those efforts could produce the wrong result as far as law enforcement agencies are concerned. No-one would deny that if you shut down eBay today dozens of sites would open up to try and take its place. The same would, certainly, happen with the Silk Road but I wonder if governments will have the sense to realise that shutting the Silk Road would simply propagate the concept much more widely.

The Silk road may be the eBay of Drugs but it could also be the Lernaean Hydra of the Internet.