Pills in the post: inside the dark web drug market
It’s never been easier to buy cocaine, prescription medication, marijuana, ecstasy, ice and heroin, which are all easily available on the dark web. But how does it get here? Who is buying? And what are law-enforcement officials doing?
Chris, whose real name cannot be used for legal reasons, was the kingpin of an international syndicate that sold hundreds of kilograms of drugs via the postal service.
Before he was picked up by detectives in one of Sydney’s more moneyed pockets last year, the French national was living the high life with business-class flights across the globe and stays in expensive hotels around the world funded by the enormous dark web dealing operation he ran out of Europe.Advertisement
Police believe he began his operations in Australia via the import of liquid MDMA, due to the perceived large amount of money to be made.
Using the postal system, Chris mailed MDMA – in liquid, tablet and powdered form – cocaine and ketamine in huge quantities to buyers all over Australia and the world.
But it all came crashing down last year on a trip to Sydney, when police saw the man acting strangely on the street. Officers’ suspicions were confirmed when they found $770 and 66 grams of cocaine and a small amount of ketamine for sale in his pockets – and kilograms of it inside his apartment.
Chris is far from alone – research done by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission last year shows that Australia has the second-highest number of dark web dealers per capita, after the Netherlands.
Product ratings, promotional deals such as buy-one-get-one-free and even points of different such as “fair trade” cocaine – allegedly bought directly from farmers, not the murderous drug cartels that dominate the trade – are as commonplace on the dark web as they are in the legitimate retail world, Associate Professor James Martin, a criminologist and dark web expert from the Swinburne University of Technology, said.
“There’s the opportunity to provide feedback, in exactly the same way you would rank Uber drivers,” he said, adding dark web dealers were “extremely protective” of their reputations and rankings.
“It’s one of the real strengths of the system, because it enables trust in the purchase of illegal products.”
Free samples of cocaine, MDMA and prescription medication were part of alleged dark web dealer Cody Ward’s business plan until he was arrested in February this year.
Accused of running what was the state’s largest drug dealing business, Mr Ward and his two co-accused, Shanese and Patricia Koullias, are now before the courts.
The allegations relating to Mr Ward and the Koullias sisters are unrelated to Chris’ case.
Police have discovered Chris’ buyers included a Sydney dealer with exclusive rights to the city, several men in Newcastle, an ethnic gang in Melbourne and a man in South Australia.
Buying dozens of kilograms at a time, some of Chris’ buyers onsold drugs to local consumers both on the dark web and via street deals.
A number of Australian purchasers also bought drugs via the dark web for personal use, which makes up about 90 per cent of the global drug purchases on the dark web.
“We consider sales of less than $200 for personal use,” Associate Professor Martin said.
Buying drugs has never been easier, he said.
Would-be purchasers access the dark web via an encrypted subset of the internet, where thousands of drug-supply shops vie for business.
Purchases are made in crypto currencies, Bitcoin being the most popular.
While a number of Bitcoin ATMs have popped up in Sydney in the past two years, Associate Professor Martin said that Bitcoin was easy to acquire online, in the same way that foreign currency can be bought.
Drugs are then sent to consumers via the postal system, either to their home addresses, an address nearby from which the consumer can retrieve their mail or a rented post box.
With no regulation of the booming industry, Associate Professor Martin said that children were using the system to buy drugs.
no age restriction on illegal drugs, there have been cases and in fact
fatal overdoses, from kids buying drugs online. Those dangers won’t
The war on drugs
Multiple law enforcement sources have told The Sun-Herald that about one in 10 deliveries is intercepted.
“We’re not sure how much gets through, but I can put it this way – international dealers are not deterred by Border Force. They are happy to take the risk of it not arriving,” Associate Professor Martin said.
The drip-feeding of small amounts of drugs across the country via the post poses a problem for police and Border Force, he said.
“Traditional approaches don’t work online – investigators are looking for big amounts of drugs, because that’s how they used to be shipped. Now, they are coming in in very small amounts which are harder to find.”
In a statement, Australian Border Force said it and other agencies use “data analytics and intelligence in an endeavour to detect, track and intercept the attempted import of illicit goods via the dark net”.
It declined to comment on the number of deliveries getting through.