Clicking for a Fix: Drugs Online

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How easy is it to buy illegal drugs on the Internet?

Pretty darn easy, according to a new study by the United Nation's International Narcotics Control Board. The report, issued Wednesday, warns that drug traffickers are finding myriad ways to conduct their illegal transactions in cyberspace — leaving law enforcement officers struggling to keep up.

The INCB study details the ways traffickers communicate with each other and with their clients, often commandeering unrelated chat rooms to set up deals, or using Web courier services to transport their contraband packages.

Even without the examples offered by the INCB, it's not hard to imagine that for professional drug dealers, the Internet is a virtual playground. It's incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to control and censor; it has no borders, and, unlike in the physical world, criminals can change identities and locations in the time it takes to switch on a new computer.

But what about the rest of us? Is it really so very easy to track down drugs on a whim, just by opening a browser? In the interest of journalism, I set out to answer my own question, and found a very different world than what's described in the U.N. report. The U.N., of course, is a venerable institution with many resources, and I am just one small person — so perhaps it's not surprising that I could find no evidence of said hard-core Internet drug culture.

Before recounting my online experiences, I want to issue the following disclaimers: One, many of the drugs discussed here are illegal and it's extraordinarily stupid to use them. Two, I spent a limited time (several hours) conducting this research; I'm sure I missed many sites, but as we've all come to realize (and my editor keeps reminding me), it's impossible to search the entire Internet.

Cocaine: It's not just for soft drinks any more

My search for "cocaine" came up with thousands of entries, most of them anti-drug sites sponsored by federal or local government agencies. (I also tried "buying cocaine," and "cocaine sources" but had less luck). Sprinkled among the "just say no" messages, however, there were a few oddball sites — some of which took me by surprise.

A few sold booklets purporting to show exactly how to combine "everyday household products" to make cocaine — these booklets, of course, are "for law enforcement officials only." How do these vendors check your credentials? They don't.

Then, there are sites that actually spell out how to make cocaine in your very own (very well-equipped) kitchen. True, the recipes require a Ph.D-level understanding of pharmacology and tools such as space-age thermometers, but hey, if you're really hooked, I'm sure you'll find a way to overcome these minor speed bumps.

If you're interested, you can also trace the history of cocaine through the ages, from its beginnings as a treat for the royalty of the Andean Indians to its role as a "wonder drug" and its infamous inclusion in the formula for Coca-Cola.

Heroin: A little taste of history

Again, plenty of opportunities to manufacture or grow your own stuff, but nowhere to buy it straight from a dealer. Also lots of paeans to the wondrous effects of heroin, most dating back to the 19th century, when opium was all the rage, and when kids were given heroin in the form of cough syrup. You can also read horrific addiction stories by people who've fallen in love with heroin and lived to tell about it. Support groups for addicts abound as well, as do contact numbers for needle exchange centers.

Perhaps the dearth of opportunities to buy heroin online is directly traceable to the spectacular popularity and widespread availability of Oxycontin, an even more addictive opiate painkiller which, until very recently, was barely regulated.

Marijuana: Easy as pie. Mmmm...pie.

You want to buy, sell, grow, cultivate or just talk about marijuana? You're in luck — the Internet is a veritable treasure trove of pot-related sites. You can read stories written by stoned people, stories about stoned people, stories about how much better life is when enjoyed in a stoned state, and even a smattering of stories detailing how incredibly screwed up people's lives have gotten because they've spent all their time getting stoned.

You can also learn more than you (probably) ever wanted to know about different ways of getting stoned, and various ways to escape detection. This last category includes my favorite find, a site called, a service that promises to help you pass any drug test — guaranteed. Hmmmm.

Prescription medications: No doctor's visit necessary!

This is where the Internet drug trade lives. First off, let's be perfectly honest: if you're truly desperate for the hard stuff, of course, it's undoubtedly faster to personally investigate local dealers than to wait around for UPS to deliver a fix. But if you're willing to wait a few days and are loath to leave the comfort of your home, your computer can provide a few options.

Online "pharmacies" are everywhere; the domestic operations offer a limited number of relatively harmless prescription medications (including Viagra and the hair-loss drug Propecia), others (primarily Mexican) providing a larger selection, ranging from antidepressants to highly addictive opiates such as Oxycontin. Other big sellers: methadone, codeine, testosterone and anabolic steriods. It's breathtakingly easy to log on, pick a drug and place an order — all without the pesky inconvenience of a doctor's appointment. I quickly discovered that if I were interested, I could order thousands of dollars' worth of addictive opiates and see them land on my doorstep in less than 24 hours.

Payment options are equally varied: you can pay $20 extra for priority mail, or you can have everything shipped UPS. Scrolling through the (minimal) shipping guidelines, some sites make it hard to ignore flashing disclaimers: "Some of our suppliers will send you drugs even though they violate the laws of your country. It is your responsibility to consult with your physician before taking any medication, and know the laws concerning the importation of scheduled drugs to your location."

There it is, in black and white (or bright, undulating yellow): Ordering and/or possessing these drugs may be illegal. Does that stop you? It depends on your tolerance for risk.

"This is a very fuzzy area of the law," says Dr. Frank Palumbo, director of the University of Maryland Center on Drugs and Public Policy in Baltimore. "I could see law enforcement going after you, because you're in possession of a controlled substance without a valid prescription."

Let's say you do have a prescription, written by one of the kindly docs employed by the offshore pharmacies. They asked you a few questions when you logged on, and dashed off a cyber "scrip" on the spot. Does that make your case any stronger, if, say, a customs agent opens your package of opiates en route from Mexico? Maybe, says Palumbo, and maybe not. "The Controlled Substance Act in the U.S. says a prescription must be written for a legitimate medical purpose, but the feds generally don't go after patients ordering drugs for themselves." Of course, he adds, if you're caught selling the drugs you've ordered, you're in deep trouble.

What's the government doing to keep offshore pharmacies in check? Everything they can — which, quite frankly, isn't a whole lot. "The FDA has a major effort going on with regard to offshore pharmacies," says Dr. Palumbo. "They're really trying to keep a handle on all this," but they're stuck with fairly ineffectual techniques, like issuing email warnings. "They don't have jurisdiction over the countries where these pharmacies are located, and they can't flex the muscle of the U.S. government, so instead they try to work in cooperation with local governments."