Forget clandestine meetings on desolate streetcorners or tracking down someone's friend of a friend. There's a dealer on your desk.
Thursday, September 2, 1999
It came in a plain brown wrapper--two varieties of high-grade marijuana totaling a quarter-ounce, delivered to a downtown San Francisco office building via regular mail. The pot had been ordered off a Web site in Amsterdam, which was designed to look just like a Dutch coffee shop menu. Before the site was shut down in August, it offered two types of weed and five types of hash, all pictured and listed on a pull-down order form with boxes to let buyers specify how many grams of each kind they want. After ordering, customers received an e-mail with an address on it. They were instructed to send cash. It was a risk, but in this case it paid off. The twentysomething professional who ordered it found the marijuana to be not only a bargain at $92 including delivery, but sweet, green and potent.
Buying marijuana online is, of course, illegal. But enforcing marijuana prohibition online isn''t easy, especially when sellers live in countries with more tolerant drug laws, such as the Netherlands. Even harder to detect is the flourishing online seed trade, since packages of pot seeds are usually undetectable by the U.S. Department of Customs drug dogs. The result is that the Internet, which for years has been making national borders increasingly porous, is slowly helping to subvert marijuana prohibition. The new trade is thriving on two fronts: filling up the stash boxes of recreational users who want the same convenience buying their weed that they have purchasing books and CDs at amazon.com and supplying medical marijuana patients in cities without a local pot dispensary.
"The government is going to learn what the music industry is learning. The ''Net is a wall buster," says technology journalist Jon Katz, who wrote the Netizen column for Hotwired and who now writes for the tech news site Slashdot. "It''s not policeable. There are not enough cops in the world to monitor all the communications and digital commerce that''s going on. The effort to control the flow of drugs into the U.S. is a complete failure with or without the Internet. The Internet is just going to make it harder. There are millions of new ways for consumers and retailers to find each other. The DEA can sniff all the packages it wants, but it can''t make more than a fraction of a dent in the business."
In real life, a person without a regular marijuana connection may spend days or weeks searching for a dealer. Online, it takes just a few clicks. Though he''s never done it, Katz says he would feel comfortable buying pot online. "I feel I can buy almost anything online safely," he says. "I know enough people online that could get almost anything for me in minutes."
In fact, Katz believes that the Internet is going to force a reconsideration of domestic marijuana policy. "That''s the power of the Net--it''s really not for the government to be telling people whether they should be using marijuana or not, and the Internet makes it possible for people to make these judgments on their own. The Internet has killed off traditional notions of moral policing."
International MarketplaceOf course, the online marijuana business is just the latest example of ways the Internet has made national borders amorphous and national laws hard to enforce. The wide distribution of prescription drugs online without prescriptions is well documented but difficult for the government to fight, especially with Internet doctors willing to write virtual prescriptions after brief questionnaires.
There are dozens of online overseas pharmacies that will ship drugs that are controlled in the United States but not abroad. Try typing "Viagra" or "Xanax" into a search engine and see how many offers come up. In a recent issue of The Industry Standard, James Ledbetter wrote, "There''s a pile of drugs on my desk. Dozens of pills of different shapes, sizes and colors, designed to treat obesity, baldness and erectile dysfunction. My doctor did not prescribe them, and--knock on wood--I have no medical need for any of them. How did they get here? Through the magic of the World Wide Web."
Online gambling, another illegal activity in many states, also thrives. Though a congressional commission recently recommended a ban on Internet gaming, they couldn''t come up with a viable way to enforce it. Writes Declan McCullagh in Wired News, "The commission identified overseas betting sites as a major problem. Such sites are often located in countries that license those businesses, as the state of Nevada does for physical casinos. The group appears to have recognized that the only way to stop eager Americans from connecting to offshore sites would be to censor all overseas links, much as Singapore and China do when restricting access to information that their governments find objectionable. The report notes that such a law ''may be easily circumvented.''"
The same is true, it seems, for marijuana law.
Chain of Contraband CommandWhen I call the San Francisco office of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Postal Inspection Service they both claim to be unaware of the Internet marijuana trade, suggesting how easy it is for digital dealers to escape notice. And even if they are caught, the DEA has no jurisdiction outside the United States. Not that they''re admitting powerlessness. "In cooperation with authorities in other countries, we can arrest and extradite dealers," says Evelyn James, DEA special agent and public information officer. Dutch police, she points out, have shut down marijuana Web sites before, usually at the request of foreign governments.
Nevertheless, the possibility of legal trouble doesn''t much worry Joey Phdfort, a 35-year-old Amsterdam man who runs a Web site (people.A2000.nl/lpafort/) where people from around the world can order weed. "I live in the Netherlands, where cannabis is allowed. I do nothing wrong," he says. Phdfort, who is suffering from liver cancer, believes he is doing humanitarian work. "In Holland, doctors give cancer patients cannabis and it helps. I can help other people who need it also. Most of the people who are buying from me are ill. Most of them have cancer themselves. That is why they buy it on the Internet." He points out the logistical troubles that many cancer patients have in acquiring marijuana. It''s not like they can call up an old college pal who knows where to score. "If somebody is 40 or 50 years old, how can he buy it if the government won''t allow it?" he asks. "If you are sick and you need it and you know that it helps, why not?"
Phdfort says that he used to send out 1,000 packages a week, but now that his sickness has progressed, he only has time to serve a few dozen regular customers, making about 25 mailings a week. Customs, he says, are rarely a problem--he estimates that 99 percent of the marijuana he sends out makes it to its addressee intact. In the case of the order placed from and delivered to San Francisco, the marijuana came in small, plastic zipper bags, placed inside a padded envelope. Nothing fancy about it.
Recipients in the United States are obviously subject to our drug laws, but, although importing drugs is a federal crime, buyers are unlikely to face penalties much stiffer than they would for possession of the same amount in their city and state. "The whole purpose for having federal law enforcement as opposed to state, county or municipal law enforcement is so that we can most efficiently and effectively utilize taxpayer resources. It is not appropriate for federal-level resources to be used to prosecute someone in possession of one joint," concedes DEA spokeswoman James. "That does not mean we won''t arrest you and prosecute you through the state system. If you''re using the mail, that''s a separate crime that you can be charged with."
But the Postal Inspection Service, the government agency in charge of investigating crimes involving the mail, is also unlikely to throw the book at minor buyers, especially those with a medical excuse. "If a Web site is in Amsterdam we don''t have any jurisdiction there," says U.S. Postal Inspector Linda Joe. "If marijuana does come here and if customs doesn''t catch it and we do, then of course we''ll seize it. There we run into the issue of whether it will be prosecuted. That varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Sometimes if the U.S. attorney''s office doesn''t want to prosecute, a local DA will. It would depend on the quantity of drugs and how often a person had been receiving them. We''d definitely look into it to see if this was a one-shot deal or if they''d been getting packages every week."
The Postal Inspection Service is much more concerned, it seems, with dealers sending huge packages via the mail to other dealers. A quote from the chief postal inspector published in the agency''s 1998 annual report reads: "Marijuana is the most prevalent drug found in the mail, and Postal Inspectors focus investigative efforts on the large quantities associated with drug dealers." Last year, for instance, three Californians were arrested for mailing 11,000 pounds of pot to the East Coast. Of the 651 marijuana-related arrests that the postal service made last year, most were of members of huge drug-trafficking rings, like the 106 people busted in Southern California in a sting involving the seizure of 2,824 pounds of weed.
The fact that the feds are unlikely to prosecute small-time recipients isn''t always good news for buyers. Joe recalls one case in which a man in Virginia was receiving pot in the mail from a relative in New Jersey. The sender''s case, which the government considered more serious because he was dealing, was prosecuted federally, and he got probation. Since the feds weren''t interested in going after the recipient, his case was pursued by his own county DA in Virginia, and he ended up getting six years.
Growing the GrassWhile growers can always pick through a bag of pot for seeds, if they want to know exactly what they''re raising, the Internet can be a huge help. There are dozens of seed banks online based both in the Netherlands and in Canada, where possession of marijuana seeds is legal. The seed trade is flourishing both because seeds, tiny and odorless, are easy to ship, and also because selling seeds is more profitable than selling actual marijuana.
"In the economics of marijuana, cultivating for seeds is a better industry than cultivating for bud," remarks John Entwistle, legislative analyst for Californians for Compassionate Use. "Those little seeds are just worth so much money. It takes years to get them because you have to do all this genetic work--when you buy seeds, you''re buying knowledge of what the plant is. If they tell you, for example, that the plant will mature in exactly 92 days, it generally will."
Indeed, the language on seed sites drips with the kind of reverent connoisseurship often found among wine snobs. On Heaven''s Stairway (www.hempqc.com), a strain called Amstel Gold that sells for $50 per packet of 10 seeds is described as "soft with a citruslike aroma and a good high. Easy to grow, grows with long compact resinous buds." The more expensive Durban Poison ($75 for 10 seeds) is said to be "100 percent Sativa. Large long bud leaves, buds are also large and long with lots of resin. A sweet licorice or anise flavor. ''Up'' high similar to Thai...Also does very well under artificial light." To order, you simply send an international money order or certified check (all prices are in U.S. dollars) to a post office box in Quebec.
Self-RegulationFor many would-be Internet pot buyers, even those who aren''t afraid of running afoul of the law, the fear of being scammed is a strong deterrent. But unlike the real-life black market, the Internet fosters a community of users who constantly rate sites and trade advice. "The odds online overwhelmingly favor the buyer," Katz says, based on his observations of the online drug community in action. Discussions flourish at www.yahooka.com and www.cannabis.com, and on newsgroups such as alt.drugs.pot.cultivation. There''s even a Zagat guide of sorts for seed banks at www.suresite.com/ca/r/razzmat/, where online seed stores are rated for reliability, speed of delivery and convenience of ordering. Here you can learn which sites take checks, which take money orders at no extra charge and which provide free shipping. Additionally, the webmaster warns users against sites known to burn would-be buyers.
Joel, a recreational grower who buys seeds online, used the site as a guide and was very pleased with the results. "I went with one of his five-star guys. It took about a month, but I got my product and I was very happy with it. They did an excellent job." Before the Internet, Joel says, buying seeds could be difficult "unless you knew someone, went to Canada or flew over to Amsterdam."
The Internet also makes growing easier by providing access to a group of experts ready to answer questions from novices growing the first plant or from veteran cultivators attempting new, more difficult strains. "The guys on the cultivation newsgroup are really nice," Joel says. "It''s the greatest source on the Internet for growing advice. There are four or five guys who are really cool and will answer pretty much any question."
Anyway, he adds, growing pot, even indoors, is pretty simple. "It''s easier than growing a house plant," he says. "I''d kill a house plant. Marijuana literally grows like a weed. You can buy a cheap fluorescent light and keep it over your seeds and in 120 days you''ll have a cheap, jumbo crop."
Joel says he''s not too concerned about being busted. "I worry to some extent, but really they''d have to be kind of silly to pay attention to me. Why would anyone spend an ungodly amount of money to catch someone buying 10 seeds? I do take precautions, though. I use proxy servers and remailers to post to the newsgroups, which makes it a real pain to trace it back to me."
He''s probably right. "Technically seeds are illegal, but there isn''t THC in the seeds, only in the plant itself," says postal inspector Joe. "They would be seized, but as far as prosecution, it would depend on the local climate."
Paranoid CollusionsStill, most of those involved in the fight for marijuana legalization caution against buying anything illegal through the Internet. "I would be very cautious about putting my name out there as a consumer of marijuana," Entwistle says.
"We have run several messages on our Web site saying that one of the stupidest things you can do is buy pot through the Internet. It''s even riskier than going up to somebody in the street," says John Holmstrom, multimedia director for High Times magazine. "Who knows who''s behind the Web site? What if it''s a government agency and they''re keeping a list of everyone they''re sending pot to?"
Suspicions run especially high around sites that offer to ship marijuana domestically, because people worry that such sites are government sting operations. Arizona Company Medical (www.medical-marijuana.com), for example, is a pot Web site registered to an address in Anaheim. It''s run by Anaheim resident Mike Aranov, who refused to answer questions except to say that his site ships to people throughout the country, which is, obviously, illegal. To order, buyers must send a check or money order along with a copy of a medical report or a doctor''s note and "proof of ID" (what constitutes proof is unclear) to 5051 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Suite E, in Anaheim. The prices are low, starting at $65 for a quarter ounce. One Bay Area marijuana dispensary worker said that he''d heard about successful buys through the site, but he doesn''t recommend using it. "I met a gentleman from the company who said they were doing fine. It''s strange that they''re able to survive," he says. "I have hesitations because of the federal government''s ability to tap into it. They might even be dealing with a narc to catch people who are propositioning them. You don''t know what you''re getting into."
Entwistle said he''s been getting lots of inquiries lately from people who want to know whether Arizona Medical is safe. "While in theory the idea of being able to click for pot is good and in practice it is happening, it''s a very temporary thing, I suspect. I wouldn''t do it. It''s frightening. I think that people should be clear about what they''re doing. When you''re breaking the law, you shouldn''t let yourself get caught. The government can just trace where the clicks came from and round up enormous numbers of people. It lends itself to a conspiracy prosecution. People get away with breaking the law for a period of time, but it does catch up to you."
Net ScumBesides problems with the law, online buyers must also be wary of scams. Seed buyers tend to protect themselves by constantly exchanging information, but those who actually order pot online are less likely to ''fess up to it. "Most of my clients have been ripped off many times on the Internet before they came to me," says Phdfort. "There''s a lot of scum on the Internet."
Indeed, if you do a web search for the words "buy marijuana online," many of the resulting links will be to a site called the "Netherlands High Shoppe," which had dozens of separate URLs. The site even promises free samples. But before you get in, you have to buy something called an "adult check ID" for $20, which, in addition to providing access to the Netherlands High Shoppe, also lets you in to a variety of porn sites. The ID won''t, however, get you any closer to actual marijuana, because all the Netherlands High Shoppe offers are the phone numbers of U.S. companies selling legal herbal marijuana substitutes with names like "Wizard Smoke."
And as with Arizona Medical, buyers on some sites are required to provide far more information than they''d ever dream of giving to a guy skulking around the park with a pocket full of dime bags. A few months ago, an e-mail was circulating with the URLs of two Web sites, civildisobedient.net and antae.org, said to be working in concert, that promised to deliver free medical marijuana to patients. "This is one more step in our movement to launch a pacifist guerrilla medi-pot dispensary for chronic suffering patients, but which we will operate from a virtual location," said the e-mail''s attachment. At first, it seemed thrilling. But no local activists knew anything about it, no phone number was given, and there was no response to repeated requests for more information. Users were instructed to send a signed, notarized copy of their photo identification, a signed "oath" with the name of their primary caregiver, and a "Police or Police Agent Waver [sic] form signed" (what this means is unclear) to CivilDisobedient.net, c/o Mahlon, Gen Del PO, Washington DC, USA 20090.
It turns out that both domains are registered to the same person, one "Mahlon Coats." People who register domain names are required to provide phone numbers, and of the numbers Coats used, one is for a Motel 6 in Oakland and the other is for an Internet company in Australia.
But most disturbing of all is the fact that Mahlon Coats writes like a schizophrenic. "If our Web site seems slightly irreverent toward the so called ''drug war'' (and so called ''drug warriors'') we apologize but we needed the dark humor for novel extents of parabolic range and breadth," it says on www.antae.org. "And the Internet novel approach is intended to hopefully bring a quicker end to any unnecessary suffering of patients today, now--before even more of them join the already-deceased patients (who now feel no more pain, but) who were forced (as a result of political positioning) to endure their suffering without a safe source for this simple herbal remedy. If our Web sites also seem slightly fanatical at times, it is because the stratified contradictions in the so called ''Drug War'' become hilarious when exposed. And this is also to heighten the novel experience."
The bizarre ramblings continue on civildisobedient.net: "For those who believe that we who used an illegally smoked mantra as a unifying element, especially those who used it with us but then after our goals were achieved in halting the Vietnam War, should have stopped the smoke, I argue that our next goal needed to be to expose the government complicity in causing such a benign substance to be so feared and maligned--and thereby better prepare the government against such a flawed policy ''Achilles heel,'' from future protester strengths against the government."
This, needless to say, is probably not a person many would want to trust with their name, address and medical history.
"The Internet can''t gloss over the fact that it''s not Walgreens on the other end of the line. It''s still just a drug dealer with a home page," Entwistle says. But for some, especially the old and the ill, a drug dealer with a home page is easier to find than a drug dealer on the street. As long as there are people who want pot badly enough to send cash blindly through the mail, there will be people all over the world more than happy to sell it to them.