Take a trip down Silk Road
It lurks in that corner of the internet your mother warned you about – an online bazaar where any drug can be bought and delivered to your front door.
Black tar heroin, uncut cocaine and ecstasy – it is all here and more.
The website is called Silk Road and it is the new way to buy and sell drugs.
But unlike the usual websites, that require hitting www, Silk Road is part of the hidden internet, the Invisible Web, the Darknet that is protected by software, designed to throw law enforcement authorities off the digital trail.
Those who use it call it the Amazon.com or eBay of drugs where users can buy by simply clicking a mouse.
As with eBay, buyers can rate the quality of their purchases.
And it is becoming a popular method of buying illegal substances.
The latest World Drug report, released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, noted with concern the global rise in the use of new psychoactive substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs.
The report said these drugs were most often purchased through the net. The most popular of these websites is Silk Road, which has been around since February 2011.
The website’s founder is someone who goes by the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, the name of a character from a William Goldman fantasy novel, The Princess Bride.
No one knows who Dread Pirate Roberts really is or where the website is run from, but law enforcement agencies around the world are looking for him or her.
Getting on to Silk Road is surprisingly easy. It requires downloading a Tor program, free software that allows access to the Deep Web and ensures online anonymity.
With a Tor program loaded, the Silk Road website opens.
In his welcoming address, Dread Pirate Roberts warns users not to hurt, engage in child pornography, steal or preform assassinations using the website.
Scroll down, and it is clear that mostly what appears on this website is illegal.
Besides the drugs, forged social security cards and IDs are also up for sale.
South Africa is represented on Silk Road and, as in the non-virtual world, we are known for dagga.
Local dealers offer Durban Poison and Swazi Gold.
Prices are quoted in Bitcoins, a virtual currency traded on the internet.
An ounce of Swazi Red goes for 1 6123 bitcoins – about R1 226. Once the drugs are bought, they are mailed to the buyer.
Silk Road provides advice on how to package drug shipments, so as to avoid sniffer dogs, snooping customs agents or the police.
Use vacuum-sealed letters and do not sign for packages, is some of the advice.
Marie Claire van Hout, a substance abuse researcher at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, has conducted a study of Silk Road.
She and Tim Bingham found most users were not typical druggies.
“These are not addicts, they are professional drug users, who have access to a credit card,” she said.
“They don’t want to go down dark alleys to get their drugs.”
Van Hout and Bingham wrote an academic paper on the experiences of one regular user of Silk Road.
They did not say who this person was, but they did say he is a 25-year-old professional.
In the paper, the subject describes how he received one of his consignments through the mail.
“I purchased some LSD off a German chap – he actually sent me a Christmas card with a message in there. The LSD was hidden behind one of the glued pieces on the card.
“I actually had to contact him to thank him for the Christmas card and ask where the LSD was. He told me to look harder in the card, then I found what I was looking for,” he said in an interview with the researchers.
South African law enforcement authorities involved in combating cybercrime say they are aware of Silk Road, but would not elaborate about whether they were involved in any investigation into the site.
But while Silk Road may allow a certain class of drug users to avoid street corners and alleyways, Van Hout warns that there are still dangers associated with using the website.
“What is worrying is that what they are buying – you still don’t know what is in them,” she said.