Final year Journalism and International Studies student. Passionate about smashing stigmas and breaking stereotypes. Lover of every dog she has ever seen. Twitter: @BrydieRAllen
“We accidentally did meth, we both did meth. That was the last straw for me.”
Alice, 22, and her boyfriend Nathan, 24, once bought a bag of what they thought was speed. They found out after taking it that they’d actually just snorted crystal methamphetamine also known as ice.
Alice and Nathan aren’t their real names because for the past three years they’ve been buying and taking illegal drugs.
But after the meth incident in 2016, they changed their supply base in a bid to protect themselves. Rather than stop using altogether, they turned to the dark net and, days later, made their first online buy.
It was Nathan who made the purchase, which required much planning. He had to find out how to download a browser that could access the dark net, use a VPN* to protect his location and identity, buy Bitcoins, rent a post office box and, finally, choose from a long list of potential marketplaces and vendors.
Nathan only makes domestic purchases from vendors who claim to be Australian to minimise the risk of his mail being intercepted by police. His real name is registered to the post office box.
Choosing to buy from Australian websites does not limit the options available. The Australian Institute of Criminology reports this nation has the second highest concentration of online drug dealers per capita in the world.
Alice remembers they took their first purchase to a music festival, and everyone involved thought it was the best time they’d ever had with drugs.
“It felt like this is what [drugs] were made for, people weren’t just cutting them up with cheap s**t so they could save more money. It was a very enjoyable experience… it felt very clean,” she said.
From then on, Alice and Nathan and their close friend group have always been satisfied with their online drug purchases, and say they’ve never again been misled.
The couple are part of an ever-growing online community of illicit drug buyers and sellers.
The 2018 Global Drug Survey reported that the percentage of online drug purchases was higher than ever. At least 9.6% of the 130,000 respondents from over 40 countries said they had bought online in the past 12 months.
It’s no different for Australia, a country that regularly rates highly in the survey’s percentage of drug buyers and sellers per capita.
Former researcher at Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), Joe Van Buskirk, headed a project about Drugs in New Technologies (DNeT).
The project was part of a range of monitoring programs NDARC uses to create an overall picture of Australia’s drug use and trends. He said online retailers and buyers increased each time they monitored them.
DNeT was ongoing when the FBI shut down the now infamous Silk Road in 2013. The site was known as the first modern dark net marketplace, especially for the sale of illegal drugs.
Mr Van Buskirk and his team noticed that when Silk Road closed, members dispersed to rival marketplaces, growing their numbers exponentially.
Silk Road was the first to bring the accessibility of the dark net into the mainstream. Instead of drawing people away, the closure of the site increased traffic to the dark net’s drug trade.
“It brought more people to the market, because it raised awareness of what Silk Road was. It provided a greater focus on the dark net,” he said.
Mr Van Buskirk said through their research, they could identify some patterns in the types of people who were becoming buyers.
“Those that did buy from the dark net tended to be younger, male, better educated. But they tended to use more drugs, and a more diverse range of drugs, at a greater frequency and of greater amounts,” Mr Van Buskirk said.
This profile directly fits Nathan, and alongside Alice, he thinks he has spent upwards of six thousand dollars on drugs in the past 18 months.
As the NDARC study recognised, the couple and their friends were also taking a wide range of drugs. Nathan listed the buys he’s made.
“We’ve gotten ketamine, speed, coke, pills, psychs, xannies, benzos, and research chemicals – that’s a big one,” he said.
Research chemicals are synthetic drugs known by many names but their scientific name is new psychoactive substances (NPS).
They are designer drugs often made using chemicals not intended for human consumption which authorities say make them very dangerous.
Risks associated with NPS are so great that the United States Government once labelled them a threat to public health and safety.
But Alice said she’s never been concerned with their online orders and maintains that dark net purchases are safe.
“They have harm minimisation instructions with every single order, it’s f****ng insane,” she said.
There are online review systems where past customers can rate and leave public comments for vendors, as well as warnings and recommendations for dosage and side effects.
Mr Van Buskirk described it as a very engaged community of people that are looking out for each other.
“While it does stand that people are using drugs and a diverse range of drugs, they’re doing so in a more controlled way. They’re doing so with the support of the community online,” he said.
Nathan and Alice say that with their good and safe experiences, they’d like to see an online marketplace for drugs decriminalised.
An organisation called Drug Free Australia (DFA) disagrees with this idea. In their 2018 official position paper, they say that condoning illicit drugs through legislation would not allow a balanced and humane policy.
DFA executive director Jo Baxter said that relaxing drug laws is simply too risky, especially in an online sense.
“The dark web, if made legal or even decriminalised, would encourage more young people to obtain dangerous substances and take huge health risks as a result,” she said.
Nathan does understand there are risks and that easy accessibility could be a downside for some people.
“You can just bring up the page and buy… everything. And you have no one stopping you.”
*VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It is a technology that extends a private network over a public connection using encryption and location masking, so a connection cannot easily be traced or intercepted.