Spinning the dark web

Where people go to buy drugs

Dark hooded figure sits at a computer, with a web of black-ink hanging above them. The background features lines of varying thickness in different shades of green. Art by Jessica Ottavi. Background added for online image by Justine Landis-Hanley and Ann Ding.

“Silk Road. Circa 2013. Purchased what promised as a ‘mind-blowing’ experience. Received a Dust Buster two days later. Strangely, no complaints on my end.” — gr8head, Reddit user

I’m sitting at my desk, abandoning a lukewarm cup of tea to engage in an intense online battle with MyUni over a Friday timetable slot. A friend pops up on Facebook Messenger to confirm that she does, in fact, enjoy cooked pineapple. I search for an appropriately shocked GIF when she adds, offhandedly, “have you heard of the dark web?”

Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance, I minimise the browser and open another. A quick search on Reddit tells me that the dark web – or darknet  – is not indexed by standard search engines like Google or Bing: it is a small, encrypted portion of the deep web that requires special software to operate.  Wherever I search, the same terms stand out: drug dealing; money laundering; human trafficking; leaked documents. 

I roll my eyes at my humble MacBook, and dismiss this online underworld as a phenomenon lying well beyond my technical capabilities. I begin closing tabs when one thread catches my attention. I pause. “DARKNET: A STEP BY STEP GUIDE”.

Curious, I do as the guide says and download Tor, a free browser originally designed by the US military before it became open source. I hesitate before dragging the logo into my applications folder: will it open up my computer to hackers? I double click the app. My MECO2603 essays aren’t worth much anyway.

A popup appears with a loading bar. The bar snakes its way across my screen and then disappears. Tor opens.

The green-and-purple homepage looks innocuous. I copy and paste a link from Reddit into the search bar. The page loads and I choke on my tea; I’m faced with a single, disturbing image of a tentacled man brandishing a pentagram. The hitman recruitment site promises “permanent solutions to common problems”.

I quickly close the window and paste another link. It lists the IP addresses of known child pornography viewers. Another link: fake citizenship certificates. Another: a PDF file of the Anarchist’s Cookbook. Classified business information, weapons, human experiments – it’s all there. It was always right there.

Harry*, a Medical Science student at the University of Sydney, stumbled across the dark web on a coding forum when he was fourteen.

“I was browsing through and was just like, oh hey, I can buy an AK-47 for $350.”

He found himself on The Silk Road, an infamous darknet marketplace the FBI shut down in 2013. It functioned as a criminal eBay, offering everything from guns and drugs to stolen credit cards and Netflix subscriptions. He bought three cannabis seeds for $30.

“I wasn’t really expecting to get them, but I wanted the thrill of using the dark web and seeing how it works. You’re anonymous, so you don’t have the moral boundaries that you would have while dealing with someone face to face.”

The seeds took less than three weeks to arrive from the United States – faster than most of my textbook orders from the Book Depository. 

“They were packaged in a tin foil packet, like how you get tablets. You cracked it open like a Panadol. It was nicely wrapped – it looked professional,” he told me with a smirk.

A significant number of students are logging onto cryptomarkets to bypass traditional dealers and purchase drugs. We are all just one download, a quick bitcoin transfer and a few clicks away from having AusPost deliver narcotics straight to our doors.

Matt*, a Medicinal Chemistry student at UTS, was introduced to the dark web by a friend when he was sixteen and searching for a cheap source of acid. He bought a sheet of 20 tabs, and camped out by his parent’s mailbox waiting for the drugs to arrive.

“Having the drugs delivered to my house wasn’t my finest moment. I actually used my parents’ credit card too, and got caught on the bank statement. I told Dad I bought Halo.”

The LSD took just over a fortnight to travel from Switzerland to Matt’s home address, sealed in an envelope and sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard. Matt took a tab that same night to see if it was legitimate. It was.

The thought of purchasing opiates and stimulants with the click of a button is tempting, but while darknet user ratings can act as a market regulator, it is impossible to guarantee purity of character…or drug composition

Ben* bought 50 tabs of clonazolam off the internet when he was in year 9. He shared them with his mate, who became increasingly aggressive and withdrawn, until he had to be hospitalised

“[My friend] was basically a soulless husk of a person for a few days. I felt devastated that my own judgement could be completely stripped from me so suddenly. I was expelled 11 days later,” Ben wrote to me.

There is also the possibility of falling victim to an exit scam, whereby a vendor takes a large catalogue of orders before disappearing with your precious bitcoin. And you can’t exactly go to the courts over a dodgy drug deal.

Sam*, a geography student, bought MDMA and LSD in bulk – up to $7000 street worth at a time – and sold it to friends at cost price. It was an act of vigilantism against local suppliers and their generally impure products.

“We tried to minimise the risk by only buying off reputable sellers with lots of positive feedback, but we got ripped off about three times. Each instance was a few hundred dollars.”

Cyber risks aside, there is one glaringly obvious deterrent: drug possession is illegal. Students can rack up fines or face imprisonment, regardless of who their supplier is or where they conduct their business. One Engineering and Science student grew worried after making a particularly large purchase from The Silk Road.

“Despite making every effort to be safe, it’s easy to make a mistake and there are bugs everywhere,” they warned me.

“The thresholds for what is called a ‘marketable’, and worse, a ‘commercial’ quantity are surprisingly low. It certainly made me nervous when there were potentially packages linked to me sitting in a customs building somewhere full of illegal drugs.”

Before you hand over your bitcoin, put down the Guy Fawkes mask and consider the world you could be delving into. The darknet is ‘dark’ for a reason: one second you’re spinning the web, and the next it’s got you trapped.

While buying drugs off the darknet is undoubtedly exhilarating, ultimately it’s a slippery slope with no way to recover lost bitcoin and no way to undo whatever you’ve done.

I sip my tea and close the browser. Some secrets are best left hidden.

*names have been changed