Google and Bing, make up just a small fraction of the actual contents of the internet (approximately five per cent). The remainder of the web exists in a broader, more exclusive realm: the ‘deep web’.
Much of the deep web contains private, but mundane, information: bank receipts, company databases, and medical records. But it also holds the notorious ‘dark web’, where content hidden by standard browsers abounds–– offering everything from hitman hires to deals on weapons and contraband.
Consumers (thankfully) tend to resort to the ‘dark web’ for one of its more innocuous offerings: drugs. Most drug-users rely on street dealers. But some St Andrews students have resorted to the ‘dark web’ to acquire the most tantalizing tonics on the market. I spoke to one such student, whose name has been changed to ‘John Doe’ to protect his identity, to understand how he uses the ‘dark web’ to fuel his drug habit. In our conversation, he provided insights into his purchasing process and the risk-assessment that led him to go online for his illegal fixings.
Doe says that he was first induced to the dark web as a seventeen-year old, having formerly purchased drugs from local dealers. “I realized that it was significantly cheaper to use the dark web”, he says.
He says that he found the web to be a safer place to acquire drugs than the street. “When I buy from the dark web, [I’m] typically buying directly from the producers”, he says. “So there aren’t any intermediate steps where drugs are cut, or stuff like that happens.”
Doe adds that he learned how to access the dark web within the space of an afternoon, largely thanks to the discussion website ‘Reddit’. “It was very quick. I knew nothing about it, I am not a particularly tech savvy person”, Doe says. “There’s a massive Dark Web subReddit [that] teaches you [what to do].”
The gist of the buying process involves downloading ‘Tor’, or a similar browser, acquiring some cryptocurrency (which is typically required to make purchases), and then finding the right URLs to connect with legitimate sellers. While the first two steps are fairly straightforward, the third requires a degree of prior knowledge.
“Just for the safety and security reasons, you can’t go on Tor and just search up, ‘where to buy cocaine’”, Doe says. “Online marketplaces that sell drugs will have specific URLs, [which are] typically quite long and quite complex. And they change, and they’re hidden.”
Finding the right URLs involves some research, often into online discussion pages on websites like ‘Discord’ and ‘Reddit’, where users share links to sellers of high quality and safe products.
“Mostly, it was word of mouth [that I found the right URLS] with LSD specifically”, though, Doe adds.
To find other drugs, Doe says that the search process can be more of a “gamble”.
The prices of specific drugs vary, he adds, noting that prices for ‘Ketamine’, a dissociative anesthetic, vary from five to 35 pounds for a gram. “I always tend to buy basically the most expensive options that I can find that seems reasonable”, he says. “I’ve had great success in doing that. I’ve never actually had anything that I’ve tested myself that has been adulterated or impure.”
“I certainly have tested other people’s drugs that are impure”, though, he says.
Purchasing drugs cut with unwanted products is a key concern for online drug shoppers. The sheer variety of offerings – and the lack of regulation – available on the dark web can mean that certain (generally cheaper) products have been adulterated. Hallucinogens like LSD and mushrooms are more unlikely to be cut, Doe says, because they contain mere micrograms of active chemicals. But drugs taken in larger quantities – like MDMA or cocaine, which are both popular and potent stimulants – introduce a greater risk of adulteration.
“MDMA is, in my opinion, by far just the most adulterated drug in the United Kingdom that I’ve seen”, Doe says. “Maybe cocaine [as well], but I don’t deal with cocaine,”
He adds that he has tested MDMA friends have purchased from the dark web that turned out to be composed of entirely different drugs.
To avoid false or otherwise adulterated products, Doe conducts extensive research into his sellers and opts for more expensive products. He adds that he buys ‘reagents’ –– substances or compounds that can be added to a drug to assess its purity via a chemical reaction – which can legally be purchased in the United Kingdom to provide an additional safeguard against risky consumption. He encourages his friends to bring any newly acquired drugs to his house to have them tested as well.
Along with concerns over the purity of products, another worry for those ordering drugs from the dark web is the authorities. UK law prohibits the purchase and possession of a range of drugs under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. And while search engines like Tor help shroud buyers in anonymity, many of the drugs they purchase are sent to their homes, introducing the risk that they could be seized by police or by customs officers. All the same, Doe says that the risk is relatively low – a sentiment confirmed by comment from St Andrews authorities.
Police Constable (PC) Larna Fox, who has recently became the University Community Officer, says that when local authorities officers are informed that a St Andrews resident has purchased drugs from abroad that have been seized at customs, they typically seek to scare rather than arrest them.
“We just go knock on their door and say — ‘Oh hi, by the way, those mushrooms you ordered. Don’t think you’re gonna get them”, Fox said.
Nonetheless, Fox emphasizes that drugs are illegal, and that those found in possession of illicit substances will be dealt with according to the law. “If somebody is into taking drugs they’ve got to have the responsibility to know what they’re getting into”, she says.“It’s a criminal offense. We can’t turn around and pretend that it isn’t.”
Doe, nonetheless, has avoided unwanted interactions with police thus far. “But I’m certainly paranoid”, he says. “Regardless of the safety precautions that I take, it’s still nerve racking. I don’t want to be arrogant and say [getting caught] can’t happen. It certainly can,” adding that he has friends who have not been as lucky.
United Kingdom privacy laws, nonetheless, offer a degree of protection to those buying from the dark web. “The way the Royal Mail operates really protects drug dealers and drug buyers”, Doe says. “Police are not allowed to open a letter in transit at all legally.”
Unless authorities have reasonable suspicion to believe that a package contains illegal substances, they cannot open it. Aware of that fact, well-regarded sellers will take measures to ensure that their products are well-concealed and packaged. Often, that will include sealing products in ‘mylar’ – polyester film or plastic sheet – to prevent detection by police sniffer dogs and x-rays.
Shipping from overseas can prove slightly more risky for buyers, though –– any packages passing through customs will be X-rayed. While products sealed in mylar are hard to view through an X-ray, the concealer itself can raise suspicion.
But, all the same – even if the products are seized, that itself generally isn’t enough to warrant an arrest. The fact of drugs being sent to someone’s house is not, on its own, conclusive evidence that they are buying or using them. Indeed, somebody could theoretically ship drugs to any address they want to – regardless of whether they have any connection to the resident. Police are also unlikely to target people purchasing a small amount of drugs. They have larger fish to fry – like the sellers producing drugs and dealing them in the first place.
Doe says that he has, nonetheless, largely stopped buying drugs directly from the dark web, choosing instead to rely on middlemen who he knows use the same quality assurance methods he has in the past to buy them for him. “I’m aware of quite a few dealers in St Andrews. And I know the ones that buy from the dark web themselves”, Doe says. “These are people who actually make money dealing a significant amount of drugs.”
Doe, ultimately, suggests that the dark web is still the safest and most effective method to buy the best mind-bending bits and bobs.“Anyone who does drugs commonly [should use it]”, he says, adding that “the moment you start going, ‘I want to have a stash,’ it becomes very apparent the dark web is just the way to go.”
“A lot of people are often intimidated by it”, he says. “Before you know anything about it, you assume it’s difficult, complex, scary, and dangerous.”
But, according to Doe, that just isn’t the case: “It’s just as easy as going on Amazon”, he says.
Illustration: Calum Mayor