Part 3. The Darknet Marketplace

The Darknet is a mysterious, and largely unheard of, part of the internet. It is a place for those who want complete anonymity online for whatever reason. In this corner of the web, the promise of anonymity leads to the acceptance and growth of information and products which are stigmatised by public opinion and society. In other words: its secretive nature inevitably leads to the festering of criminal activity.

All this being said, theoretically, simply browsing the Darknet is not illegal. That is, as long as you are not perceived as having an interest or repeatedly accessing illegal sites. There are some downright terrifying things on the Darknet but there are people who use this hidden web that simply want privacy, so not all users participate for illegal means.

The Darknet began drawing mass attention with the bust of the notorious marketplace Silk Road. In the years following, numerous similar markets have popped up in its place.

I speak to Rhys Clarke, a regular drug user, who shares insight to his habits and debriefs me on Darknet navigation.

“When I get new stuff [pills] I usually just go on Pill Report to scope it out. Most of the time the reviews are pretty good and I’m less worried taking it,” Mr Clarke said.

“I used to buy drugs from people I know or out [clubbing] but not really anymore because I just get them online.”

“There’s a big jump, the purity and quality for money is incomparable, you can’t buy better stuff for the same price on the street, online is probably where they [street dealers] get them anyway.”

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Illicit drugs purchased from a Darknet Marketplace.

 

Drug epidemiologist Dr Jason Ferris foresaw a similar outcome, “the Darknet marketplace will only grow as people become more prepared to shop online.”

Dr Ferris then said to me, “I’m gonna guess you have something on you that you bought online.”

He was right: nearly every single thing I was wearing, I had purchased online.

We’re living in a place where the online market trade is common, so it makes sense that the drug market would also set up shop.

It is a real commercial business model, and every time a marketplace shuts down, new, refined ones appear. On these sites, there are search bars and filters so users can find what they are seeking with ease. A feedback system exists for both sellers and buyers, just like eBay.

The growth of this market seems inevitable with all its promises. All things considered, it is still an incredibly risky venture, not only pertaining to its illicit nature but also the possibility of a website bust or exit scam, both of which can happen at any given moment. Just like in the real world, dodgy businesses still exist and it may be uneasy on the conscience to purchase drugs from a website which also sells assassinations.

 

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Part 2. Illicit Drugs for Dummies: Explained by a Drug Epidemiologist

I was speaking to a friend about the recent drug trials being discussed as a possibility in Australia and told her about all the different types of illicit drugs people bring in to be tested. Soon it became abundantly obvious neither of us knew exactly what these drugs were and they effects and differences. So I decided to ask an expert.

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Drug and alcohol epidemiologist Dr Jason Ferris.

This is Dr Jason Ferris, a drug and alcohol epidemiologist. The dictionary definition for an epidemiologist is “the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.” I included this so you didn’t have to google it yourself. Dr Ferris is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to illicit drugs, so I asked him to explain to me what exactly are some of the most common illicit drugs in Australia and how do they work.

 

MDMA (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)

MDMA is one of many drugs that impacts neurotransmitters, primarily affecting serotonin which speaks to emotion and arousal.

“Depending on how pure the product is you are going to have less speed, or ice, type effects and more feeling good, empathetic, emotional responses,” Dr Jason Ferris explained.

MDMA is an illicit substance that is not organic: it is made in a lab.

People tried utilise its euphoric effects in medicine: one of MDMA’s original uses was to be a form of psychotherapy to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dr Ferris described other unexpected issues which MDMA had previously been used to try and fix, “back in the early 70s and 80s before it [MDMA] got banned…psychologists were using it for couples therapy, to get couples to speak to each other and engage each other.”

In current, unregulated markets, MDMA is often adulterated with cheap ‘fillers’: this is called ‘cutting’. Something which is ‘cut’ means it is no longer 100% pure, it is filled with something cheaper to manufacture or easier to obtain, so that more can be sold for a larger profit.

“If you had a pill that was 100% MDMA it would take about 30 minutes before you have a response in your system, and you would peak in about one to three hours.”

The half-life of this substance is seven hours, when the dosage still in the user’s system is low enough that the effects are no longer felt.

 

LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide)

LSD is made from lysergic acid from a grain product called ergot, which is a fungus found on corn or wheat. Discovered in the late 1800s, it has an organic beginning but is created or imitated in a laboratory.

“It[LSD]  has hallucinogenic effects, so this thing really targeted the mind,” Dr Ferris said.

“The impact of this was not so much your physical body space but purely how you see how, you hear, how you sense; it really impacted the senses.”

It is difficult to pinpoint how LSD will affect any given user because it is dependent on the individual and there are possible additives which can change the which senses are most affected. Dr Ferris gave an example of a potential adjustment, “additives in LSD can change it from a visual to an aural sensation.”

The experience of LSD, the trip, culminates from our imagination and the effect of the drug.

Some people see dragons and some hear whispers. The visual and auditory world experienced can completely diverge from reality.

Or are we blind to reality until we take LSD? Dr Ferris muses, “we assume there are no dragons in the sky…maybe our dimension of space we’re looking at right now we can’t see the dragons, and LSD gives us a chance.” He doesn’t sound convinced, but it’s an interesting idea.

 

METHAMPHETAMINE (Ice)

In chemistry, methamphetamine falls under the amphetamine family.

Methamphetamine is essentially a hyper-powered amphetamine, with more negative side effects.

“These are all drugs that impact or mimic adrenaline so you get more hyper-arousal activity,” Dr Ferris said.

He describes the drug effect like the rush felt in a fight or flight response,”there is a full body response of adrenaline: eyes dilate, heartbeat increases.”

 

COCAINE

Cocaine is derived from the coca plant which is native to South America. Thousands of years ago ancient Incas discovered chewing coca leaves would quicken their heartbeats and breathing to better cope with the thin mountain air.

This stimulant works by tricking the body into hoarding dopamine, a neurotransmitter which is instrumental in making people feel good.

Numbing of the mouth is one of the initial physical sensations felt when using cocaine, whether it is rubbed into the gum or snorted through the nasal passage.

The immediate effects include an intense rush of pleasure and boost of energy, however, these effects wear off in a very short amount of time.

“Coming down [from cocaine] is usually not too impacting,” Dr Ferris explains, although crack cocaine is another story, where the state after the high is so low some people can only think to use more of the drug to end it.

 

Continue reading “Part 2. Illicit Drugs for Dummies: Explained by a Drug Epidemiologist”

Part 1. What Does a Pill Test Look Like?

I entered a chemistry lab with Dr Andrew Allsebrook, lead demonstrator at the University of Queensland’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences. Together we created a mock pill test to show how a real testing kit would determine what is contained in an MDMA, or ecstasy, pill. The colours each reagent turns vary depending on the drug you use as a sample, for the purpose of this demonstration we focus on a step by step visual recreation of how MDMA, perhaps the most commonly used illicit party drug in Australia, reacts and looks in a standard test. The standard test has four reagents: Marquis, Mecke, Mandelin and Folin.

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Here are the steps in more detail.

Step 1: Take a sample or scraping from the crystal or pill. Take tiny scrapings because too much will make the solution too concentrated and dark to see the actual colour. You will need to take new samples for each of the tests.

Step 2: Mix the scraped residue with the first reagent Marquis (white test). This reagent Reacts immediately. Good for weeding out bath salts and amphetamines. It is helpful to do the tests in order so that you are eliminating or confirming compounds chronologically. Stir the solution and watch carefully for the reaction because the colours change as time passes and the colour you need to identify may only appear briefly. MDMA mixed with Marquis should turn purple for around 30 seconds and finally settle as a black/very dark purple solution.

Step 3: Next is the second reagent Mecke (red test), which also reacts immediately. Can help identify some of the common cathinones. MDMA with this test should turn green initially then finally settle to black/dark green.

Step 4: The third test is Mandelin (blue test). Reacts immediately. Also good for testing ketamine and MXC. MDMA should turn black with this reagent.

Step 5: The final reagent Folin has two stages (turquoise and green test). Can take up to 2 minutes to react after second drop. Differentiates MDMA from MDA and MDE, also good for detecting piperazines. The reaction of MDMA should be a gradual peach colour after the second stage of Folin reagent is added.

For the full colour chart click here:

imageedit_4_7916529465 Part 2. Illicit Drugs for Dummies: Explained by a Drug Epidemiologist.

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imageedit_8_3902783986 (1) Part 3. The Darknet Marketplace

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imageedit_10_2379494182 (1) Drug Checking in Australia

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Drug Checking in Australia

Drug checking services, pill testing and adulterant screening: many terms which describe one contentious issue. There has been intense debate over whether or not Australia should pioneer drug checking at upcoming NSW festivals. Following the deaths of at least seven people, and the hospitalisation of 800 at music festivals in the past year, concerns are shifting from the ‘War on Drugs’ viewpoint toward harm minimisation. “The fact is drugs are part of Australian life,” says a representative of Drug Law Reform Australia. Even though more and more young Australians are coming to harm by taking illicit drugs, this alarming fact hasn’t seemed to hinder others from doing the same.

Dr Monica Barratt, a member of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) explores some arguments for and against the progression of drug checking trials in Australia.

She defines drug checking as “a service or intervention where people who consume illicit drugs can voluntarily submit them for a forensic analysis, so find out what’s in those drugs so they also receive advice and counselling or additional information tailored to the results that they get.”

Currently in New South Wales both the Premier, Mike Baird, and the Minister for Police, Troy Grant, have said they are not prepared to support a trial of drug testing at a festival.

Dr Barratt acknowledges their argument, “they [Premier Baird and Minister Grant] cite legal concerns: the people who are running the testing centres, the health professionals, at some point they might be seen to be inciting drug use or they might be seen as being in supply.”

She believes if the testing is set up in a way where the health professional does not return any drugs back to the person volunteering their samples it would be one step to make the practice legally viable.

Another problem the NSW government officials have mentioned regards liability. For example, if a group of doctors who check a sample suggests to the recipient the tests did not detect any dangerous compounds, which then leads to the person taking the substance and dying or coming to harm, these doctors could be held responsible.

Every Australian state except NSW is now on board with the trials.

Like many members of the public, Dr Barratt sees drug checking as a step toward harm minimisation when it comes to people taking illegal, unregulated and potentially dangerous drugs.

In cases where people are hospitalised from taking illicit drugs and they don’t know for sure what was contained in what they had taken, it makes treatment much more difficult and risky.

“When you’re working in emergency services you want to know what that compound is and have it tested so you can provide effective care rather than care that is based on your own mis-information about what this person has ingested,” Dr Barratt said.

There is evidence to suggest people are becoming more conscious of what they take. Commercial drug checking tests, or at home test kits, are rapidly increasing in popularity. While they are able to detect many compounds and eliminate others, however, they are not nearly as thorough as an exhaustive laboratory test.

One level down from commercial test kits is Pillreports.net, a website dedicated to documenting and sharing information on ecstasy. It is a whole database of different types of pills on the market, submitted by both users’ personal experience and scientific analysis.

Drug markets are evolving. The somewhat recent appearance of Darknet Marketplaces have also changed the illicit drug game. Protected by anonymity, users have access to a huge array of choice when it comes to prohibited substances, as well as a promise of quality. The fact is, there is always going to be business in narcotics, and monitoring products of the market is key to reducing harm and limiting the negative impacts of such an inherently risky activity.

The introduction of drug checking could spell an end to the ‘War on Drugs’ and a beginning to something more manageable and forcibly logical: by learning from the problem rather than blindly trying to stomp it out.

Dr Barratt finished on an optimistic thought, “the people who are against this may not always be running the government…so there could be some room to move in the future to a more collaborative model. I guess we’ll see.”

 

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