The dark side of online markets for buying drugs

An online marketplace advertising the sale of drugs.
An online marketplace advertising the sale of drugs.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Many get their fix via the Internet, thinking it is safer; some sites even offer free samples

In search of a greater "kick" to satiate his appetite for marijuana, Jack (not his real name) went online. But the websites he visited are not easily found by the average netizen.

Instead, these are online marketplaces on the "Dark Web" - a hard-to-access part of the Internet often used for illegal activity - that allow users to buy not only marijuana, but also substances such as cocaine, methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs.

On these sites, drugs are shipped globally and payment can be done through an escrow account - meaning money is transferred after the transaction is fulfilled.

Buyers also use bitcoins.

Jack, now a 23-year-old polytechnic student, said he was given website links by his friends, who told him that he could find better-quality drugs online.

"People go online because they think it is safer, and that they can try to hide their IP (Internet Protocol) address. They get the drugs straight in their mailbox," he told The Straits Times.

  • 30 

    Number of people arrested for buying drugs or related paraphernalia online in 2015.

    201 

    Number of such people nabbed last year.

  • Combating misinformation among youth is key, say experts

  • Tackling misperceptions and misinformation among youth is key in fighting the rising problem of online drug purchases, say the authorities and counsellors.

    While some may think that buying drugs online lowers the chance of getting caught or allows people to fake an identity, this is a misperception, a Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) spokesman told The Straits Times.

    "Regardless of the medium in which drugs were ordered, it will (still) end up with the physical delivery of drugs," he said.

    Also, the CNB, which is aware of online drug activities, works closely with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) as well as major postal and courier companies to monitor and detect deliveries.

    The spokesman added that CNB will adapt as tactics and technology evolve but did not give further details because of operational reasons.

    The ICA said its checks to safeguard borders against "undesirable cargo, including postal articles", are aided by capabilities such as technology and data analytics.

    "ICA remains committed in its duty despite the increase in volume for postal clearance, and smugglers' attempts to conceal prohibited and controlled items in ordinary items such as toys," said a spokesman.

    A spokesman for the Singapore Post said it works closely with the ICA and CNB at its operations in the airmail transit centre at Changi Airport and the mail processing centre at Singapore Post Centre.

    Experts also emphasise the need to combat misinformation among youth over drugs.

    "Several countries are legalising marijuana; younger users may have the wrong perception, thinking it is okay," said Mr Muhammad Sufian Mohd Salim, deputy head of Pertapis Halfway House.

    In January, Germany's Lower House of Parliament passed a law legalising the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes for people who are chronically ill. In the United States, 28 states have legalised marijuana for medical use and, since 2012, several have approved it for recreational use as well.

    This is why counsellors focus on education and combating misconceptions that arise from the wealth of information online, said Mr Sufian.

    About half of the halfway house's 80 residents are under the age of 35.

    Addiction specialist Thomas Lee of The Resilienz Clinic said clients who say they have made online purchases tend to be in their 20s and 30s, and do so to share the drugs among friends.

    "But the principle of our treatment remains the same. However they get the drugs, the fundamental treatment addresses why they get hooked on it," he added.

    Seow Bei Yi

Jack bought 25g to 50g of marijuana "once or twice" in two months, about two years ago, he said.

But he has been caught for consumption and possession of paraphernalia, and is undergoing counselling at the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association.

Like him, more young drug abusers have been found turning to the Internet for their purchases.

The latest Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) figures showed close to a sevenfold increase in the number of people arrested for buying drugs or related paraphernalia online.

Numbers soared from 30 in 2015 to 201 last year, with most of those arrested aged between 20 and 39.

The number of online drug buyers accounts for a fraction of the total of 3,245 drug abusers arrested last year, with offenders under 30 making up about 41 per cent.

In a recent case on March 3, a student aged 26 was arrested for buying drugs online, after the CNB was alerted to a parcel suspected of containing 136g of cannabis.

Former drug abusers tell ST that online black markets are channels for purchases, apart from private messaging groups or online forums.

ST recently saw one of the sites on the Dark Web which showed listings for sellers of "benzos", "opioids" and "psychedelics", among other substances.

Sellers are rated on their "stealth" and quality of products.

A listing for heroin, based abroad, for example, offered "free samples" of its "high-quality" product as well.

There are also listings under "Singapore", where people here inquire about purchases, with some sellers assuring potential customers of drug deliveries. Others use the platform to look for fraudsters.

A former drug user in his 40s who declined to be identified said that besides such marketplaces, some sellers route their payments through legitimate businesses in an attempt to evade detection.

He called the online buying process "no different from (using) any online blogshops, supplement stores and legitimate businesses".

He said buyers, who include university and junior college students, arrange for a "drop-off" or have the substances delivered through the postal system if they do not meet the seller.

Mr Ang Thiam Hock, 53, a former sales consultant who spends time with at-risk youth in his personal capacity, said though youth are more tech-savvy these days, not all may know how to buy drugs online.

"Some buy in small quantities as and when they have the money, while others do not have access to Web payment methods, making online buying an unlikely option," he noted.

Another former drug abuser, Joe (not his real name), who used to buy drug paraphernalia online, said it is common for people to tout drugs on private social media groups, or forums.

"While people may try to quit drugs and share their personal experiences on forums online, pushers sometimes take advantage of the situation," said the 33-year-old operations manager, who is currently a resident at Pertapis Halfway House.

"If they know that you're trying to detox and cannot cope, they will start to give you more information, and say that they are willing to send the drugs to you," he added.

"If your willpower is not strong, you just give in to whatever they are trying to sell you," he said.

He added that while such "pushers" may be based overseas, they often have accomplices in Singapore who can reach out to users here.

The temptation is a lot stronger for youth today, as many of them have ready access to the Internet via their phones and computers, unlike in the past, said Joe.

He was caught in 2015 for buying smoking apparatus for methamphetamine at $15 apiece on a mobile-marketplace app - which he had done six to seven times during that year.

When he met sellers to collect the goods, they asked him no questions, he said, and sometimes told him in advance about new products or code words they were using. "It used to be quite hard to get these instruments; usually you'd be able to get them only overseas," he said. "But, through these platforms, it becomes quite easy."

•Additional reporting by Zaihan Mohamed Yusof

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline 'The dark side of online markets for buying drugs'. Print Edition | Subscribe