Imagine this scenario: you've bought yourself a ten-pack of pills from a vendor on a dark net. But instead of getting a bargain bag of Dutch MDMA delivered by the postman, you get a visit from the police. If you're one of the rising number of Australians—according to the Global Drug Survey—who have bought drugs on the dark net in the past year, this is probably your worst nightmare.
On the face of it, ordering drugs off the dark net is a lot safer than buying in person, both for your health and your criminal record. Most dark net markets have user feedback rankings just like Amazon, which encourage reputable vendors to ensure their wares are (usually) a lot better quality than what you'd buy off some dude in a club. And the anonymity provided by the TOR browser and PGP encryption means your online movements are a lot harder to crack than barely-coded back and forth text messages.
But even so, sometimes that bag of pingers you bought with Bitcoin doesn't turn up at your front door. Sometimes it will get stopped at Customs. So are you going to get hauled away by the cops, or is it just not worth it for the already clearly busy Border Protection forces?
Brisbane nurse Peter Nash knows first hand what happens when the authorities find out you've been dealing with a dark net market. He was a moderator on the Silk Road discussion forums, which were associated with but separate from the original Silk Road.
When the main site was taken down by the FBI in late 2013, Peter was caught up in an international sweep of site administrators, and extradited to the US where he served 17 months in a US prison awaiting trial on conspiracy and money laundering charges. Despite the fact he was never involved in actually selling any drugs. Luckily for Peter he was eventually released with time served.
Peter told me that during his time as a forum moderator on Silk Road "there were often panicked posts from people who had been contacted or raided by the police following a shipment going missing." Most of the time, though, he assumed prosecutions rarely resulted from interceptions of small quantities.
"Sometimes people would get called in for a 'chat' with the police; however, the impression I was given from what I read on the forums was that in most situations the police were not that interested in pursuing matters that rigorously," he said. "The few Australian cases where people have been successfully prosecuted for ordering drugs from dark net markets, they've mostly been busted due to their activities in the real world and not their online activities."
In a handful of odd cases where people were caught, Peter said they'd just ignore letters from the court and keep on ordering stuff to their home address, pretending as though nothing was wrong.
Criminologist Dr James Martin is the author of Drugs on the Dark Net: How Cryptomarkets are Transforming the Global Trade in Illicit Drugs. He takes a similar view that law enforcement resources are largely too stretched to pursue small drug seizures delivered by post. "For a drug officer to prove to their superior that they should spend thousands of dollars for what, in the end, will be a low level drug possession charge," Dr Martin said, "that's a difficult case to make."
Plus, if you're ordering from overseas, your mail probably isn't being as closely monitored as you think. "People tend to assume that drugs sent through the post will be sitting on a conveyor belt with sniffer dogs going up and down it," Dr Martin said. "That's usually not how it happens. Customs use their resources in a much more targeted fashion."
Instead of an army of sniffer dogs, international Customs operations use "risk matrixes" that raise red flags about certain packages. Examples of these have been leaked onto the dark net, if you're inclined to find out more. But when pressed for examples, Dr Martin gave a few: "If it comes from Colombia; if it's leaking a fluid or smells like pot," he said. "Or if it has a handwritten address because most international postal traffic is commercial."
An Australia Post spokesperson confirmed to VICE that the "screening of postal articles for contraband" only happens at the border and is the "responsibility of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources."
And as the ABC recently revealed, the postal service in fact "lacks the legal authority" to open mail. An Australia Post spokesperson explained that while the postal service "has an obligation to inform relevant authorities should it suspect the presence of illegal goods in mail items," it doesn't have the equipment to test for them.
"Australia Post does not have, for example, sniffer dogs, X-ray machines or explosive trace detectors," the spokesperson said. So unless a domestic package is particularly suspicious, it's unlikely to raise much notice with the postie.
But what happens if your bargain price international bag does get picked up at the border? Dr Martin says the address the package has been sent to will likely get a "love letter" in the post from Customs. This is an official notification that officers have picked up an item on the banned list. The letter will also invite the addressee to write and challenge Customs' right to dispose of the package.
Your address may be put on a watch list but unless it's a serious quantity of drugs—or one of a series of packages picked up by Customs—it's unlikely to spark a major investigation. Still, if several packages in a row have failed to turn up, it might be time for the buyer to "give it a rest," Dr Martin said.
This isn't to say the risk of landing a criminal charge isn't real. The biggest issue is that the line between what constitutes personal use versus a marketable quantity is a lot finer than you'd probably imagine. Under the criminal code, importing as little as 0.5 gram of MDMA or two grams of coke can see you charged as a drug trafficker. The quantities do vary state-by-state, and you can find a full list here.
Researcher gwern.net, who's kept an impressively comprehensive list of all the known drug arrests and prosecutions linked to English-language dark net markets, has recorded around 23 reported arrests of Australians. Most were commercial buyers with their own Australian resale sites.
NSW police declined to comment on what processes are put in place when they're alerted to the discovery of drugs in the mail. Drug Squad Commander Jason Smith did offer the warning that "a drug conviction can have a long term impact on someone's life, in many cases limiting career prospects and making it difficult to obtain visas for overseas travel."
Still, buying drugs on the dark net is theoretically far safer in legal terms than walking past sniffer dogs at the gates of a festival with a bag of pills in your underwear. Even if a parcel is picked up in the post, police still have to prove that it belongs to one particular person to charge them. This can be difficult if there's no paper trail and the parcel is addressed to a fake name.
"With possession, it has to be proven by the police that [the accused] had custody and control of the substance," explained Jimmy Singh, the Senior Managing Partner at Sydney Drug Lawyers. "If the police can't prove which computer the order came from, and all they have is evidence of it being mailed to an address in a package addressed to a name that isn't your name, then there's going to be the issue of proving 'exclusive possession.'
"If it's sent to a house with 10 people living there, addressed to Bob and there's no Bob living there, then police are going to have a hard time."
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