In a world where drugs were completely legal, Liam Reynolds and his undergraduate mates would be hailed as over-achievers.
While others on the International Business degree at Leeds Beckett University were spending their downtime learning the best number-of-pints-to-tactical-chunder ratio, Reynolds et al were putting theory into practice, by running a successful drug ring.
After attending daytime lectures in modules such as Digital Marketing and Supply Chain Management, they ran their business from a student house in Leeds where four of them lived. They made payments for ecstasy, LSD and cannabis by accessing the now defunct Silk Road, using the anonymous digital currency Bitcoin. The drug packages arrived in the post and all they had to do was dish them out.
Unfortunately for Reynolds and his team of entrepreneurs, the police soon caught wind of their mini-Medellin operation. An investigation found "a very sophisticated and highly organised criminal enterprise that for a sustained period of time imported substantial quantities of controlled drugs into the UK and supplied them in the city's student community".
Last week, 21-year-old Reynolds, the ringleader, started a four-year prison sentence after being found guilty of conspiracy to import and supply controlled drugs. His nine co-defendants, aged between 20 and 22, were convicted of a mixture of importation, supply and money laundering offences, but were all given suspended sentences and avoided jail.
What this case illustrates neatly is that anyone – even a fuzzy-faced student from Leeds – can now set up their own drug importation and sales business. All you need is a laptop, a student loan, a bit of dark web know-how and you've become the Pablo Escobar of your local student party scene. Of course, you could lose all your money, sell someone some deadly pills or end up spending quite a long time in prison, but I guess those are the risks you take.
The online drug market, unsurprisingly, is widely known as a place where drug users go to buy drugs. But a report published last year called "Not an 'Ebay for Drugs': The Cryptomarket 'Silk Road' as a Paradigm Shifting Criminal Innovation" found that between a third and half of all sales on the Silk Road were bulk purchases worth £1,000 to £2,000, rather than the odd gram or two of mephedrone.
"These findings provide clear evidence," the report concluded, "that many customers on Silk Road will have been drug dealers sourcing stock, and that in revenue terms, these kinds of 'business-to-business' sales were key [to the entire] Silk Road business."
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All the evidence from the sales patter on the current raft of darknet markets – vendors offering large discounts for bulk orders, for example – indicate similar patterns of business. And because the dark web is increasingly becoming a go-to place for drug dealers to stock up on their wares before selling them on for profit, it is transforming the nature of drug selling – by making it such an accessible career.
It's no wonder that Reynolds and his "colleagues", especially the ones who were doing an entire degree on how to set up an international business, clocked an opportunity to make easy money. Buying drugs over the web is tailor-made for your average student: they're likely to have a pretty good understanding of the internet; they don't have to deal with any scary importers IRL; and they're living among thousands of other people very willing to spend a large chunk of their maintenance loan on drugs.
Less than a decade ago, the ability to source and smuggle illegal drugs was the preserve of an elite group of criminal outfits with good connections. Now, because of the dark web, anyone can do it. So they do.
It's hard for police to spot student dealers, as they are less exposed than dealers operating outside the student bubble. Even so, the Leeds lads have not been the only university students caught with their fingers in the online drug pie.
In January last year, Michael Thompson, 22, a final year History student at Sheffield University, was sentenced to three years after police intercepted a package addressed to him from Holland that contained £600 worth of ecstasy pills. A raid on his flat, close to the university campus, found £1,400 in cash, 46 bags of ecstasy tablets, cannabis resin, weed, ketamine, valium and LSD. He had bought them online and sold them to a core group of around 50 fellow students at the university.
This May, Dylan C Soeffing, a student at Oswego University in New York state, was nabbed by police after making $170,000 (£108,000) selling dark net-acquired cannabis and Xanax to his fellow students. He said he'd been trying to stop selling drugs for the past year, but that business was too lucrative. He said his local post office were completely cool with his package fetish. In fact, as he was making his statement to police, he said he was expecting a package containing nearly 500 grams of west coast weed.
Dealers sourcing their drugs online are thriving in isolated markets such as Australia and New Zealand. Both countries are full of people wanting to get out of their minds, but where the traditional supply chain can only provide expensive, low quality drugs. For dealers who are able and willing to navigate the online trade, buying drugs on the dark net for far lower prices than steep street prices and selling them to people who don't want to go online is sensible economics.
It was no surprise that the first drug dealer busted on the Silk Road was an Australian. In 2012, police intercepted two inbound packages from Germany and Holland, containing 46.9 grams of MDMA and 14.5 grams of cocaine addressed to Paul Howard's Melbourne home. All the drug dealer paraphernalia was there: digital scales, ziplock bags, US$2,300 (£1,466) in cash and two mobile phones containing texts such as: "PROMOTE THE LSD I GOT MORE IN. I SOLD 200 CUBES LAST WEEK" and "I GOT FIVE GRAND WORTH IF YOU WANT."
Like its equally isolated neighbour, New Zealand has seen a steady stream of online importer-dealers being convicted over the last two years.
Last year, Nicholas Heatley, a 22-year-old student from Dunedin, was jailed for four years after importing NZ$70,000 (£30,000) worth of LSD and MDMA into the country, which he then sold to people on his university campus. In May, another student from Dunedin, 20-year-old Daniel McKechnie, got seven years for importing a "supermarket of drugs" for onward sale, worth an estimated NZ$167,000 (£70,000). And the list goes on. New Zealand Customs admits it's making daily interceptions of drugs bought online, with many destined for university campuses.
"I guess that Silk Road and its successors enabled a new breed of drug lord," says Eileen Ormsby, an Australian journalist and the author of Silk Road. "Those buying in bulk for resale no longer have to buy it from whatever organised crime gang is in charge of that drug for their city. That means a different type of person can be in charge of supply and distribution in smallish enclosed communities, and a university or college really is an ideal environment for such a business to thrive."
With increasing links between dark net drug markets and a new breed of techie student dealers, universities could become the new battleground in a war on drugs where the goal posts are shifting fast.
Last month, three chemistry students at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand set up their own dark net site called NZ Underworld and challenged police to hunt them down. The site's still going. Their point is that with the arrival of the online trade, police are powerless to enforce prohibition. They say that they have a right to trade drugs, away from police and criminals. It's the police's move, but I'm not holding my breath.
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