Bridget Brennan of the New York County District Attorney’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office, is having a good month. Early in October, the NYPD arrested some two dozen drug dealers selling through Craigslist in a sting-bust dubbed “Operation Dot Com.” Undercover agents had bought almost $29,000 worth of prescription pills and cocaine over the preceding eleven months, all in an attempt to battle what NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has called “an epidemic of prescription drug addiction and abuse in New York.” The arrests included a number of dealers outside the usual mold, including a teacher, an HR rep, a celebrity photographer, and a dot-com entrepreneur. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of the buys involved resales of Adderall and Xanax, a pair of drugs that have seen their prescription rates rise by 100% and 50% respectively since 2007.
Brennan, who will be prosecuting the cases, made the city’s position abundantly clear, saying that: “Whether the drug deal occurs on the street corner or on the Internet, it’s a crime.” Brennan’s clear-cut statement is particularly pertinent in light of the explosion of online drug trafficking over the past few years.
The problem is not only limited to Craigslist. In early 2011, a website called Silk Road launched with a simple mission: In the half shady, half romantic crypto-anarchic spirit of sites like The Pirate Bay and WikiLeaks, Silk Road’s founders sought to create an unequivocally free online marketplace, allowing its users to trade just about anything without persecution and with utter anonymity.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the marketplace has since become a haven for the black-market trade in banned substances—in fact, almost exclusively so. Users can browse a veritable cornucopia of conveniently organized narcotics, stimulants, psychedelics, dissociatives, and more, with none of the obfuscating euphemisms and paranoia of Craigslist drug ads. Listings for half-kilo bricks of cocaine start at $2500 and come complete with pictures, glowing quality testimonials, and promises of discrete priority shipping from suppliers in Germany, the U.K, and the U.S. Meth listings are rarer—presumably due to the price competition inherent in such a do-it-yourself heavy market. Marijuana listings number in the thousands.
If Silk Road sounds extreme, that’s because it is. The site quickly drew fire from the U.S. Office of the Attorney General and the Drug Enforcement Administration, both of which have called for its immediate shutdown. But playing the online-pharma-superego to Silk Road’s narco-id is a rapidly growing panoply of legitimate online pharmacies that have sprung up in the last decade, retailing cheap, generic versions of everything from Viagra to cutting-edge nootropics. These substances are still mired in the legal gray area of not banned, but not quite legal, either: off-label anti-depressants for the psychotherapeutically skittish, Modafanil for the chronically undermotivated or unfocused. These sites serve a far wider market than post-adolescent thrill-seekers, allowing the uninsured to access generics, and the unprescribed to access self-medication. The upshot of this across-the-board proliferation of online drug retail, from pot on Craigslist to Viagra from Indian pharmacies, has been a concerted upswing in the government’s attempts to prosecute online offenders, per Brennan’s dictum.
Now drug dealers, as a rule, are not a sociable lot on the job. So when I took to Craigslist to try and get in contact with some, you can imagine there wasn’t much interest in giving me an interview. What there was interest in was selling me drugs. Although I couldn’t find one listed dealer willing to offer me (or even to respond to a request for) an interview, I found some 200 dealers—in the course of 15 minutes spent on Craigslist—willing to sell me some illegal narcotic. All of them were listed within the last four days. (Sections with a high listing turnover indicate a highly liquid market, and therefore give an indirect indication of the health of that market.) Looking only for a little bit of weed, I was spared having to muddle through the euphemistic gymnastics that obscure the other wares’ sales—e.g., “NYU student who can offer pain relief and anxiety relief”; “Study longer and without anxiety! Be professional and not law enforcement,” etc.
A service offering “Good 420, fast, reliable service” seemed friendly enough, and I sent an email to the listed address. Within 20 minutes, I’d gotten a reply asking for my phone number. I sent it, and in another 20, my phone began to ring. I answered and was surprised to hear a woman’s voice on the other end.
“Hi, this is the service?”
I let out a “Huh?” before realizing what she meant. I snapped to.
“Oh, hi. How are you?”
“Fine. What’s your address?”
I gave it.
“OK. It’ll be about an hour.”
And then she was gone.
About an hour later, I got a text that said “I’m here” and took the elevator down to the lobby of my building. When I got there, I found a pretty, probably 23 year old black girl with a backpack and headphones on. She nodded briskly, and we sat down. She opened her bag and extracted a small, clear plastic cube with the top taped shut. The thing looked like it could have come straight from a factory floor. And that was it—in a little more time than a food delivery takes.
In trying to get Brennan on the phone, I’d left three voicemails and had an acrimonious conversation with her secretary, but I was ultimately unsuccessful. It’s understandable: Anyone fighting the drug fight in this city is sure to have an impossibly full plate. To get someone to show up with the drugs she’s prosecuting, though, it’d taken me an hour and a half.
Watching Craigslist’s drug-ads blossom and replace themselves like clockwork, over and over every day, with hundreds of new, nameless faces trying to buy and sell the drugs they want, one can’t help but wonder if the fighting’s really worth it. What can be said about a battle that’s waged in dozens of arrests and thousands of dollars over a whole year, in a war that’s so lopsided that Brennan’s cases represent only a miniscule fraction of the other side? The Internet may be as illegal as the street corner, but it’s infinitely harder to police. Isn’t it possible we should just stop trying?