Orange County seems to have an ever-revolving conveyor belt of white powders and pills flowing through it. But shrooms? Not so much. When they come around, it’s always brief. Connects are never consistent, ounces are overpriced, and when the well runneth dry, it could be months before they’re back.
The dry spell of 2017 was particularly bad. Even my LA mushroom-fam was tapped. The days crept closer to an LCD Soundsystem show where my friends and I wanted to take a mini-dose, so I needed to figure out a plan STAT.
Then I recalled that I had a follower on Instagram, whose handle was “AlexisCubensis” (not their IG handle anymore). Their profile brimmed with photos of Psilocybes. The person’s bio said they were a veteran treating their PTSD with magic mushrooms and wanted to help others who struggled with similar conditions have access to healing.
This wasn’t the typical sentiment of a drug dealer, so I sent them a DM to get a pulse on their vibe. After swapping a few messages, I told them I wanted to purchase an ounce. We quickly discussed rates and then they asked me to send money. I wanted the ounce so bad that getting scammed out of $300 was worth the risk—because what if it did actually arrive in the mail? I sent the money.
I went into the transaction fully accepting that I was probably getting hustled. But a week later, an unmarked package arrived. I opened it, and a full ounce of Golden Teachers wrapped in a black trash bag glistened in my hands.
“The eagle has landed,” I messaged AlexisCubensis.
“Enjoy your flight,” they replied, punctuated with a rocket ship emoji.
While the phenomenon of buying and selling drugs online isn’t new, social media is among the newest outlets for acquiring illicit substances—a trend that signals the evolution of the clearweb drug market. The term “clearweb” is a synonym for the regular ‘ol internet. But we only have this term because of the existence of the dark web. That’s traditionally where digital drug sales occur.
The darknet is the internet’s Shakedown Street: You go there to pick up whatever you can’t buy from mainstream, above-ground vendors. Buying illegal drugs is one of, if not the most common reason people seek out the digital underground. The lure is that all communication and transactions are done under a cloak of anonymity. But when Silk Road—the dark web’s most notorious emporium for drugs, fake IDs, and guns—was taken down by the Feds at the end of 2013, the illusion of the darknet being an unpatrolled utopia for illegal transactions was obliterated. It has since fallen off as the go-to spot for digital drug sales.
“The dark web pretty much gave any average person the ability to be connected to people around the world who make and distribute drugs,” an anonymous person told me through a survey I made to report this story. ”It cut out the middle man, [and] it gave many small town average-Joes the ability to bring substances to their town that were previously few and far in between.”
The inherent shadiness of doing business on the dark web is heightened by the fact that it’s now lurking grounds for the feds. Conversely, buying drugs on the clearweb feels safer because it’s where we shop and handle our day-to-day business. “Everyone on the dark web inherently doesn’t trust each other until proven otherwise,” says Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, an epidemiologist and researcher who has studied the relationship between the dark web and opioid supply chains. “On the clearweb, it’s almost the reverse where everyone pretty much inherently trusts each other.”
A mushroom and weed dealer named Lilly* (not her real name) whom I connected with on Instagram told me she makes about 16 sales per day from customers who find her on IG. But she doesn’t use social media to make sales. Rather, she uses social media as a way to market products and drive traffic to her website, where customers can then purchase goods.
“Everyone does it differently I’m sure, but for us, people find our profile and then DM us for inquiries,” she told me over WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service, like Signal, considered superior to other communication platforms, such as Telegram, for it’s reliable privacy. “Then I move the conversation over on an encrypted messaging service, like [WhatsApp or Signal] and send them to our website to complete orders. Or I just take their orders off messenger, and put in the order through the site.”
Selling drugs in the digital daylight is ultimately a function of risk versus reward because the more visible a dealer is, the more sales they are likely to make—and the more likely they are to get busted. More frequently, however, Instagram will shut down a dealer’s page because selling illicit substances violates the platform’s guidelines.
Many social media dealers believe there is safety in numbers. “As more people start selling illicit substances on the clearweb, the risk for each individual vendor goes down,” says Jeff Lebowe, the founder of SporesLab, a legal Canadian mycology company that sells Psilocybe mushroom genetics within the country. In other words, it becomes harder for law enforcement (or government agencies) to keep track of who’s selling what when there are hundreds of people doing the same thing.
Make no mistake, though: The Drug Enforcement Administration has the clearweb and social media on its radar, and is aware that drug deals happen via encrypted apps. “There are a lot of people selling narcotics on the internet,” a spokesperson from the DEA says. “We work social media cases. Some of the more prevalent platforms are snapchat, Craigslist, Instagram, and Offerup. But we will target narcotic traffickers on any platform to ensure these illegal drugs don’t make it into the community and do harm.”
Selling drugs in the digital daylight is ultimately a function of risk versus reward because the more visible a dealer is, the more sales they are likely to make—and the more likely they are to get busted.
So, how the hell are clearweb drug vendors evading detection? According to a few anonymous sources, dealers often utilize an array of privacy tools to increase web security, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), to encrypt information and hide one’s IP address. Vendors use the Tor network to conceal their location, which is sometimes used in conjunction with a VPN for optimal safety. Online dealers also have work arounds with banking, such as accepting cryptocurrency. And they build their online marketplaces through offshore domain hosts—so, not GoDaddy or Shopify, for instance.
The spokesperson from the DEA was not clear about how easy or difficult it is for them to permeate such layers of privacy. But based on the takedown of Silk Road, we know that federal agencies are usually successful at following digital bread crumbs—even if it takes years—despite the privacy measures taken by vendors. Cyber footprints are often left behind by vendors through slip-ups, such as communicating identifiable info from a username that can be linked back to the dealer in some way.
“There is no standard time frame [for investigations] on [internet drug] cases because they are all different and have different levels of sophistication,” the agency spokesperson says. In other words, when the privacy tools used by a dealer are better, it’s likely the investigation will take longer. When asked if agents ever go after buyers on social media, the spokesperson explains that they “go after the end users (buyers) in order to build a case against the supplier. (DEA will investigate both).” That implies that usually a federal agent isn’t going to pose as a dealer on social media or the internet to bust people buying narcotics. If they are investigating a dealer and happen to identify a buyer of said dealer, there’s a chance they could hassle that buyer. But it’s probably more likely that a federal agent would act as a buyer on social media to catch a dealer in the act.
But for the true customers themselves, none of these commonly used privacy strategies protect customers from getting scammed. Unfortunately, buying drugs online and getting ripped off go hand-in-hand. It’s been this way since the inception of online drug markets. “What it means for drug sales to be moving more to the clear web is there’s probably a lot more people who are going to get ripped off,” Dr. Dasgupta says.
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In the early 2000s, rogue online pharmacies that advertised popular pharmaceuticals without requiring a prescription dominated the clearweb drug market. Dr. Dasgupta asserts that codeine was pushed through these facilities the most. Other reports say that meds from these marketplaces often arrived as loose tablets in plastic sandwich bags, if they were even delivered at all.
“I believed the internet hype about an online American pharmacy that said it had the real drugs I needed,” an anonymous person wrote in the survey I made. It’s unclear when they attempted to make this purchase, as illegal pharmacies still exist today and are reported to be scams. “The pills were fake. I don’t know what they were, but it wasn’t what I ordered. I lost 400 dollars.”
Buyers also risk sharing sensitive information with a stranger when buying drugs from the internet. A lot of buyers will use their real information especially for shipping purposes,” says a DEA spokesperson. “Any time personal information is given out there is always a risk that it can be sold on the dark web or compromised. Depending on the sophistication of the criminal and how much information the person has about themselves on the internet (social media accounts, friends linked, what they like, where they go, etc.) all that information can be used to verify someone’s identity, which can lead to someone hacking their accounts, doxing them, or just harassing them online.”
Out of 39 people who took my survey, 87 percent said they had purchased drugs somewhere on the internet before. Nearly 30 percent (28.9 percent, to be exact) said they’d been scammed at least once from an online drug transaction. The goods they paid for never arrived or they received the wrong order altogether. When asked what part of the internet they met this dealer on, respondents reported equal parts social media and darknet.
A benefit of buying off the dark web is it has a built-in customer review system that creates marketplace accountability. People are far more likely to go-through with a transaction if there are dozens of positive reviews confirming a vendor’s legitimacy. That ultimately motivates a lot of dealers not to scam people: They want to make money off new customers. These reviews also create an open discussion around adulterated products.
The clearweb doesn’t have a comparable review system, so it’s a lot harder to vet who’s legit. One survey respondent explains they only purchase from sources on social media that their friends have already had successful transactions with. Another respondent says that they message the dealer to feel them out and if the dealer is pushy, it’s a no-go. Lebowe says there are sub-Reddits dedicated to vetting mail-order shroom vendors in Canada. Nothing exists like this in the US, although when scouring Reddit, a few posts detail experiences buying expensive shrooms on Snapchat and a scammer warning about a shroom vendor on Facebook.
“It’s probably less risky to use a reputable darknet website than buying drugs from someone off of Instagram because of the seller rating systems in place [on the dark web],” says Rachel Clark, programs and communications coordinator at Dance Safe. She ultimately believes that both in-person and online drug sales have equal risks and benefits, depending on how you go about them. “It’s hard to say whether buying off of the darknet is less risky than purchasing from your well-intentioned raver friend, who owns a test kit.”
“It’s probably less risky to use a reputable darknet website than buying drugs from someone off of Instagram because of the seller rating systems in place,” says Rachel Clark, programs and communications coordinator at Dance Safe.
Drug use is inherently risky, especially in the context of prohibition which prevents us from regulating the dosage and purity of these illicit substances. The best we can do is practice harm reduction, which helps foster safe, responsible drug use. Regardless of who or where drugs are acquired, testing them has to be a part of the game plan. “It cannot be understated that people think they know a lot more about drugs than they actually do,” says Clark. “Drugs can never be identified solely based on sensory information, no matter how experienced you are or how familiar something appears or smells or tastes. Your senses are never an adequate substitute for drug checking.”
Most everyone I spoke to for this story says that buying drugs online is the future. It makes sense: We live in a culture of convenience that’s becoming increasingly tech-dependent. Why wouldn’t the illicit drug trade adopt the Amazon model? But as we shift toward a digital existence, our habits around how we use drugs must evolve, too.
“The most important part of any drug purchase is being able to test before you ingest, knowing how to interpret that test, and having a contingency plan for what to look for and how to respond in the event that a drug experience goes sideways,” says Clark. “The goal is to stay safe and rock on.”