All it took was five minutes, one quick download, an encrypted URL off Reddit and I had accessed the famous 'Ebay for drugs' – hidden deep in the recesses of the dark net.
Within moments I was plunged into a veritable cornucopia of contraband; every type of drug under the sun was just a click away, along with enough guns, explosives and weapons to make even Bruce Willis shudder. And I could even get a 'McLovin' Hawaiian driving license delivered straight to my door, probably.
Put simply, the Dark Web allows users to remain almost completely anonymous as their IP addresses are hidden and any transactions are made using the crypto currency, Bitcoins, which is, again, pretty much untraceable. Buying and selling drugs is just one of the many activities that takes place here.
Despite Silk Road's high profile FBI bust in 2013, business is booming on the Dark Web. According to the Global Drug Survey's 2016 report, Dark Web drug markets are continuing to grow as they enter their sixth year of trading.
In a special section of their report, 'The dark net rising', researchers found that globally 9.3 per cent of participants had bought drugs off the internet at some point in their life, while the percentage of Dark Web purchases taking place in the last year rose from 4.5 to 6.7 per cent.
Another 2016 report, carried out by RAND and commissioned by the Dutch government, revealed that the UK now has the highest number of online drug dealers in Europe.
It is clear that the rising popularity of the Dark Web is changing the way young people are taking drugs in this country. Far from picking up a bag of dubious-looking weed off some tracksuit-clad youth on a BMX or swapping a grubby, scrunched up tenner for a little pill shaped like Pikachu, ordering drugs off the Internet requires a fair deal more thought and planning.
Dave*, a student at the University of Lincoln, discloses how he first found out about the Dark Web drug markets: “I heard about it off a mate who'd ordered stuff before,” he tells me. “It's not really the sort of thing I would have normally done, but I knew he seems like a fairly sensible bloke; he's not completely off the rails, you know? So I was like, he does it and he's fine, so it can't be that risky.”
To an outsider, all the technical jargon associated with the Dark Web could discourage them from even trying to access it, let alone actually buying anything off it. However, due to improved storefronts and the plethora of guides on online forums, you'd be surprised at just how easy it has become.
Dave adds: “At first it was sort of difficult as I wasn't sure how many precautions you had to take and I got really frustrated.
"Some people advise you online to 'tumble' your Bitcoins, use VPNs or even tails (a different Operating System), but it turns out if you're ordering for personal amounts it really doesn’t matter. I learnt about it all from Reddit.”
For most people, the physical delivery of the substance is probably seen as the biggest risk. However, as seemingly more people have started doing drugs, and getting away with it, it's starting to appear less of risk to nervous potential buyers.
This is something that Simon, a student at the University of Nottingham and relatively experienced Dark Web user, agrees with.
The 10 best cities to be a student in 2016
The 10 best cities to be a student in 2016
1/10 10. Seoul
2/10 9. Berlin
3/10 8. Hong Kong
4/10 7. Montreal
5/10 6. Singapore
City limits: Singapore is an example of top-down urban planning that actually worked
7/10 4. Sydney
8/10 3. Tokyo
9/10 2. Melbourne
This is the fifth year that Melbourne has won top place
10/10 1. Paris
The Eiffel Tower illuminated with the colours of the French national flag in tribute to the victims of 13 November Paris terror attacks
“They usually take quite a lot of steps to hide what's in there as well as making it look inconspicuous from the outside,” he tells me. “There was this funny one once that came hidden as a business letter and when you opened it up it was describing something ridiculous like “come visit this island resort, see the national bird and the glorious country”, in the corner there was this very small white tab sellotaped on. It's definitely something buyers appreciate.“
Another way you, the buyer, could be caught buying drugs off the Dark Net is if it could be proved that you did just that; that you weren't quite as anonymous as you thought you were. But Simon says he felt “more or less safe using it,” adding: “If you're a person just buying 10 pounds worth of stuff, no one cares. When you think about it from the perspective of law enforcement, they are there to get the sellers rather than buyers.“
Another finding in the RAND 2016 report was that the Dark Net has started to play a major role in supplying 'offline' drug markets, as street dealers buy in bulk at cheaper prices and sell on for profit. Researchers found a quarter of the drug sales were for listings worth more than $1,000 (£768), suggesting that these purchases were intended for resale.
Dean, a student at the University of Cambridge, started dealing in his second year and supplies himself from the Dark Web.
Explaining how an A* student such as him could get started in such a thing, he says: “It was only in second year when I had a look and realised how low the prices were compared to what you were getting on the street.
"That's how I got the idea of starting a business up. Quite large profit margins, a very easily available market- it was pretty straightforward. And yeah, I also wanted to pay off the debt I'd gotten into from my own drug use, buying off the street. I was heavily overdrawn so kind of needed to make some money and thought that's an easy way to do it.”
Just one example quoted to me was the potential of buying ecstasy pills at £2 a pop (in bulk) and selling them on for at least £10 each to student clubbers. Despite carrying considerable risks, this is clearly a highly lucrative way for dealers to supply themselves.
Asked what sort of profit he was making as a student dealer, Dean says: “I earn between a grand to a grand and a half a term (8 weeks at Cambridge). It actually mostly comes out of occasional big money makers. There are particular events throughout the year where everyone takes drugs and there was one time when I earned one grand in one week.”
Due to the in-depth review system and the incentive to provide good quality, reliable products in a highly competitive open market, some would argue that the Dark Web even makes drug taking safer.
World's 10 most deadly street drugs
World's 10 most deadly street drugs
1/10 10. Purple Drank
One of the more unusual drugs around at the moment, purple drank was popularised in 90s hip hop culture, with the likes of Jay Z and Big Moe all mentioning it in their songs. It is a concoction of soda water, sweets and cold medicine, and is drunk due to cold medicines high codeine content, which gives the user a woozy feeling. However it can also cause respiratory issues and heart failure
2/10 9. Scopolamine
Scopolamine is a derivative from the nightshade plant found in the Northern Indian region of South America (Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela). It is generally found in a refined powder form, but can also be found as a tea. The drug is more often used by criminals due its high toxicity level (one gram is believed to be able to kill up to 20 people) making it a strong poison. However, it is also believed that the drug is blown into the faces of unexpecting victims, later causing them to lose all sense of self-control and becoming incapable of forming memories during the time they are under the influence of the drug. This tactic has reportedly been used by gangs in Colombia where there have been reports of people using scopolamine as way to convince victims to rob their own homes
3/10 8. Heroin
Founded in 1874 by C. R. Alder Wright, heroin is one of the world’s oldest drugs. Originally it was prescribed as a strong painkiller used to treat chronic pain and physical trauma. However in 1971 it was made illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Since then it has become one of the most destructive substances in the world, tearing apart communities and destroying families. The side effects of heroin include inflammation of the gums, cold sweats, a weak immune system, muscular weakness and insomnia. It can also damage blood vessels which can later cause gangrene if left untreated
4/10 7. Crack cocaine
Crack cocaine first came about in the 1980’s when cocaine became a widespread commodity within the drug trafficking world. Originally cocaine would have attracted a high price tag due to its rarity and difficulty to produce, but once it became more widespread the price dropped significantly. This resulted in drug dealers forming their cocaine into rock like shapes by using baking soda as a way of distilling the powder down into rock form. People were doing this because it allowed for them to sell cocaine at a lower quantity and to a higher number of people. The side effects of crack cocaine include liver, kidney and lung damage, as well as permanent damage to blood vessels, which can often lead to heart attacks, strokes, and ultimately death
5/10 6. Crystal meth
Not just famous because of a certain Walter H White, but also because it is one of the most destructive drugs in the world. First developed in 1887, it became widely used during the Second World War when both sides would give it to their troops to keep them awake. It is also believed that the Japanese gave it to their Kamikaze pilots before their suicide missions. After the war crystal meth was prescribed as a diet aid and remained legal until the 1970s. Since then it has fallen into the hands of Mexican gangs and has become a worldwide phenomenon, spreading throughout Europe and Asia. The effects of crystal meth are devastating. In the short-term users will become sleep depraved and anxious, and in the long-term it will cause their flesh to sink, as well as brain damage and damage of the blood vessels
6/10 5. AH-7921
AH-7921 is a synthetic opioid that was previously available to legally purchase online from vendors until it became a Class A in January 2015. The drug is believed to have 80% of the potency of morphine, and became known as the ‘legal heroin’. While there has only been one death related to AH-7921 in the UK, it is believed to be highly dangerous and capable of causing respiratory arrest and gangrene
7/10 4. Flakka
Flakka is a stimulant with a similar chemical make-up to the amphetamine-like drug found in bath salts. While the drug was originally marketed as a legal high alternative to ecstasy, the effects are significantly different. The user will feel an elevated heart rate, enhanced emotions, and, if enough is digested, strong hallucinations. The drug can cause permanent psychological damage due to it affecting the mood regulating neurons that keep the mind’s serotonin and dopamine in check, as well as possibly causing heart failure
8/10 3. Bath salts
Bath salts are a synthetic crystalline drug that is prevalent in the US. While they may sound harmless, they certainly aren’t the sort of salts you drop into a warm bath when having a relaxing night in, they are most similar to mephedrone, and have recently been featured throughout social media due to the ‘zombification’ of its. The name comes from the fact that the drug was originally sold online, and widely disguised as bath salts. The side effects include unusual psychiatric behaviour, psychosis, panic attacks and violent behaviour, as well as the possibility of a heart attack and an elevated body temperature
9/10 2. Whoonga
Whoonga is a combination of antiretroviral drugs, used to treat HIV, and various cutting agents such as detergents and poisons. The drug is widely available in South Africa due to South Africa’s high rate of HIV sufferers, and is believed to be popular due to how cheap it is when compared to prescribed antiretrovirals. The drug is highly addictive and can cause major health issues such as internal bleeding, stomach ulcers and ultimately death
10/10 1. Krokodil
Krokodil is Russia’s secret addiction. It is believed that over one million Russians are addicted to the drug. Users of krokodil are attracted to the drug due to its low price; it is sold at £20 a gram while heroin is sold for £60. However, krokodil is considered more dangerous than heroin because it is often homemade, with ingredients including painkillers, iodine, lighter fluid and industrial cleaning agents. This chemical make-up makes the drug highly dangerous and likely to cause gangrene, and eventually rotting of the flesh
Adam Winstock, Founder of the Global Drug Survey, pondered this question in a Huffington Post article: “It’s possible that products purchased on DNMs are safer to use as result of the filtering out of poor quality vendors and products... Could dark-markets help create credible on-line communities sharing harm reduction advice at point of purchase?”
Since he professes to have bought “dozens of different drugs” off the Dark Web, I question Dean about how the quality and reliability of the drugs he'd bought compared to those you buy on the street. He explains: “The quality is much, much better on the dark web. It's incomparable really. You don't really get dodgy pills off the dark web. I even got my drugs tested once and he could only find MDMA in them.”
With so many young people turning to Dark Web drug markets, it seems impossible that it won't continue to grow in popularity. But a potential threat to this is the Government’s new “Snooper's Charter” - which despite still not allowing the officials to track Dark Web activity would reveal Clear Net downloading of Tor or searching drug-related Reddit threads.
But Simon doesn't appear concerned about this: “A real sign of growing popularity is how people are generally converging on one store - Alphabay Market," he explains.
"It's got to the point now where they've refined the storefront and it's got very stable. If you went on Alphabay a year ago, they'd only have 20,000 listings of whatever drugs and now they have like 200,000 listings. I think that speaks for something.”
With regards to the 'Snooper's Charter', Dave says: “Well, I think it's a bloody violation of my personal freedoms, but it's not going to stop me buying drugs on the Internet.”
It seems likely that the popularity of Dark Web drug markets will continue to grow on UK campuses in the future, yet given the potentially improved safety and reliability of the products, many would argue this shouldn't necessarily be seen as a bad thing.
It’s a fact that young people will decide to experiment with drug use during their university years, so arguably the primary concern must be to optimise their safety. I would argue that the economic principles behind the Dark Web drug markets do just that.
*Names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.Reuse content