How the govt lost the drug war in cyberspace

Discussion in 'General' started by drtask, Nov 15, 2006.

  1. Open Secrets
    How the government lost the drug war in cyberspace.
    Michael Erard


    For 36 years the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) quietly published
    a quirky monthly newsletter called /Microgram/ for a small audience of
    forensic chemists. It was "law enforcement restricted," which meant you
    could obtain it only if you were a law enforcement official, a
    government investigator, or a forensic scientist. As far as the public
    was concerned, it was a secret. In January 2003 DEA officials started to
    make /Microgram/ publicly available via the Web (at
    DEA HOTLINK REMOVED),
    where it joined a vast sea of information about illicit drugs: how to
    get them, how to use them, why to avoid them, why laws controlling them
    should be either tightened or reformed.

    / /

    /Microgram'/s release was mostly unnoticed, and its reception has been
    subdued -- so subdued that even the chemical underground, where people
    in years past might have found in the newsletter a wealth of knowledge
    about how to synthesize and distribute psychoactive substances, has
    hardly noticed it. Yet the seeming nonevent is worthy of attention
    because it reflects the government's recognition that their strategy to
    control drug use by controlling drug information has failed.

    When it started back in 1967, /Microgram/ was a few typewritten pages in
    which chemists shared lab techniques for analyzing and identifying the
    drugs that were showing up on the street. Although illicit drug use was
    rising, there was little working scientific knowledge about psychedelics
    among the chemists assisting law enforcement. Up to that point, the only
    drug chemists had worked for the Food and Drug Administration, which was
    in charge of protecting the quality of legal drugs, not identifying the
    composition of illegal ones. "Many of the techniques used today were
    formulated as needed by the people back then," says Tom Janofsky, a
    deputy administrator in the DEA's Office of Forensics. "Because the
    techniques weren't published per se, they were put into /Microgram/, and
    the methods were exchanged with the state and local and the other
    federal agencies in the field."

    At first /Microgram/ went to several dozen people. In the inaugural
    issue the editor wrote that if he didn't receive feedback, the
    newsletter might not continue. But /Microgram/ was a hit with its
    intended audience. By 2003, 8,000 people within the DEA and 1,000 others
    were receiving it.

    / /

    /Microgram'/s/ /existence was such a well-kept secret that it never
    developed a following in the chemical underground. "I really doubt that
    people in and around the illegal side of drug dealings even knew of the
    existence of /Microgram/," says Alexander Shulgin, a former DEA-licensed
    chemist who is considered an underground icon for his do-it-yourself
    manufacture of designer psychedelics. "For me it was a source of
    infrared spectra of drugs, and methods of synthesis and access to
    physical properties." /Microgram/ was so secret, Shulgin adds, that
    scientists were directed not to cite it in academic papers but to say
    the information came from "personal communication." (This is standard
    for citing all restricted publications.)

    Over the years /Microgram/ published job announcements, reviews of lab
    instruments, and articles reprinted from academic chemistry journals.
    But its core offering remained interesting little stories from the front
    lines of drug interdiction, written in detached prose and published
    anonymously.

    Even today, the savvy smuggler or illegal drug chemist might find useful
    counterintelligence in /Microgram/. The December 2003 issue notes that
    drug-sniffing canines have failed to detect bales of marijuana sealed
    inside honey and wax, which suggests a workable method for getting weed
    across the U.S.-Mexican border (or a potential trap). If you're into
    selling Psilocybin mushrooms, a careful reading of /Microgram/ suggests,
    you should avoid coating them with chocolate, because virtually every
    law enforcement agency in the country is on the lookout for candy.
    Brainstorming methods for smuggling large amounts of heroin or cocaine?
    /Microgram/ tells the fate of cocaine dissolved in canned liquids,
    embedded in the linings of plastic mugs, impregnated in a clear silicone
    caulk, and packed into decorative wooden globes, lotion bottles,
    candles, and pictures.

    These tidbits were not widely available until recently because the DEA
    did not want to give ammunition to its enemies. "There was some
    synthetic information and some investigative techniques that we didn't
    want the bad guys to get ahold of," says the DEA's Tom Janofsky. Another
    reason to keep /Microgram/ under wraps: Defense lawyers might have found
    its descriptions of drug analysis useful in their cross-examinations of
    government witnesses. Once the chemical underground went online, though,
    the lockdown on /Microgram/ became irrelevant.

    The Internet and the advent of the Web opened a new front in the war on
    drugs. During the last decade government agencies and anti-drug groups
    have staked out virtual turf, competing for eyeballs with drug law
    reformers, drug culture archivists, harm reduction activists, and
    commercial sites selling drug paraphernalia. The biggest prize in this
    online battle is the attention of the young. Government officials and
    social conservatives worry that information about drugs will sway
    impressionable youngsters into using them. Critics of the drug war see
    adolescents as naive users for whom a lack of accurate information is
    the greatest danger -- and also as potential supporters of reform.

    It has been difficult to tell who's winning in cyberspace. The widely
    used metrics of success for commercial Web sites -- hits, page counts,
    unique visitors -- don't necessarily have the same meaning in this
    highly contested terrain. As we'll see, visitors to freevibe.com, a Web
    site produced by the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign and funded
    by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, are just as
    likely to be culture jammers as teenagers looking to "get the facts on
    drugs."

    Then again, federal officials seeking to justify their $13 billion
    anti-drug budget request for 2005 have an interest in exaggerating the
    threat posed by the Internet. "Many websites, newsgroups, bulletin
    boards, and chat rooms promote the drug culture by providing a wide
    variety of information on drugs and drug paraphernalia," warned a 2001
    report from the Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence
    Center. "Many of these websites openly promote drug use, others
    glamorize the drug culture and thereby implicitly promote use and
    experimentation."

    Some frustrated lawmakers have turned to suppressing online information
    about drugs by criminalizing it. In 1999 the Senate passed the
    Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, which would have made it illegal
    to distribute information, in print or online, about manufacturing or
    selling controlled substances that would be illegal. (The bill was
    killed by the House, then tucked into the Bankruptcy Reform Act with the
    Internet provisions removed.) For the most part, recent DEA activities
    have been aimed at curbing online sources for illegal drugs such as GHB,
    a tranquilizer, and other chemically similar substances, as well as
    using Web crawler and data mining technology to identify and prosecute
    illegal Internet pharmacies selling prescription drugs. Simple
    monitoring is another tactic; in 2002 a D.C.--based nonprofit, the Drug
    Reform Coalition, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request and
    found that the DEA had monitored the Web sites of 75 drug reform groups.

    Proposals to punish people for drug-related speech reflect the
    desperation of government officials confronting a network of drug
    information that is more sophisticated, resilient, far-reaching, and
    self-correcting than ever before. Prior to the early 1990s, most
    unofficial information about drugs circulated via a loose network of
    underground publications, photocopies of notes and scientific articles,
    and word of mouth: Dealers talked to buyers, users talked to each other,
    and prison mates swapped tales. This is how users learned what
    substances and what combinations to try (or avoid). It's also how
    underground chemists learned their trade. But the network was limited.
    New pills or types of substances would hit the market before information
    about them did, and the network didn't always reach as far as the drugs.
    There were hardly any mechanisms for correcting bad information, and the
    drug culture was susceptible to propaganda.

    "Time was when authority figures could safely tell ‘white lies' to ‘keep
    us safe,'" says John Robinson, a site administrator for Bluelight
    (www.bluelight.nu), a "harm reduction" site that features reports about
    MDMA (better known as Ecstasy) from all over the world. Robinson cites a
    story that started circulating around the time that the DEA first moved
    to ban MDMA in 1985: It was said that Ecstasy contained heroin, a rumor
    stemming from the accounts of early MDMA users who said the drug was
    like a combination of cocaine and heroin. That claim, says Robinson, was
    hijacked by governments for use as propaganda, and now "it is one of the
    central myths we have been trying to destroy on the Internet with
    Bluelight."

    Earlier examples of urban legends about drugs include the claim that you
    can smell methamphetamine on a user, that smoking peanut skins or green
    tea will cause a high, and that so-called "red rock opium" contains
    opiates, which people try to smoke with marijuana. Today anyone with an
    Internet connection can readily find debunkings of these and other
    stories intended to scare people away from drugs. According to various
    sites, "red rock opium" is a form of "dragon's blood incense," which is
    made from daemonorops draco resin. Another myth concerns the "Chewbacca"
    technique for manufacturing methamphetamine (so named because a person
    called "Chewbacca-Darth" is credited for it), which involves such a
    delicate preparation of two sensitive precursors that it would be
    difficult to pull off even in a professional laboratory.

    The current editor of /Microgram/, Bob Klein, acknowledges that the
    government allowed drug myths to circulate. "A lot of information
    [passed among drug users] was flat-out bogus," he says. "A huge amount
    of material circulating around the chemical underground," such as
    smoking dried banana peels or making amphetamine from chicken feed, "was
    just bullshit. And the government wasn't going to correct those
    misconceptions for obvious reasons."

    Now a host of Web sites can nip misinformation before it circulates,
    creating what is in effect a real-time, worldwide peer review process.

    For instance, on April 20 mystryman, the moderator of a message board at
    Bluelight, posted the warning that a drug called 5meo-dipt, known as
    "Foxy," was being sold as Ecstasy in Florida. The posting referred to a
    discussion thread at another site, beaniebaby.com, as well as a link to
    pages about 5meo-dipt at one of the most comprehensive sites for drug
    info, The Vaults of Erowid (www.erowid.org). Another topic on Bluelight
    was the availability of LSD around the United States, in Cincinnati,
    Toledo, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. "It's totally possible that there
    IS acid in florida, but It's also possible that you won't find any,"
    wrote toxiku. (All eccentricities of style and spelling from Internet
    posts are preserved throughout this article.)

    As in pre-Internet days, drug users continue to share their experiences
    with each other, but when these discussions take place online they're
    available immediately to a wide audience that can respond quickly. On
    February 26, 2004, at pillreports.com, nine people from around the U.S.
    and Canada had posted reports on seven varieties of Ecstasy pills,
    describing them (sometimes with photos), rating them, and discussing
    their effects.

    A poster known as OICU812 had this to say concerning a small, round,
    pink pill stamped with an envelope logo: "very strong pill i cant really
    give an accurate report to how strong one is cause i did 5 over the
    night. but man it was so intence and such a rush for at least 12 hours
    then the next few days were wacked out 4 sho. all in all they were bad
    to the bone to say the least." Another poster, Ongie975, complained
    about a pill stamped with a blue dolphin: "Definitely got ripped off and
    not too happy about it." Responded Smiley Xer: "Probably more speed than
    anything else. Bunk dolphins are going around. Be careful! ~peace."
    Doctorj added, "Dolphins do have an interesting rep. I stay away from
    them. Peace."

    Bluelight's John Robinson says this sort of exchange illustrates the
    evolution within the drug culture of knowledge that ultimately helps to
    keep people safe. "We have always tried to walk the line between the
    oral culture and the world of academic science," he says. "The Internet
    allows us to have an open, anonymous environment where people are able
    to speak freely and share their experiences, but it also means that we
    can make the effort to support what is said with references."

    Other similarly interactive sites serve as the memory of the drug
    culture. The largest, most extensive of these is Erowid, which covers a
    huge range of substances, from marijuana to absinthe to morning glory
    seeds to obscure research drugs such as 5-Meo-AMT. Founded in 1995,
    Erowid boasts more than 28,000 visitors a day and some 20,000 documents
    related to psychoactive substances, including plants, illicit
    synthetics, pharmaceuticals, and "smart drugs." The information includes
    basic facts, legal status, chemical makeup, trip reports, spiritual
    associations, and references to scientific articles (including some from
    /Microgram/).

    / /

    /Microgram/'s/ /Bob Klein complains that "many things that would have
    been better left buried in obscurity -- like smoking bufo toad skins,
    sniffing concentrated cow pie fumes, allowing yourself to be stung by
    scorpions, smoking jimson weed or Salvia divinorum, drinking cough
    syrups, mixing up concoctions of any of dozens of different kinds of
    drugs and pharmaceuticals, drinking Ayahuasca tea, etc., etc., etc. --
    have been brought to light by the Internet, and are therefore
    practiced." But contrary to what the anti-drug crowd warns, many of the
    posts on these sites hardly glamorize drug use. One writer to Erowid,
    for instance, describes a 5-Meo-AMT trip as "the worst decision I have
    ever made." After hours of paranoia, nausea, headache, and pounding
    heartbeat, he ended up examining his life and deciding "that the current
    lifestyle of subtance abuse must end. I have truly been scared
    sober....I am writing this urging people to stay away from this
    chemical. It is very similar to LSD at the beginning but toward the end
    all hell broke loose."

    Some of the messages at Bluelight read like a /Consumer Reports/ of
    illicit substances. Wrote Mihgzer on March 3, 2004: "There are some
    puple gel tabs in america, they taste funny, some people liked them,
    some people got sick and said they thought it was 5meoamt." But most
    postings do contain genuine warnings. Mystryman warned people about the
    appearance of purple pills containing Para-methoxy-amphetamine, or PMA,
    in Maryland and Pennsylvania. "Not much to say but, these chemicals can
    make you die low doses. PERIOD!!!!" Rejoined .dR spgeddi, "australian
    bluelighters are all too familiar with the dangers associated with this
    drug. one entry in the shrine is dedicated to a beautiful person who
    passed foolishly experiamenting with pma."

    Many of the drug sites appear to be offered in the spirit of harm
    reduction. Says the welcoming message at shroomery.org: "This site was
    created to help stop the spread of dangerous misinformation related to
    magic mushrooms, so that people can make intelligent and informed
    decisions about what they put in their bodies." The Ecstasy reduction
    site dancesafe.org includes this disclaimer at the bottom of its
    home-page: "This website provides health and safety information only. We
    neither condemn nor condone the use of any drug. Rather, we recognize
    that recreational drug use is a permanent part of our society, and that
    there will always be people who use drugs, despite prohibition. The drug
    information we provide, therefore, is meant to assist users in making
    informed decisions about their use."

    By comparison to the old chemical underground, the connections offered
    by the online version are vast. Shroomery.org alone provides 25 links to
    sites in Scotland, England, France, Brazil, Russia, and elsewhere on the
    use of psychedelic mushrooms. It also contains links to 38 marijuana
    sites, six Ecstasy sites, and 14 sites dealing with miscellaneous drugs
    such as the cough suppressant dextromethorphan.

    The 2001 report from the National Drug Intelligence Center counted 52
    Web sites providing information on the production, sale, or use of
    Ecstasy, GHB, or LSD. An update (which the NDIC promises but has not yet
    done) would undoubtedly turn up more. The pro-marijuana site yahooka.com
    boasts 5,947 links to sites that, among other things, promote drug
    policy reform, discuss Cannabis culture, offer marijuana-related goods
    and services, and provide growing information. There are links to 1,203
    sites in languages other than English, including one in Arabic and one
    in Latvian.

    This plethora of information has altered the drug war in numerous ways,
    some of them predictable. Web sites that sold pipes and bongs were easy
    targets for Operation Pipe Dreams, the Department of Justice's 2003
    crackdown on drug paraphernalia merchants, which netted 55 suspects and
    led to at least 56 indictments (including one that sent actor Tommy
    Chong to jail for nine months). For those trying to avoid that sort of
    trouble, the Internet has been a source of advice on how to escape
    attention and deal with authorities. The experts at Erowid, for
    instance, answer questions about what substances show up on drug tests,
    including techniques for beating the tests, as do the message boards at
    urineluck.com, owned by Spectrum Labs, a Cincinnati-based company that
    makes detoxification products to beat drug tests.

    The drug war in cyberspace also has led to goofy attempts at hipness,
    such as the government's aforementioned Freevibe (freevibe.com). The
    site, which promises the "lowdown" on marijuana and other drugs, is
    mainly an advertisement for other anti-drug efforts, with a few
    interactive features, such as a message board that features dramatic
    scare stories about older sisters dying from marijuana overdoses and the
    like. A news section hasn't been updated since 2003, and the drug facts
    link promises the "latest" research -- from 1999. In the Ecstasy
    section, no mention is made of Dr. George Ricaurte, the author of a
    /Science/ article in 2002 that was retracted because the substance given
    to research animals was methamphetamine, not Ecstasy. However, a visitor
    can send an e-mail "Stoner greeting card" ("for when bad things happen
    'cause someone was stoned"), which is the only humorous moment in the
    entire site.

    By comparison to sites like yahooka.com, urineluck.com, or bluelight.nu,
    Freevibe is a cultural wasteland. On February 26 two people had posted
    their "anti-drug": someone named Dude, who said "my anti drug is the
    marines," and Jaden of LBC, who wrote: "My anti-drug? My future lets
    face it folks turning to drugs isnt exactly getting rid of your issue or
    issues that made you turn to them drugs a whole new set of issues
    sometimes the key to helping oneself is through helping others if your
    life sucks that bad join the military or do community service helping
    others is quite possibly the greatest feeling you can get when you feel
    appreciated."

    People posting to various pro-drug sites, blogs, and Indymedia sites
    criticize Freevibe and discuss ways to jam it. At smokedot.com, a user
    named Fiend claims to have sent an essay on writing as his anti-drug,
    featuring names of authors who were all drug users; Fiend said Freevibe
    posted the essay. At a Portland Indymedia message board, someone quoted
    an anti-drug message they'd found on Freevibe: "EyeHeartJesus -- Once I
    was asked to smoke a joint rolled in Bible paper. I was totally like ‘No
    way buddy, smoking weed is for devil worshipers and Nelly.' I showed
    that guy." Wrote the Indymedia poster, with the handle of "no one in
    particular," "Come on, we can do more! It'll be fun! Try to get the most
    outlandishly rediculous thing past the moderators that you can."

    On the other Freevibe message boards, no one had posted for days.
    Posters cannot talk to each other, and replies to questions come from
    auto-mailers. The Freevibe officials don't seem to understand that
    without interaction -- or with surveilled and censored interaction --
    there can be no culture around drug non-use. On the pro-drug sites, by
    contrast, discussion is constant and users interact all the time.

    Young, impressionable minds aren't the only audience for sites like
    Erowid, Bluelight, and Yahooka. They're also where law enforcement
    investigators check on what the "bad guys" know -- without having to get
    out of their seats. The Internet "is a good resource to check whether a
    specific substance is being abused, or for methods of abuse," says Bob
    Klein. "That's valuable for the really obscure stuff, or weird
    combinations, or for tracking developing or declining trends."

    Such "drug abuse sites" also have proven useful to the medical
    community. Paul Wax, a toxicologist in Phoenix, says he visits Erowid
    once a month or so to look up substances that aren't in the medical
    literature. In one recent case, Wax recalls, "someone came in to the
    hospital and was acting delirious, saying they'd taken something called
    tryptanite. I said, ‘Tryptanite? I've never heard of it.'" So Wax put
    the word into Google and pulled up www.
    ecstacy-stuff.com/trip2night.html, which described an ephedra and
    dextromethorphan product. This knowledge saved the patient a trip to the
    psychiatric ward. "The nurses thought he was crazy," Wax says. "They
    thought he was a psych patient. Some who didn't know what he was taking
    might conclude he had some psych problems and needed to go to some
    facility. But the drugs wore off, and he cleared up."

    In 2002 Wax published a paper about recreational drug sites in the
    academic journal /Pediatrics/. He described the case of an 18-year-old
    boy who took several tablets of a hallucinogen called 2C-T-7, more
    widely known as "blue mystic." Wax found that the standard medical
    literature didn't contain any information about 2C-T-7 on Medline. When
    he searched the Web, however, he found extensive descriptions on two Web
    sites, Erowid and Lycaeum (lycaeum.org).

    In his /Pediatrics /paper, Wax warned that "adolescents, who are often
    adept at navigating these Internet resources, may be particularly
    susceptible to these communications." In an interview he is more
    sanguine about the Internet. "I don't think these sites are going away,"
    he says, "and I'm not an advocate that they do."

    This was the informational context in which /Microgram/ went public.
    Ultimately, DEA officials say, they recognized that the spread of
    information via the Internet had made the law enforcement restriction on
    /Microgram/ obsolete, so they decided to end it. "A lot of the
    information that was previously sensitive is now very common knowledge
    that's available to anybody," says Bob Klein. "It's basically made moot
    many of the previous reasons for keeping [/Microgram/] law enforcement
    restricted." In late 2002, the publication split: /Microgram/ became
    /Microgram Bulletin/, the monthly newsletter with the colorful stories,
    and /Microgram Journal/, a scientific, peer-reviewed journal aimed at
    drug chemists (online at DEA HOTLINK REMOVED).

    / /

    /Microgram/ remains so obscure that few drug-oriented sites have linked
    to it since it went online. It receives only 7,500 or so hits a week,
    mostly from law enforcement. Klein says he expected a deluge of requests
    for back issues, but it hasn't occurred; he suspects that some of the
    fringe pro-drug groups haven't figured out that /Microgram/ is now
    available on the Web. (His theory why: "Because they're doing too much
    dope.")

    "I think the impact of liberating /Microgram/ will be zero," says
    Richard Glen Boire, general counsel at the Center for Cognitive Liberty
    and Ethics, a Davis, California-based nonprofit that has mirrored
    /Microgram/ on its Web site. (He heard that the DEA and FBI were
    collecting the IP addresses of browsers who came to the site, and he
    didn't think people accessing public information should be surveilled.)
    Last year Boire unsuccessfully sought the release of back issues of
    /Microgram/ under the Freedom of Information Act -- for older issues the
    restriction still holds -- but despite that, he says, the now-public
    newsletter is mainly "a useful P.R. publication for the DEA, for getting
    increased funding and media attention."

    Yet some observers of the U.S. government's information policy are
    buoyed by the DEA's decision, because open publication of /Microgram/
    engages a larger pool of scientists and others in forensic science, and
    it opens up channels of communication -- for example, between the
    medical community and law enforcement. "I think DEA made the
    straightforward calculation that in this case the benefits of openness
    far outweigh the risks," says Steven Aftergood, editor of /Secrecy
    News/, a publication that tracks U.S. secrecy laws for the Federation of
    American Scientists. "The release of /Microgram/ is a rare flash of
    rationality in government information policy."

    John Robinson of Bluelight also praises the release. "We've long
    applauded /Microgram'/s decision for full disclosure," he says, "and do
    think it is a positive sign." If nothing else, the DEA's new openness
    suggests that drug warriors are starting to see the futility of
    promoting abstinence through ignorance.



    http://www.reason.com/0410/cr.me.open.shtml

    Michael Erard is a writer in Austin, Texas
     
  2. Great read. Thanks
     
  3. great post man..its funny too. we are winning! fuck yea!
     
  4. Insanity. So they're finally getting it? That we can make up our own goddamn minds about what we do and don't need government propoganda to scare us from 5th grade. I'm flattered...sorta.
     
  5. yeah, but you know the govt. will never pull their heads out of their asses and admit they were wrong. instead the dea come around and says we are kicking the drugs asses, and in actuallity they have already lost, they know it, we know it, everyone knows it. even those that dont do drugs. and we got the head asshole running this shit that calls his daddy whenever something goes wrong to see how he can make the next wrong turn to put us in a hole so f'ing deep by the end of 2007 that we will NEVER see the long term positive effects of clinton's administration (i thought clinton was great, F you who dont). instead we're gonna be digging out of this for years to come..... sorry, back to topic.
     
  6. bump. come on GC lets here some opinions...get off your lazy asses and READ this is really worth while
     
  7. all i know is that if it wasnt for erowid i'd be one dead motherfucker, and if it wasnt for erowid i wouldnt have ever learned about the drugs that fucked up my life either. haha so i dont know what would have happened really

    good read though, if there was a smiley face with a thumbs up i'd post him up
     
  8. Can't just legalize pot yet?
     
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