As the drug is downgraded, police crack down on internet vendors offering
supplies by post

It will arrive next day by registered delivery in an unassuming padded
envelope, promises the blurb on the British website. Inside, vacuum-sealed,
will be 7.5g of AK47 - high-grade Cannabis sativa. "Very strong nice smoke,"
gushes the sales copy on the site. "Back by popular demand."

On Thursday British drug law underwent its most radical shakeup for decades
when cannabis was downgraded to class C. Although simple possession is
unlikely to lead to prosecution in most cases, the drug remains illegal and
dealing or possession with intent to supply will carry a maximum 14-year
prison sentence.

But a Guardian investigation has established that at least five large-scale
online cannabis vendors are operating in this country, in competition with
more established Dutch sites. As a result, the drug has never been so easy
to buy online.

Electronic payment systems, anonymity and ease of-use have led to a boom in
illegal web weed outlets. For an increasing number of dealers and users, the
internet is now the first port of call for buying and selling cannabis.

The British sites vary in sophistication and scale. Some are glossy and
graphic-designed, brazenly selling their wares to all comers. Others are
just simple login pages, with passwords for regular customers only.

All offer a selection of cannabis rarely seen outside Amsterdam coffee
shops: potent connoisseur varieties including Jack Herer, Charas, and Ketama
Gold. Some are so strong they require health warnings. "Caution!" reads the
description for super-strong hashish Black Ice available from one retailer.
"Extremely experienced smokers only, please."

Each of the sites boasts levels of technological sophistication more
associated with mainstream 21st century e-commerce outfits such as Amazon or
eBay. Most sites support "one click" ordering and secure digital payment
systems such as Paypal and its smaller rival, nochex.com. Minimum orders are
typically 7g (0.25oz), maximum 28g. Many are open from 9am until 5pm
weekdays and provide customer service via email. Orders placed before 1pm
are guaranteed to arrive the next day. They can even be tracked via the
Royal Mail website.

The product arrives fresh, potent and perfectly weighed. The prices are not
cheap - around UKP 50 for a quarter of an ounce on average - but web forums
have been full of customers praising the merchandise.

There are now the first signs of a crackdown by the authorities. On December
22, in the first operation of its kind, police from the National Hi-Tech
Crime Unit raided one of the leading cannabis e-tailers after a five-month
investigation. The site - which before the raid had the internet address
www.pepespage.net - had been active for around 18 months. A picture of the
cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew, smoking a large joint, adorned the homepage.

The police estimate that the site generated more than 500,000 pounds in
revenues. They made three arrests and confiscated several computers in
Herefordshire and Sussex.

"All the investigation team have been amazed by the amount of activity that
these sites have had and the quantity of orders placed via the internet,"
said an investigating officer, Matt Cornish of the Herefordshire police.

This sudden show of force has sent ripples through an already fearful
market. Since the bust, several leading sites have shut down. One, similar
in scale to Pepe's, has taken an extended Christmas break. A promise on its
homepage to "reopen fully on December 29" has not been honoured. Forums are
swollen with pot smokers bemoaning the loss of their suppliers.

Given the scale and openness of the industry, few seem surprised that the
crackdown has been launched.

"Advertising a website in that way, they were asking for it. I would never
do that," said Hermes the Hash Trader, a Dutch online dealer with a large
customer base in Britain.

Hermes, in his late 20s, is one of several dealers who operate out of email
addresses to minimise their chances of being caught.

The former trader and funds administrator has been running his e-business
for six months. "I spent months, not to mention thousands of euros,
establishing a network of contacts," he said.

His downloadable menu offers 50 varieties of grass and hash. Prices range
from 15 to75 pounds for an eighth of an ounce. The minimum order is 50
pounds.

But he confesses to being dogged by constant worries about being busted.
"Generally I do enjoy it," he said.

"It's a good job, and usually fun, but it has its downside. It can get very
stressful at times."

Customs' seizures are also a constant bugbear. He estimates that one in 50
of his deliveries is intercepted en route to Britain. He does offer refunds
for lost orders but only to customers who supply a digital scan of the
official Customs and Excise 271 form received if controlled drugs are
discovered in your mail.

Most of his customers come from word of mouth and referrals. Most traders
are hard to find and prefer it that way.

Websites are hidden from search engines like Google. Most experts agree that
the given the scale and anonymity of the internet, the online drug trade is
unstoppable.

"The government is going to learn what the music industry is learning. The
net is a wall-buster," the technology journalist and former Wired magazine
columnist Jon Katz has said.

"It's not policeable. There are not enough cops in the world to monitor all
the communications and digital commerce that's going on."

Forensic experts of the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit are examining the
computers seized in December for electronic evidence, including the names
and email addresses of customers. The unit would not comment on whether this
would lead to arrests of those who had used the service.

Most buyers, however, are not put off by the risk of potential intercepted
mail or arrest.

"My source got busted but I definitely would buy from an online supplier
again," said Sam, 31, a video technician who ordered nearly two ounces from
one retailer last year. "I haven't found a new source yet, but I'm looking."

The police insist the downgrading of cannabis to class C will not change
their attitude to online cannabis retailers.

"We will target any site engaged in the wholesale supply of controlled
drugs," they say. "This is one of our key priorities."

The dealers, however, are hoping it will signal an upturn in business.
"There's a fair chance the trade will mushroom when the laws relax," Hermes
said. "My plans are to expand until I reach full capacity."

Pubdate: Sat, 31 Jan 2004
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Contact: letters@guardian.co.uk
Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian/