Edward* was just 13 when he first bought drugs online.
A student at one of Canberra’s most elite schools, his friend taught him how to used cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin and Monero to purchase large amounts of illicit substances on the dark web – a less visible part of the internet linked to criminal activity and illegal market places.
“The first thing I ordered was a letter of 30 pills,” the now 15-year-old tells SBS News.
“The guy actually messed up my order so he sent me 14g of ketamine instead by accident which was worth a lot more, so I was happy with that.”
It was just the start for Edward.
For more than two years, he ordered drugs including MDMA, LSD and speed (methamphetamine) from his bedroom and had them delivered in letters and parcels to his family home.
“With the deep web (which contains the dark web), it’s a cheaper product, it’s more reliable, there’s ratings and reviews on the person. You have a better idea of what you’re getting,” he said.
Edward had developed mental health issues and said at the time he reasoned that buying drugs online would be safer than “buying from someone you’ve never met before on the street”.
But in addition to using the drugs himself, the teenager also started dealing to other young people.
“I was starting with $150 purchases and making $4,000. In one deal, I made $2,000 at school.”
Over time, Edward’s drug use spiralled out of control to the point where he was rushed to hospital after overdosing on a cocktail of drugs he bought online.
It was only then his parents discovered what he had been doing.
“I felt like I was failing as a parent because I had allowed these drugs to come into my house. I had no idea that they were there and there were lots in our house,” his mother said.
“I thought my own son was just gaming with friends. I had no idea that behind his door in his room he was doing drug deals on the web.”
“It’s absolutely terrifying. It’s so much easier for these kids to get their hands on drugs than on tobacco or alcohol.”
While Edward’s life was saved, Sydney man Greg Skelly lives with the pain of losing his son to drugs bought online.
Daniel Skelly, a promising engineering student at the University of Newcastle, died in 2013 aged 21.
Greg says in the months after his son’s death, he discovered Daniel had been experimenting with drugs including cocaine, marijuana and opioids, with most of the illegal substances bought via Silk Road – an online black market which has since been shut down by the FBI.
“Devastated is an understatement,” Mr Skelly, 67, told SBS News.
“Unless you’ve lost a child, you have no idea what it’s like. It’s the exact reversal of how things should be. It just makes the world a very dark place, sometimes for a very long time.”
Unless you’ve lost a child, you have no idea what it’s like. It’s the exact reversal of how things should be.
– Greg Skelly
Greg says it is difficult for an older generation to comprehend what the dark web is like.
“You can get anything you want. It’s user-rated. It looks like a big Amazon store.”
The two families have been deeply impacted by what authorities say is a growing issue.
Detective Inspector Gordon Arbinja from NSW Police, says the problem of teenagers buying drugs on the dark web has grown exponentially over the last decade.
“This all basically started after Bitcoin came about in 2009 and then dark markets soon after,” Detective Inspector Arbinja said.
“It’s easier for the children to buy these drugs because they use the anonymity of the internet.”
It’s easier for the children to buy these drugs because they use the anonymity of the internet.
– Detective Inspector Gordon Arbinja
It has become so pervasive that police have created a standalone Cybercrime Squad in 2018 tasked with fighting crime on the dark web.
Detective Inspector Arbinja warns that the fight against drugs online is no easier than the one on the streets, with the shutdown of dark web markets so far having little impact on the multi-billion-dollar global trade.
Policing the dark web
Most of the big online drug marketplaces are based overseas.
In 2013, the FBI took down Silk Road – the world’s first online drug market – and its founder Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison. The site’s successor Alpha Bay grew to 10 times the size of Silk Road at its peak, with as much as $800,000 (US) in transactions processed through the site per day.
Alpha Bay was shut down in 2017, but many sites have sprung up in its place.
According to Detective Inspector Arbinja, one of the challenges for authorities in bringing dark web drug dealers to justice because of the transnational nature of the sales.
“This is a borderless crime type … we’re dealing with laws that vary from state to state and internationally … that’s why there has to be cooperation from all law enforcement.”
Another hurdle is decoding encrypted networks.
“It’s challenging for police because a lot of the people that are purchasing the drugs and a lot of the people who are selling the drugs are usually young people, usually people under the age of 30. They’ve grown up with this technology. Police and the investigators that I have in my team have had to adapt to the technology.”
Law enforcement agencies are also ramping up efforts to intercept drugs bought online from entering the country.
Australian Border Force says it is stepping up the use of X-rays, detector dogs, trace detection equipment and expert intelligence analysis in a bid to curb the illicit trade.
Over the past year the agency has inspected 36.4 million pieces of mail and made 35,000 detections of illicit and restricted drugs concealed in packages flowing from every corner of the world.
Learning from mistakes
While authorities are doing everything to combat the online drug trade, cryptocurrency exchanges are also lifting their game by making it harder for young people to use virtual money.
Professor Tālis Putniņš, from the University of Technology Sydney, says a big move has been cryptocurrency exchanges bolstering their verification process to prevent children from using bitcoin to enter the dark web.
“To open a bank account I have to provide a lot of identification documents that have to be verified, so the bank knows who it is their dealing with. Similar requirements have been imposed on cryptocurrency exchanges which makes it more difficult for a juvenile to go and buy Bitcoin. But it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of someone buying Bitcoin.”
Edward is now taking steps to become sober, seeing a counsellor and a psychologist, and has expressed remorse for what he did.
“I feel remorseful for my family when I overdosed and stuff,” he said.
His message to other teens is that “it’s not a good idea … it ended up in addiction.
“Don’t get involved. It’s not a very good path to go down. It doesn’t have many good outcomes.”
But for Mr Skelly, who is having to cope with losing his son, he fears any new rules won’t stop drugs from being just a few clicks away.
His message instead is to other parents, and it’s a simple one; be more vigilant and to make sure you know what your children are up to online.
“You are not their friend, you are their parent. You have your own friends, they have theirs. That’s my advice from a man with a broken heart.”
*Names have been changed