Dealers swapped for online drugs
Kiwi drug-users are trading in street dealers for the click of a button, spending big through online black markets.
And despite the world's biggest online underground market, Silk Road, being shut down by the FBI last month, experts predict attempts to buy illicit drugs online will only grow.
The surge in online drug purchases are also bringing new synthetic drugs into the country, often in small to-order quantities through the mail.
"It's a bit like going to [online retailer] Fishpond and getting a book," Customs investigations manager Shane Panettiere said.
These small seizures were often bought through sites such as Silk Road by users rather than dealers. The drugs were being imported from everywhere – from the United States to Hungary – and were predominantly synthetic, including synthetic cannabis powder and the newer LSD-like drug, NBOMe.
"Once you are online, it's pretty anonymous. Potentially people that would never try this stuff a few years ago, will now."
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Silk Road was set up in 2011 and has been described as the eBay of illegal drugs. It allowed users to browse, buy and sell thousands of illegal goods, mostly drugs, but anonymously, using the online bitcoin currency.
Last month, the site was shut down by the FBI and its alleged founder, Ross Ulbricht, known as "Dread Pirate Roberts", arrested on charges of drug trafficking and attempted murder.
However, Silk Road has already reportedly been resurrected along with a swag of copycat sites.
Chris Wilkins, leader of the illegal drug research team at Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation (Shore) at Massey University, said that in the past five years the internet had vastly increased the availability of psychoactive drugs everywhere. This particularly applied to new synthetic drugs operating in a legally grey area.
In Europe, the number of online shops offering "legal highs" has jumped from 170 to 693 in the past two years. (reference http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/drugnet/online/2012/80/article7 nte.)
While New Zealand had recently banned new "legal highs" until they were proven safe, online illegal sales were increasingly common.
Police were also reporting a new breed of "non-traditional" drug dealers buying through sites such as Silk Road, he said.
"They might not have a criminal background and are more into the computer world than the drug world."
New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said in some way it was safer to buy drugs online than in the street.
As in legitimate sites such as Trade Me or eBay, dealers who sold poor quality or dangerous products were quickly outed on online forums and would struggle to stay in business.
However, while an online black market site may seem less risky, people are still being caught.
In the past two years, several people have been charged with importing illegal drugs through online black markets, including a Customs officer.
Wilkins said the drugs still had to come through Auckland International Mail Centre, where Customs was intercepting dozens of packages a month.
"I think the anonymity is a bit exaggerated."
Netsafe executive director Martin Cocker said as the FBI unravelled the Silk Road network, it could also eventually uncover New Zealand buyers.
But despite the risks, he believed the ability to connect to vast black markets would continue to lure Kiwi drug users online.
"It would be very difficult to set up this sort of criminal marketplace in New Zealand but through the internet you can."