The Efforts on Curbing Online Sales of Synthetic and Herbal Drugs

Article Overview:

The fight against drug trafficking and distribution has never been easy, but in an era when the smartphone in our pocket gives us unfettered access to the entire Internet, the frontlines are being constantly redrawn. Making the war even more difficult is that the natures of drugs themselves are constantly evolving, to stay one step ahead of the government and law enforcement. The efforts of curbing online sales of synthetic and herbal drugs is an example of how two opposite worlds are playing a never-ending game of cat and mouse against each other.

Criminals maintain online sales of synthetic and herbal drugs from different countries

Synthetic Drugs and the Dark Web

In September 2015, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York held a press conference where he demonstrated the new dynamic of drug danger threatening the public. In his hand, he held a smartphone that displayed a website where drugs could be purchased. In front of him were examples of the drugs for sale: gaudy, flashy packages, purporting to be “all natural” and “herbal” and “not for human consumption,” that police had seized from gas stations and convenience stores.1

Schumer called for the US Drug Enforcement Administration to forbid credit card companies from processing payments to sites that offer synthetic drugs, thereby clipping the wings of an operation that is fueled by the anonymous and instant nature of the Internet.

But this is not the Internet of Facebook, Google, or Craigslist. This is an Internet that lurks under the hundreds of millions of websites that a Google search can index, an Internet that accounts for as much as 96 percent of the true cybersphere.2 It goes by many names, but is commonly and best known as a the “dark web.”

If the name sounds ominous, it’s for good reason. The dark web is part of what is known as the “deep web,” itself a layer of the Internet that is not meant to be accessed by search engines. Even everyday, routine online transactions – cloud email, online banking, etc. – use the deep web, to guarantee users a sense of privacy; no one wants a link to their bank account or their email inbox to be found in a Google search, hence the need for the deep web.3

But underneath the deep web is a network of websites that makes even further use of the inaccessibility and lack of transparency offered by being unindexed. These sites cannot be accessed by a normal web browser; to get to them, a user must download a special browser that doesn’t leave the digital fingerprint that would be found from Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Internet Explorer.

The Digital Age Black Market

That is because publicity and transparency are not conducive to the business conducted on the dark web. While the deep web is how a number of legitimate organizations protect their customers’ data, every manner of illegal – and some legal – operations use the dark web to cover their tracks, and to cover the tracks of the people looking to do business there.4

As of February 2016, drugs, weapons, and pornography accounted for the most popular content on dark web websites.5

However, the levels of privacy and anonymity offered by the dark web have legitimate uses as well. Journalists use it to communicate with sources who are fearful for their lives; political dissidents use it to coordinate strategies against oppressive governments; and some people just use it to talk about common, completely legal interests, without their activities being tracked and logged (as would be the case if they used the so-called “surface,” or regular, web).6,7,8

The websites on the dark web are the marketplace for illicit activity of the information age:

  • Buying restricted weapons without background checks
  • Getting drugs delivered to your front door
  • Pornography depicting abuse and children
  • Resources for hacking and other cybercrime
  • Exchanging stolen credit card numbers
  • Counterfeit currency and identification

The Fall of Silk Road

But while the dark web has pockets that are benign (or even beneficial), the overwhelming lay of the land is one of criminal activity and business. It is of significant concern to law enforcement officers who infiltrate the various marketplaces in the hope of gathering enough evidence to make arrests.
By the time Silk Road was shut down that same year, it facilitated nearly $1.2 billion in encrypted transactions.

Such is the story of Silk Road, which used to be the largest single website on the dark web for the sale of drugs. After it went online in 2011, it sold any number and form of drugs, all under the banner of “[choosing] freedom over tyranny.” By 2013, reports Ars Technica, almost 1 million people had signed up to use Silk Road. By the time it was shut down that same year, it facilitated nearly $1.2 billion in encrypted transactions, with its founder, Ross William Ulbricht, coming away with $80 billion himself.9

Ulbricht was arrested by the FBI in 2013 and charged with computer hacking, money laundering, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. Currently 32 years old, he is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The year after Silk Road went offline, police in 17 countries made dozens of arrests and seized over $200,000 worth of computer servers that hosted the websites where drugs, weapons, credit cards, counterfeit money, and other contraband were bought and sold as easily as Amazon sells legal goods. One such website was called “Silk Road 2.0.” The operation was the result of evidence obtained from Ulbricht’s arrest and the closure of Silk Road.10

’Buying Drugs Online Remains Easy’

With the shuttering of Silk Road, and the global bust the following year, 2013 and 2014 were huge coups for law enforcement; but US News & World Report cautions that “buying drugs online remains easy,” even two years after Silk Road went down and Ulbricht was taken into federal custody. A computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University explains that it is very difficult for the FBI (and other federal law enforcement agencies, like the National Security Agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) to monitor and shut down networks that have sprung up in the aftermath of the Silk Road bust.

Part of the problem is that programmers and operators learn from the mistakes of previous marketplaces that are hit by law enforcement and adapt. They pile on even more layers of anonymity to mask the locations of their servers – and then have backup plans to keep running when those servers are located and seized by the government.11

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabis for selling online on the dark webThe rise of black marketplaces on the dark web has created a host of challenges for law enforcement. Complementing the problem is that drugs, too, are constantly being tinkered with, to stay one step ahead of lawmakers and the agencies tasked with enforcing laws.

It is those drugs, and the ease with which they can be purchased online, that Chuck Schumer spoke of during his press conference. Specifically, Schumer was referring to a relatively recent breed of substances known as “designer drugs,” so named because they are continually being redesigned to sneak past law enforcement. Such substances are also known as “synthetic marijuana,” but may be better called “synthetic cannabinoids.”

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control policy describes the origin of synthetic cannabinoids: herbal material with chemicals sprayed on top.12 They are presented as a legal high, an all-natural alternative to marijuana, and sold online or in flashy, colorful packets (with innocuous names like “K2” and “Spice”) in gas stations for $10 (or even half that), with a tiny disclaimer that they are not intended for human consumption.

But as Forbes magazine says, there is nothing remotely natural or healthy about these drugs. The chemicals they are sprayed with are cooked up in underground laboratories in China and Eastern Europe, and they are constantly being changed as regulatory authorities in the United States outlaw them. The changes are not made with the health of the consumer in mind; the manufacturers of the designer drugs do just enough to ensure that their product is technically legal, skirting around drug and importation laws (while still offering the caveat that the substances are not intended for human consumption).13

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Additional Research Articles

The Science of Synthetic Drugs

The journal of Psychiatry writes of “catatonic psychosis” in users, and multiple media outlets have run stories of teenagers and young adults who slip into comas or die because they took what they assumed to be legal marijuana.[14], [15], [16]

Synthetic cannabinoids work by attaching themselves to the same receptors on the brain that natural marijuana does. That is where the similarities begin (hence the name “synthetic marijuana” persisting, much to the consternation of marijuana advocates), but that is also where the similarities end.[17] The chemicals that are sprayed onto the plant-matter base are so easily and widely variable (in order for the creators to dodge laws that have outlawed other chemicals), that a user can have literally no idea what they are putting into their body.

This, says the Washington Post, is the scariest thing about designer drugs and synthetic cannabinoids: how little is known about what exactly goes into the concoctions that end up being sold online and in convenience stores.18

When the drugs are consumed, the results are disastrous:

  • Vomiting
  • Paranoia and hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Cardiac and breathing problems
  • Strokes
  • Coma
  • Death

‘Similar’ and ‘Substantially Similar’

The Washington Times explains that the manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoids and designer drugs move so quickly to stay ahead of regulatory and law enforcement authorities – much like vendors on the dark web – that they are able to market their products as legal, simply because the law hasn’t caught up to them yet. Doing so would be a timely, expensive process, as law enforcement has to bring in chemists and other experts to make the case that the synthetic drugs are harmful enough to have laws written against their sale.19

When the laws are written – the US has banned 26 forms of synthetic cannabinoids – the manufacturers simply alter the composition of their drugs and ship them out again. The Drug Enforcement Administration has identified more than 300 strains being sold, according to Discover magazine.20

The Drug Enforcement Administration has identified more than 300 strains being sold

US has banned 26 forms of synthetic cannabinoids

Before Chuck Schumer made his appeal for the DEA to crack down on online sales of synthetic cannabinoids, Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania introduced a bill that called for the removal of the requirement that a chemical compound found in suspected synthetic drugs has to be “substantially similar” to other drugs that have been classified as dangerous and illegal. Dent’s bill would lower the threshold, requiring that the drugs in synthetic products be merely “similar,” clearing the path for law enforcement to make the case that whatever substance is on the docket should be banned.

One of many gray areas surrounding the distribution and legality of synthetic cannabinoids is a result of a provision in the Federal Analogue Act of 1986, which states that any chemical that is substantially similar to a Schedule I drug (like heroin, LSD, cannabis, MDMA, etc.) or Schedule II drug (such as Adderall, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and cocaine) has to be given the same regulatory and legal consideration as though it were actually a Schedule I or Schedule II drug, but only if the substance is distributed and presented for human consumption.21

Drugs by Definition

Smugglers and sellers of synthetic and herbal drugs can claim that, since their merchandise clearly says it is not intended for human consumption, the Federal Analogue Act does not apply to them, regardless of the substantial similarity between the chemical compositions of their product, and those found in Schedule I or Schedule II drugs.

It is, in the words of the Attorney General of New Hampshire, a matter of definition. The chemists who cook up these drugs, and who are not bound by laws or governance, persistently redefine what their product is, and it is up to legislators to respond to the challenge of understanding the ever-flexible rules of the game.22

Rep. Dent told The Washington Times that by closing the loophole between “substantially similar” and “similar,” convenience stores will find it harder to stock designer drugs, and online transactions will be similarly made harder, because the substances will be explicitly illegal.

Furthermore, the burden of proof is on prosecutors, to demonstrate that vendors fully knew that the product they were selling was substantially similar to a banned drug. Vendors can (and do) lie, of course, but some may be legitimately unaware of the deadly nature of the substances in their stores, further complicating the already complicated process of regulating chemicals that can be changed on the fly.

Buying Candy

The back-and-forth tussle between the law and the drug makers has led to enough cracks in the system to make synthetic cannabinoids “as easy to buy as candy,” in Chuck Schumer’s words to the New York Post. As New York City, Long Island, and the northern suburbs see an influx of products in their gas stations and delivered to doorsteps thanks to online black markets on the dark web, police and federal authorities have to resort to playing whack-a-mole, to try and stay one step ahead of the dealers and smugglers.

Sometimes, they get lucky. In 2015, the New York Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 2 million packets of K2 and Spice from a garage in the Bronx. The street value of the haul was $10 million.23

What needs to happen, says Schumer, is that the DEA has to add “hundreds of chemicals” to its schedule of banned substances, and it needs to do this quickly, in addition to pressuring credit card companies to deny transactions to websites that sell the drugs.24

DEA seized 2 million packets of K2 and Spice from a garage in the Bronx. The street value of the haul was $10 million

NJ police seized $27 million in illegal drugs from a warehouse 10 miles north of Newark

It’s not just New York that is feeling the effects of designer drugs creeping into communities. On the other side of the Hudson River, New Jersey logged the ninth most number of emergency calls in 2015 (around 129) regarding exposure to synthetic cannabinoids (by comparison, New York came in second with 1,297 calls, behind Mississippi’s 1,334 calls). notes that packets of designer drugs can be purchased at tobacco shops in the Garden State.25

In late 2015, police in New Jersey carried out the biggest bust of synthetic cannabinoids in the state’s history, seizing $27 million in illegal drugs from a warehouse in Passaic, just 10 miles north of Newark. The location was only a few hundred yards away from a school, and police said that the K2 produced at the warehouse was “generally sold to kids.”26

The Designer Drug Demographic

Targeting children and teenagers is the calling card of the designer drug market. Slate magazine notes that in addition to synthetic and herbal drugs being sold cheaply and with flashy and cartoonish packaging (featuring images of dragons, smiley faces, and happy animals), the products are given similarly catchy names. Spice and K2 are among the most common, but there is also “Bliss,” “Cowboy Kush,” and “Scooby Snax,” even using unlicensed imagery from other entertainment franchises like Hello Kitty and Angry Birds. This appeals to a demographic that is not only young, willing to take risks, and susceptible to peer pressure, but also dangerously (and perhaps even willfully) uninformed. They may be savvy enough to know how to navigate the dark web (or even the surface web) to find designer cannabinoids, but they may not be aware (or appreciate) that what they’re purchasing is not the same kind of marijuana that leads to fits of giggling and a voracious appetite.27

The approach seems to be working, albeit not as well as it used to, presumably due to horror stories of the dangers of synthetic cannabinoid being spread on social media networks, sometimes by police.28 In 2014, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that designer drugs are the second most popular drug in high schools; over 5 percent of 12th grade students confessed to using them in 2013, a sharp decrease from 2012’s 11.3 percent. However, the Drug Abuse Warning Network wrote in 2010 that children aged 12-17 accounted for the most number of hospitalizations as a result of consuming designer drugs.29

Curbing Online Sales of Synthetic Drugs

In trying to curb online sales of synthetic and herbal drugs, law enforcement is working in a true wild west. Whether criminals work behind a laptop or in a laboratory in China, the processes of creating and selling illegal substances adapt to every step that legislators take to cut the flow. The Daily Dot suggests that the best way to go about policing a notoriously untouchable realm might be international cooperation (such as the partnership that led to the 2014 global bust). The idea comes from FBI director James Comey, who told a congressional hearing in September 2015 that while the bureau will send cyber agents around the world, the organization will also work with law enforcement agencies around the world on providing training, equipment, and manpower to better coordinate efforts.30

An Idea of an FBI agent to control the online drug sellingComey told Congress that criminals who operate under the assumption that the dark web provides them with security are “kidding themselves.” He could also have been referring to efforts by Chuck Schumer and other politicians in the New York/New Jersey area, who are working to close the gaps that allow the creators of synthetic and herbal drugs to slip their products in through legislative cracks.

But the Daily Dot notes that the bluster with which Comey made his remarks could “simply be a job requirement” of the director of the FBI. Speaking to The Intercept, a cryptographer dismissed Comey’s statements as being “good posturing,” but little else, given how demonstrably difficult it is to permeate the dark web.31

Similarly, The Christian Science Monitor writes that even as local police forces and the Drug Enforcement Administration shut down synthetic cannabinoid distribution rings one by one, drug busts are rare. Whether it’s shutting down a dark net marketplace or waiting for lawmakers to pass a bill that outlaws a chemical composition, the fight against criminal elements working in the shadows – whether in Chinese laboratories or server rooms around the world – continually waxes and wanes.32

Research Articles


  1. “Sen. Charles Schumer Calls On DEA To Prevent Online Synthetic Marijuana Sales By Blocking Credit Card Transactions.” (September 2015). amNewYork. Accessed May 23, 2016.
  2. How to Find the Invisible Internet.” (January 2014). BGR. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  3. “Problem: The Government Still Doesn’t Understand the Dark Web.” (March 2015). Vice. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  4. An Up-To-Date Layman’s Guide on Accessing the Deep Web.” (February 2014). Fast Company. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  5. Study Claims Dark Web Sites are Most Commonly Used for Crime.” (February 2016). Vice. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  6. “The Dark Web As You Know It Is A Myth.” (June 2015). Wired. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  7. “The Darknet: Is the Government Destroying ‘the Wild West of the Internet?’” (October 2015). Rolling Stone. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  8. A Tour of the Best, Entirely Legal Hangouts on the Deep Web.” (May 2014). Vice. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  9. How the Feds Took Down the Dread Pirate Roberts.” (October 2013). Ars Technica. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  10. Police Take Down Dark Web Markets Across the Globe.” USA Today. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  11. Buying Drugs Online Remains Easy, 2 Years After FBI Killed Silk Road.” (October 2015). US News & World Report. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  12. “Synthetic Drugs (a.k.a K2, Spice, Bath Salts, etc.).” (n.d.) Office of National Drug Control Policy. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  13. Why Synthetic Marijuana Is More Toxic to the Brain Than Pot.” (August 2014). Forbes. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  14. Could Spice Drugs Induce Psychosis With Abnormal Movements Similar to Catatonia?” (2014). Psychiatry. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  15. Teen Narrowly Escapes Death After Smoking Synthetic Marijuana.” (February 2013). CNN. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  16. Connor Reid Eckhardt.” (August 2015). Accessed May 24, 2016.
  17. Explainer: What is the Difference Between Synthetic Marijuana and Natural Marijuana?” (September 2013). Channel 2 News. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  18. The Scariest Thing About Synthetic Drugs Is Everything That’s Unknown.” (July 2015). The Washington Post. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  19. Lawmakers Look to Crack Down on Synthetic Marijuana Use.” (September 2015). Washington Times. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  20. What Is Synthetic Pot, and Why’s It Causing Heart Attacks in Teenagers?” (November 2011). Discover. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  21. The Supreme Court’s New Decision on “Bath Salts,” Explained.” (June 2015). The Week. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  22. Legislators Try To Draft Laws to Regulate Synthetic Drugs.” (August 2014). WMUR9. Accessed May 25, 2016.
  23. “Two Million Packets Of Synthetic Marijuana, Known As K2, Seized From Bronx Garage: Cops.” (September 2014). New York Daily News. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  24. Synthetic Marijuana As Easy to Buy as Candy: Schumer.” (September 2014). New York Post. Accessed May 24, 2016.
  25. Synthetic Marijuana A Growing Concern in N.J., Nationally.” (October 2015). Accessed May 24, 2016.
  26. Police Make Biggest Bust of Synthetic Marijuana in New Jersey History.” (November 2015). ABC7NY. Accessed May 25, 2016.
  27. What Is The Deal With Synthetic Marijuana?” (February 2016). Slate. Accessed May 25, 2016.
  28. During Spring Break, Police Use Social Media to Warn About Synthetic Marijuana.” (March 2015). Accessed May 25, 2016.
  29. DrugFacts: High School and Youth Trends.” (December 2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 25, 2016.
  30. How the World’s Police are Taking on the Dark Net.” (September 2015). The Daily Dot. Accessed May 25, 2016.
  31. “FBI Director Claims Tor and the “Dark Web” Won’t Let Criminals Hide From His Agents.” (September 2015). The Intercept. Accessed May 25, 2016.
  32. Why Synthetic Drug Busts Are So Rare.
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