MDMA, cannabis and even cocaine are all available on mainstream websites such as Craigslist. Alongside listings for second hand cycling helmets and composting bins, Craigslist's 'for sale' section features around 10 new ads a day openly offering drugs.
Headlines commonly include, "weed at a discounted price £20", "Charlie, sniff & coke £50" and "Coke, weed, hash, MDMA £20." Ads usually have the dealer's mobile phone number, or their username on KIK, the instant messaging app that can be downloaded for free and used anonymously. Alternatively, buyers can simply click 'reply' on the ad, and respond anonymously via their email address, which isn't visible to the person receiving the message.
Still, it sounds a risky business. Who's willing to sell illegal substances in view of the entire world?
Daniel, from Columbia, has been selling drugs in London since he was 'transferred' here by his boss two years ago. He started placing ads online a month ago, on the advice of another dealer, "I decided to go online and promote our business," he says, "I found Craigslist!"
Craigslist ads — which are free to place — stay online for 45 days, but new ads are placed all the time, pushing the older ones down. Daniel places a new ad every one or two days, receiving 15-25 responses to each, and an average of 20-30 responses a day. He estimates that 50% of his business is generated online — 20% from Craigslist and 30% from We Be High, a website describing itself as a "Worldwide Cannabis Travel Guide."
Here, dealers advertise in the comments section of the city they're working in, with one-liners such as, "Reach me now for some stuff, much in stock now." Daniel's other clients come from "different connections we have."
So how many clients is that in total? "I’ve got a lot!" he says. Marijuana is his most popular product, and while some clients are tourists who buy from him as a one-off, the majority are repeat customers living in London. Daniel says he knows his products are good, based on feedback from clients. But have any complained?
"Yeah, in November, a man from the USA complained. We tried it ourselves to confirm if what he was saying was true — then we changed our supplier." As for the client, "we refunded his money and he waited a little bit for new products coming, and when other products came, we delivered."
Drug-related deaths in the news are bad for business, says Daniel: "Clients start asking questions!" However, despite that bad batch, Daniel says he never worries about clients having a bad reaction. "We are confident in our supplier and when our supply gets here in London, we have a doctor who checks everything and makes sure it's up to standard," he says. When Daniel deals with a new client for the first time, he asks them to pay upfront via Western Union or Bitcoin. "They see us online, they contact us and they give us the delivery address. They pay, and we drop off. If that's successful, then the next transaction, they pay cash on delivery."
Michael is in his early 30s and has been selling drugs online since he started dealing just over a year ago: "I was made redundant from my job as a warehouse manager," he says, "temporary contracts never turned into full time employment, and it got to the point where I was depressed. I've got a young family and it put a strain on us — I had to make money." He got the idea to advertise online from a friend who put an ad up on Gumtree two years ago: "He just randomly done it and everyone was surprised — we didn't think for a split second that it would be as successful as it is.
"People online spend ridiculous amounts compared to people from the area who just want to pick up £10-£20's worth."
Michael also advertises on forums (which he declines to name) where people discuss drugs. He says he's not the only dealer who does this: "A lot of people, they're afraid to go to an estate or approach a group of guys," he says, "so the best thing for them to do is use the internet and go on forums to see if they can find buyers that way."
Who's buying these substances off Michael? The majority of clients are in Canary Wharf and Surrey Quays, "'cos there's a lot of people in those areas who are quite rich." He takes payment from all his clients in person, including the first time buyers. Only scammers, he claims, would ask for money upfront: "Why would you pay for a product you haven't seen, from a guy you haven't met? It don't make sense. But a lot of people who use these sites are not world-wise. They pay these people and sit there waiting hours for a product that's never going to turn up." This happened to Anna, a 21-year-old barista who arrived in London a month ago from Australia. Anna has been smoking marijuana since she was 17, and buying from Craigslist for the last two years: "I was at a beach party and we got on the topic of smoking weed," she says. "I asked my friend where he got his from and he said Craigslist. I was like, 'no way, I didn't think that would actually work!'
"I tried it out for myself and it worked pretty well. But I did get scammed once pretty bad, for about £200," admits Anna, "I was young and naïve and I didn't know what I was doing — this was at the very beginning of my Craigslist experience. The person I dealt with was like, 'transfer me the money and I'll get it to you.' So I did, and then he was like, 'oh no, the police have picked me up around the corner!'"
Anna got her money back from Western Union, and went on to find a regular dealer via Craigslist. Since being in London, she's answered an ad to buy from a dealer in Canning Town, and she's one of the few buyers to place her own ad in the 'Wanted' section, stating, '420 Wanted North.'
Anna is faithful to Craigslist: "I don't advertise anywhere else because I'm well enough off on there — and I didn't know any other websites I could put ads on." She likes the anonymity of Craigslist: "It codes your email — it's just a bunch of numbers and letters, so there's not much room for law enforcement to get involved. "It’s pretty easy to slip under the radar."
Anna's confidence extends to meeting dealers face to face. "I usually meet them at a tube station, then go somewhere out of the way like a park. I used to worry a bit, but either they bring a friend or I bring a friend, and it's like, eight o'clock, so it's never one-on-one in the middle of the night!"
Indeed, many dealers still like the personal approach, even if they're using online forums as well.
Michael meets all his new clients in public places, favouring KFC and McDonalds: "Clients always say, 'isn’t it obvious? Shouldn't we go round a street corner?' No! That’s the worst thing you can do. Because if you're spotted, a sophisticated person, with a person who's dressed in a tracksuit, going round the corner, anyone who sees that would say, 'What's going on there?'
"I've done deals right in front of the police, but it's because of the way I do the transaction, it doesn't look so obvious and untoward."
When he arranges to meet a new client for the first time, Michael sometimes asks what they look like — other times, he trusts he'll spot them: "I can tell straight away by their body language when a person's standing there waiting, or when a person is walking up to where we're supposed to meet. They're anxious because they don't know what to expect."
However, this isn't always foolproof: "I was in Holborn and this man was wearing exactly what the client described himself to be wearing. So I walked straight up to him and I was like, 'alright mate?' I had the product in my hand. I put my hand in his hand and I took time to shake it, and he was looking at me like, 'what's going on?' I was like, 'you're not Kevin, are you?' He said, 'no, my name's Steve.' I tried to take back the product and he went, 'but I like what I have in my hand!'
"He bought it, and when my man did come along, he bought some as well." Michael's never turned up to find the client's not there, "I speak to them on the phone, and I'm a good judge of character."
However, he does receive hoax calls from his competitors on Craigslist: "They say they want a delivery in Uxbridge or Harrow-on-the-Hill, but they don't ask me the questions a client would ask about what they're buying. They say they want a delivery on the other side of London to put me out of the equation — it gives them a chance to make sales or scam people."
Michael believes the dealers behind the calls are the ones who are out to scam buyers using anonymous messaging app KIK: "I've come to understand how these people work. So when I do get their call, I ask them certain questions. If I'm unsure, I pretend that I forget about them — if they really want it, they will call you back!"
Like Daniel, Michael says he knows what he sells is good quality, because he trusts his suppliers and listens to client feedback. However, unlike Daniel, Michael worries about his clients having adverse reactions. "I had someone call me who wanted MDMA," he says, "and when I saw them, I couldn't give it to them, because they were like 15, 16, 17 year old. I asked them if they'd done it before, and they said yeah, but I can tell they haven't, because they asked me how to take it. So I knew straight away, and I was like, 'no way'.
"Even the people I see that are studying to become dentists and doctors, they say they need certain medication to focus better — I say to them 'if I know you got uni tomorrow, I'm not giving it to you! There's no point you doing this and messing up your studies.'
"I don't want to be responsible for somebody overdosing. Even when it's weed and I have certain women call me, I ask them what kind of buzz they're looking for, because I don't want to give them something so strong that they start to panic or don't know what they're doing."
Michael doesn't worry about the police seeing his ad and calling his number. "There's certain procedures I'd take, i.e. get rid of my phone, get rid of this number, and put a totally different post up."
Anna doesn't worry either: "The marijuana drug laws aren't enforced too much, particularly if you're only buying small quantities," she says, "and if the police are the ones selling it to you, they can't really get you in trouble for that!"
Jake, who hails from Kingston, Jamaica, has a rather different response: "If it's the police I'll put a bullet in his head. Man I don't care, bloodclart — gonna burn them! I'm going to kill him you know, fucking play around?!" Aged 36, Jake has been dealing for 19 years, and now manages 12 runners who work different shifts. He started advertising online 10 years ago via Gumtree, before switching to Craigslist six years ago. It's now the only website he uses: "Me got enough customers already, you know?"
Aside from advertising on Craigslist — which accounts for 30% of his business — Jake says, "I've got a lot of links — people that I know. I was given a lot of phones that had a lot of customers on it already." Jake's runners also hand out leaflets. One of his runners explains "Not to anyone of course, only people that actually smoke." He clarifies that he wouldn't have to see them smoking, "I'd just go by their look — I can tell."
Jake has his own procedures for selling to first time buyers: "First step, I tell them to meet at a location where all my brethrens at," he says, "then if anything kicks off, I got brethrens living on that street. I send my runner to meet him face to face, with no drugs on him. My runner checks him, and if everything's kosher, he deliver the package."
Like Michael, Jake says the internet connects him with clients he wouldn't otherwise encounter, and his online business is increasing. "Foreigners come to the Craigslist website — lot of people from different places," he says, "I'm doing way more business than before."
In response to a Newsbeat report on the dark web's drug trade, the Home Office has said, "We've committed to spending £1.9bn on cybersecurity over the next five years, including boosting the capabilities of the National Crime Agency's National Cyber Crime Unit, increasing their ability to investigate the most serious cyber crime."
It may be less expensive to tackle the drug trade that's right under their noses.
All names have been changed. Craigslist were approached for comment but no response was received.
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It Seems Online Drug Sales are Alive and Well, Regardless of Standing Laws