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Dealers have been dealing drugs since the founding of e-commerce

The report in this year's Global Drug Survey of the rise of the Internet drug trade has alarmed, surprised or intrigued many. But the very first thing bought and sold online was a bag of marijuana - more than 40 years ago.

In John Markoff's 2005 book What the Dorms Said: How the Counterculture of the Sixties Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (even the title of the book is taken from a good old Jefferson Airplane song), he tells us that the world's first Internet transaction was a drug deal:

In 1971 or 1972, Stanford students using Arpanet accounts at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory struck a commercial deal with their colleagues at MIT. Before Amazon, before eBay, the fundamental act of e-commerce was the drug deal. Students used the web to discreetly arrange the sale of an undetermined amount of marijuana.

Since then it has been, to quote the Grateful Dead band, a long strange journey, and drug users, with the help of chemistry, neuropharmacology and telecommunications, have stayed several steps ahead of the law.

In the '70s, '80s and '90s, all sorts of drugs, both legal and illegal, were sold over the Internet. In 2013, some people ask: Why break the law at all when you can just have a Chinese lab synthesize a synthetic marijuana substance (technically, a cannabinoid receptor agonist) that has been shown to have the same effects as marijuana in the lab? The law has struggled to keep up.


This is also the question being asked by unscrupulous dealers who are happy to import and sell these untested, rare compounds of unknown purity, dissolve them in acetone and spray them on inert herbal carrier material, which they sell over the Internet to anyone with a credit card. They care little about the consumers of these unproven drugs, which were not even created as drugs. They can lead to illness, high blood pressure and even kidney damage.

Last year, researchers found 73 new drugs on the market that were being sold on nearly 700 sites in Europe. But what are they? Most people over 30 remember when the drug menu was limited to marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, cocaine and heroin. Today, the pharmacopoeia is strikingly new and, in many cases, legal.

As one underground chemist told me, simply by studying drug laws, one can easily bypass these restrictions and create a legal drug: chemically similar to a banned substance, but not illegal in and of itself. Even easier is to examine published medical research papers for anything that demonstrates increased motor activity or serotonin or dopamine receptor activity, since they are likely to work as drugs in one way or another.

And if they were only tested on rats, who cares? Young people are lining up to be guinea pigs.

Of the 73 new chemicals discovered last year, 50 were cannabinoid receptor agonists, which are often developed for use in legitimate pharmaceutical studies known as "structure-activity coupling" tests. The endogenous cannabinoid system has profound effects on mood, appetite, blood pressure and many other important functions. Firms such as Stirling Winthrop and the John William Huffman Laboratory at Clemson University in the United States have produced hundreds of these drugs in the legitimate search for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But in 2008, they leaked to gray markets, and a moral panic ensued, guaranteeing their wider use.

The first batch of laws banning new cannabinoid receptor agonists appeared in 2010, when the mephedrone (also known as M-cat or "meow meow") craze was in full swing. There were about 170 of them banned in technically complicated legislation banning entire chemical families and ring replacements. Even the most recent law, passed in February, could not prevent innovation. Moreover, it contributed to their emergence. No sooner was one batch banned than dozens more came on the market the same day.

Today, the number of new drugs is growing at such a rate that police and toxicologists can't even determine what the drugs are because they have no reference samples to compare them to. And there are millions of drug deals going on all over the web.

As William Gibson said, "The future is already here-it's just not very evenly distributed."

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