WASHINGTON—The world of marijuana trafficking once existed mostly in shady places where the right dealers hung out or in exotic locales such as Amsterdam. But technology, which has revolutionized almost every other aspect of our world, has changed that.
Now, a simple Google search reveals a universe of online pot, including hundreds of Web sites offering to sell marijuana and paraphernalia such as bongs and marijuana seeds as well as free, detailed directions for growing marijuana.
How many marijuana growers the Internet has instructed or how much marijuana changes hands online each year isn't known. But experts agree that the Internet has become the world's biggest head shop and that stemming that digital tide will be difficult for governments.
Drug users "can obtain whatever they want (online) with more ease than in the conventional illicit street market," the International Narcotics Control Board, an arm of the United Nations, said in a news release in April. The board said serious steps must be taken if governments hope to control the Web-based drug trade.
The European Union, citing increased European marijuana use during the past decade, adopted a resolution last July encouraging its members to crack down on marijuana cultivation and promotional Web sites.
Allen St. Pierre, the director of the pro-legalization group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said there were at least 200 to 400 varieties of marijuana seeds available online, specially bred for every type of growing condition in North America.
"Despite the federal government's efforts here, (marijuana) seeds pour in," St. Pierre said.
Interstate marijuana trafficking carries a penalty of up to five years in jail and a possible $250,000 fine for first offenders, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
St. Pierre pointed out that marijuana seeds' lack of odor and small size make them hard to detect in the mail.
"It's very unlikely that they will be intercepted," he said.
Never before has so much drug culture been so readily available, especially to the estimated 21 million American teens who use the Internet.
Marijuana use among 12th-graders has fallen 4 percentage points within the past year since its most recent peak, in 1997, but 34.3 percent of 12th-graders still said in 2004 that they'd used the drug within the last year, according to Monitoring the Future, an annual survey of drug use funded by a research grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Marijuana Web sites are particularly insidious because parents don't realize their danger, said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Even parents who do realize that marijuana is a serious problem still think ... their teens are going to be exposed to marijuana from a shady character in the street—not on the computer, possibly sitting a few feet away from them," he said. "It's a serious problem that this is on the Internet."
The DEA's hot line, 1-877-RxAbuse, part of the government's efforts to shut down illegal online pharmacies selling prescription drugs, also can be used to report marijuana Web sites, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said.
U.S. law enforcement agencies work together to search suspicious packages entering the country and often receive tips leading them to drug shipments sent through the mail.
In fiscal year 2004, for example, the Postal Investigations Service worked with the Customs Service and the DEA to arrest 1,724 people suspected of mailing controlled substances and to seize 8 tons of drugs.
Payne acknowledged, however, that distribution via Web sites is hard to stop.
"Because of the magnitude and growth of the Internet, this is something that's difficult for the DEA to enforce," he said.
The problem for law enforcement isn't only the size and scope of the online marijuana trade. Online drug vendors can easily hide their identities and locations, and marijuana Web sites often are registered to people in countries such as Canada or the Netherlands, where drug laws are more liberal and less stringently enforced.
Canada has rapidly become a major supplier of potent varieties of marijuana with names such as Quebec Gold and BC Bud. The cultivation and sale of the plant is estimated to be at least a $7-billion-a-year industry in Canada, according to the National Post Business magazine, a Canadian journal.
Marc Emery, a Canadian marijuana activist, claims to have sold at least 4 million pot seeds through his Web site. "We have never heard of anyone ever having a problem as a result of ordering or receiving seeds from us," his site declares.
Payne said that though the DEA worked closely with law enforcement agencies in other countries, it didn't have jurisdiction over foreign Web site operators.
"We can't go into Mexico and arrest somebody," he said. "Again, it's really difficult to enforce."
Gisela Wieser-Herbeck, a drug control officer based in Vienna, Austria, said multinational efforts such as a rapid information-sharing system for law-enforcement agencies from different countries must be developed to shut down the Internet drug market.
"You have to depend on international cooperation," she said. "In a concerted action you can go very far in closing down these operations."
Robert DeMuro, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Investigations Service, thinks the postal service makes a significant impact on trafficking but acknowledged, "That doesn't mean it's going to stop. As long as there's a market for (drugs), people are going to try and sell it, and people are going to try and buy it."
Still, DeMuro thinks online pot is anything but safe for Web site operators.
"People who sell drugs are obviously violating the law and obviously engage in this activity because they think they can get away with it," he said. "Can they for a while? Yes. Can they forever? No."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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