Sun, Feb 01, 2004 - Page 6 News List

European dope dealers score big on the Internet

BOOMING BUSINESS With marijuana downgraded in Britain, police crack down on Internet vendors making a killing by offering fresh, high-quality supplies by post

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It will arrive next day by registered delivery in an unassuming padded envelope, promises the blurb on the British Web site. Inside, vacuum-sealed, will be 7.5 grams of AK47 -- high-grade cannabis sativa.

"Very strong nice smoke," gushes the sales copy on the site. "Back by popular demand."

On Thursday British drug law underwent its most radical shakeup for decades when cannabis was downgraded to class C.

Although simple possession is unlikely to lead to prosecution in most cases, the drug remains illegal and dealing or possession with intent to supply will carry a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

But at least five large-scale online cannabis vendors are operating in the UK, in competition with more established Dutch sites. As a result, the drug has never been so easy to buy online.

Electronic payment systems, anonymity and ease of-use have led to a boom in illegal Web weed outlets. For an increasing number of dealers and users, the Internet is now the first port of call for buying and selling cannabis.

The British sites vary in sophistication and scale. Some are glossy and graphic-designed, brazenly selling their wares to all comers. Others are just simple login pages, with passwords for regular customers only.

All offer a selection of cannabis rarely seen outside Amsterdam coffee shops: potent connoisseur varieties including Jack Herer, Charas, and Ketama Gold. Some are so strong they require health warnings. "Caution!" reads the description for super-strong hashish Black Ice available from one retailer. "Extremely experienced smokers only, please."

Each of the sites boasts levels of technological sophistication more associated with mainstream 21st century e-commerce outfits such as Amazon or eBay. Most sites support "one click" ordering and secure digital payment systems such as Paypal and its smaller rival, nochex.com. Minimum orders are typically 7 grams, maximum 28 grams.

Many are open from 9am until 5pm weekdays and provide customer service via e-mail. Orders placed before 1pm are guaranteed to arrive the next day. They can even be tracked via the Royal Mail Web site.

The product arrives fresh, potent and perfectly weighed. The prices are not cheap -- around ?50 for a quarter of an ounce on average -- but Web forums have been full of customers praising the merchandise.

There are now the first signs of a crackdown by the authorities. On Dec. 22, in the first operation of its kind, police from the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit raided one of the leading cannabis e-tailers after a five-month investigation. The site -- which before the raid had the internet address www.pepespage.net -- had been active for around 18 months. A picture of the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew, smoking a large joint, adorned the homepage.

The police estimate that the site generated more than ?500,000 in revenues. They made three arrests and confiscated several computers in Herefordshire and Sussex.

"All the investigation team have been amazed by the amount of activity that these sites have had and the quantity of orders placed via the Internet," said an investigating officer, Matt Cornish of the Herefordshire police.

This sudden show of force has sent ripples through an already fearful market. Since the bust, several leading sites have shut down.

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