For 36 years the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) quietly published a quirky monthly newsletter called Microgram for a small audience of forensic chemists. It was "law enforcement restricted," which meant you could obtain it only if you were a law enforcement official, a government investigator, or a forensic scientist. As far as the public was concerned, it was a secret. In January 2003 DEA officials started to make Microgram publicly available via the Web (at www.usdoj.gov/dea/programs/forensicsci/microgram/bulletins_index.html), where it joined a vast sea of information about illicit drugs: how to get them, how to use them, why to avoid them, why laws controlling them should be either tightened or reformed.
Microgram's release was mostly unnoticed, and its reception has been subdued -- so subdued that even the chemical underground, where people in years past might have found in the newsletter a wealth of knowledge about how to synthesize and distribute psychoactive substances, has hardly noticed it. Yet the seeming nonevent is worthy of attention because it reflects the government's recognition that their strategy to control drug use by controlling drug information has failed.
When it started back in 1967, Microgram was a few typewritten pages in which chemists shared lab techniques for analyzing and identifying the drugs that were showing up on the street. Although illicit drug use was rising, there was little working scientific knowledge about psychedelics among the chemists assisting law enforcement. Up to that point, the only drug chemists had worked for the Food and Drug Administration, which was in charge of protecting the quality of legal drugs, not identifying the composition of illegal ones. "Many of the techniques used today were formulated as needed by the people back then," says Tom Janofsky, a deputy administrator in the DEA's Office of Forensics. "Because the techniques weren't published per se, they were put into Microgram, and the methods were exchanged with the state and local and the other federal agencies in the field."
At first Microgram went to several dozen people. In the inaugural issue the editor wrote that if he didn't receive feedback, the newsletter might not continue. But Microgram was a hit with its intended audience. By 2003, 8,000 people within the DEA and 1,000 others were receiving it.
Microgram's existence was such a well-kept secret that it never developed a following in the chemical underground. "I really doubt that people in and around the illegal side of drug dealings even knew of the existence of Microgram," says Alexander Shulgin, a former DEA-licensed chemist who is considered an underground icon for his do-it-yourself manufacture of designer psychedelics. "For me it was a source of infrared spectra of drugs, and methods of synthesis and access to physical properties." Microgram was so secret, Shulgin adds, that scientists were directed not to cite it in academic papers but to say the information came from "personal communication." (This is standard for citing all restricted publications.)
Over the years Microgram published job announcements, reviews of lab instruments, and articles reprinted from academic chemistry journals. But its core offering remained interesting little stories from the front lines of drug interdiction, written in detached prose and published anonymously.
Even today, the savvy smuggler or illegal drug chemist might find useful counterintelligence in Microgram. The December 2003 issue notes that drug-sniffing canines have failed to detect bales of marijuana sealed inside honey and wax, which suggests a workable method for getting weed across the U.S.-Mexican border (or a potential trap). If you're into selling psilocybin mushrooms, a careful reading of Microgram suggests, you should avoid coating them with chocolate, because virtually every law enforcement agency in the country is on the lookout for candy. Brainstorming methods for smuggling large amounts of heroin or cocaine? Microgram tells the fate of cocaine dissolved in canned liquids, embedded in the linings of plastic mugs, impregnated in a clear silicone caulk, and packed into decorative wooden globes, lotion bottles, candles, and pictures.
These tidbits were not widely available until recently because the DEA did not want to give ammunition to its enemies. "There was some synthetic information and some investigative techniques that we didn't want the bad guys to get ahold of," says the DEA's Tom Janofsky. Another reason to keep Microgram under wraps: Defense lawyers might have found its descriptions of drug analysis useful in their cross-examinations of government witnesses. Once the chemical underground went online, though, the lockdown on Microgram became irrelevant.
The Internet and the advent of the Web opened a new front in the war on drugs. During the last decade government agencies and anti-drug groups have staked out virtual turf, competing for eyeballs with drug law reformers, drug culture archivists, harm reduction activists, and commercial sites selling drug paraphernalia. The biggest prize in this online battle is the attention of the young. Government officials and social conservatives worry that information about drugs will sway impressionable youngsters into using them. Critics of the drug war see adolescents as naive users for whom a lack of accurate information is the greatest danger -- and also as potential supporters of reform.
It has been difficult to tell who's winning in cyberspace. The widely used metrics of success for commercial Web sites -- hits, page counts, unique visitors -- don't necessarily have the same meaning in this highly contested terrain. As we'll see, visitors to freevibe.com, a Web site produced by the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign and funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, are just as likely to be culture jammers as teenagers looking to "get the facts on drugs."
Then again, federal officials seeking to justify their $13 billion anti-drug budget request for 2005 have an interest in exaggerating the threat posed by the Internet. "Many websites, newsgroups, bulletin boards, and chat rooms promote the drug culture by providing a wide variety of information on drugs and drug paraphernalia," warned a 2001 report from the Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center. "Many of these websites openly promote drug use, others glamorize the drug culture and thereby implicitly promote use and experimentation."
Some frustrated lawmakers have turned to suppressing online information about drugs by criminalizing it. In 1999 the Senate passed the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, which would have made it illegal to distribute information, in print or online, about manufacturing or selling controlled substances that would be illegal. (The bill was killed by the House, then tucked into the Bankruptcy Reform Act with the Internet provisions removed.) For the most part, recent DEA activities have been aimed at curbing online sources for illegal drugs such as GHB, a tranquilizer, and other chemically similar substances, as well as using Web crawler and data mining technology to identify and prosecute illegal Internet pharmacies selling prescription drugs. Simple monitoring is another tactic; in 2002 a D.C.--based nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coalition, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request and found that the DEA had monitored the Web sites of 75 drug reform groups.
Proposals to punish people for drug-related speech reflect the desperation of government officials confronting a network of drug information that is more sophisticated, resilient, far-reaching, and self-correcting than ever before. Prior to the early 1990s, most unofficial information about drugs circulated via a loose network of underground publications, photocopies of notes and scientific articles, and word of mouth: Dealers talked to buyers, users talked to each other, and prison mates swapped tales. This is how users learned what substances and what combinations to try (or avoid). It's also how underground chemists learned their trade. But the network was limited. New pills or types of substances would hit the market before information about them did, and the network didn't always reach as far as the drugs. There were hardly any mechanisms for correcting bad information, and the drug culture was susceptible to propaganda.
"Time was when authority figures could safely tell 'white lies' to 'keep us safe,'" says John Robinson, a site administrator for Bluelight (www.bluelight.nu), a "harm reduction" site that features reports about MDMA (better known as Ecstasy) from all over the world. Robinson cites a story that started circulating around the time that the DEA first moved to ban MDMA in 1985: It was said that Ecstasy contained heroin, a rumor stemming from the accounts of early MDMA users who said the drug was like a combination of cocaine and heroin. That claim, says Robinson, was hijacked by governments for use as propaganda, and now "it is one of the central myths we have been trying to destroy on the Internet with Bluelight."
Earlier examples of urban legends about drugs include the claim that you can smell methamphetamine on a user, that smoking peanut skins or green tea will cause a high, and that so-called "red rock opium" contains opiates, which people try to smoke with marijuana. Today anyone with an Internet connection can readily find debunkings of these and other stories intended to scare people away from drugs. According to various sites, "red rock opium" is a form of "dragon's blood incense," which is made from daemonorops draco resin. Another myth concerns the "Chewbacca" technique for manufacturing methamphetamine (so named because a person called "Chewbacca-Darth" is credited for it), which involves such a delicate preparation of two sensitive precursors that it would be difficult to pull off even in a professional laboratory.