Open Secrets

How the government lost the drug war in cyberspace.


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.

The current editor of Microgram, Bob Klein, acknowledges that the government allowed drug myths to circulate. "A lot of information [passed among drug users] was flat-out bogus," he says. "A huge amount of material circulating around the chemical underground," such as smoking dried banana peels or making amphetamine from chicken feed, "was just bullshit. And the government wasn't going to correct those misconceptions for obvious reasons."

Now a host of Web sites can nip misinformation before it circulates, creating what is in effect a real-time, worldwide peer review process.

For instance, on April 20 mystryman, the moderator of a message board at Bluelight, posted the warning that a drug called 5meo-dipt, known as "Foxy," was being sold as Ecstasy in Florida. The posting referred to a discussion thread at another site, beaniebaby.com, as well as a link to pages about 5meo-dipt at one of the most comprehensive sites for drug info, The Vaults of Erowid (www.erowid.org). Another topic on Bluelight was the availability of LSD around the United States, in Cincinnati, Toledo, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. "It's totally possible that there IS acid in florida, but It's also possible that you won't find any," wrote toxiku. (All eccentricities of style and spelling from Internet posts are preserved throughout this article.)

As in pre-Internet days, drug users continue to share their experiences with each other, but when these discussions take place online they're available immediately to a wide audience that can respond quickly. On February 26, 2004, at pillreports.com, nine people from around the U.S. and Canada had posted reports on seven varieties of Ecstasy pills, describing them (sometimes with photos), rating them, and discussing their effects.

A poster known as OICU812 had this to say concerning a small, round, pink pill stamped with an envelope logo: "very strong pill i cant really give an accurate report to how strong one is cause i did 5 over the night. but man it was so intence and such a rush for at least 12 hours then the next few days were wacked out 4 sho. all in all they were bad to the bone to say the least." Another poster, Ongie975, complained about a pill stamped with a blue dolphin: "Definitely got ripped off and not too happy about it." Responded Smiley Xer: "Probably more speed than anything else. Bunk dolphins are going around. Be careful! ~peace." Doctorj added, "Dolphins do have an interesting rep. I stay away from them. Peace."

Bluelight's John Robinson says this sort of exchange illustrates the evolution within the drug culture of knowledge that ultimately helps to keep people safe. "We have always tried to walk the line between the oral culture and the world of academic science," he says. "The Internet allows us to have an open, anonymous environment where people are able to speak freely and share their experiences, but it also means that we can make the effort to support what is said with references."

Other similarly interactive sites serve as the memory of the drug culture. The largest, most extensive of these is Erowid, which covers a huge range of substances, from marijuana to absinthe to morning glory seeds to obscure research drugs such as 5-Meo-AMT. Founded in 1995, Erowid boasts more than 28,000 visitors a day and some 20,000 documents related to psychoactive substances, including plants, illicit synthetics, pharmaceuticals, and "smart drugs." The information includes basic facts, legal status, chemical makeup, trip reports, spiritual associations, and references to scientific articles (including some from Microgram).

Microgram's Bob Klein complains that "many things that would have been better left buried in obscurity—like smoking bufo toad skins, sniffing concentrated cow pie fumes, allowing yourself to be stung by scorpions, smoking jimson weed or salvia divinorum, drinking cough syrups, mixing up concoctions of any of dozens of different kinds of drugs and pharmaceuticals, drinking ayahuasca tea, etc., etc., etc.—have been brought to light by the Internet, and are therefore practiced." But contrary to what the anti-drug crowd warns, many of the posts on these sites hardly glamorize drug use. One writer to Erowid, for instance, describes a 5-Meo-AMT trip as "the worst decision I have ever made." After hours of paranoia, nausea, headache, and pounding heartbeat, he ended up examining his life and deciding "that the current lifestyle of subtance abuse must end. I have truly been scared sober….I am writing this urging people to stay away from this chemical. It is very similar to LSD at the beginning but toward the end all hell broke loose."

Some of the messages at Bluelight read like a Consumer Reports of illicit substances. Wrote Mihgzer on March 3, 2004: "There are some puple gel tabs in america, they taste funny, some people liked them, some people got sick and said they thought it was 5meoamt." But most postings do contain genuine warnings. Mystryman warned people about the appearance of purple pills containing Para-methoxy-amphetamine, or PMA, in Maryland and Pennsylvania. "Not much to say but, these chemicals can make you die low doses. PERIOD!!!!" Rejoined .dR spgeddi, "australian bluelighters are all too familiar with the dangers associated with this drug. one entry in the shrine is dedicated to a beautiful person who passed foolishly experiamenting with pma."

Many of the drug sites appear to be offered in the spirit of harm reduction. Says the welcoming message at shroomery.org: "This site was created to help stop the spread of dangerous misinformation related to magic mushrooms, so that people can make intelligent and informed decisions about what they put in their bodies." The Ecstasy reduction site dancesafe.org includes this disclaimer at the bottom of its home-page: "This website provides health and safety information only. We neither condemn nor condone the use of any drug. Rather, we recognize that recreational drug use is a permanent part of our society, and that there will always be people who use drugs, despite prohibition. The drug information we provide, therefore, is meant to assist users in making informed decisions about their use."

By comparison to the old chemical underground, the connections offered by the online version are vast. Shroomery.org alone provides 25 links to sites in Scotland, England, France, Brazil, Russia, and elsewhere on the use of psychedelic mushrooms. It also contains links to 38 marijuana sites, six Ecstasy sites, and 14 sites dealing with miscellaneous drugs such as the cough suppressant dextromethorphan.

The 2001 report from the National Drug Intelligence Center counted 52 Web sites providing information on the production, sale, or use of Ecstasy, GHB, or LSD. An update (which the NDIC promises but has not yet done) would undoubtedly turn up more. The pro-marijuana site yahooka.com boasts 5,947 links to sites that, among other things, promote drug policy reform, discuss cannabis culture, offer marijuana-related goods and services, and provide growing information. There are links to 1,203 sites in languages other than English, including one in Arabic and one in Latvian.

This plethora of information has altered the drug war in numerous ways, some of them predictable. Web sites that sold pipes and bongs were easy targets for Operation Pipe Dreams, the Department of Justice's 2003 crackdown on drug paraphernalia merchants, which netted 55 suspects and led to at least 56 indictments (including one that sent actor Tommy Chong to jail for nine months). For those trying to avoid that sort of trouble, the Internet has been a source of advice on how to escape attention and deal with authorities. The experts at Erowid, for instance, answer questions about what substances show up on drug tests, including techniques for beating the tests, as do the message boards at urineluck.com, owned by Spectrum Labs, a Cincinnati-based company that makes detoxification products to beat drug tests.

The drug war in cyberspace also has led to goofy attempts at hipness, such as the government's aforementioned Freevibe (freevibe.com). The site, which promises the "lowdown" on marijuana and other drugs, is mainly an advertisement for other anti-drug efforts, with a few interactive features, such as a message board that features dramatic scare stories about older sisters dying from marijuana overdoses and the like. A news section hasn't been updated since 2003, and the drug facts link promises the "latest" research—from 1999. In the Ecstasy section, no mention is made of Dr. George Ricaurte, the author of a Science article in 2002 that was retracted because the substance given to research animals was methamphetamine, not Ecstasy. However, a visitor can send an e-mail "Stoner greeting card" ("for when bad things happen 'cause someone was stoned"), which is the only humorous moment in the entire site.

By comparison to sites like yahooka.com, urineluck.com, or bluelight.nu, Freevibe is a cultural wasteland. On February 26 two people had posted their "anti-drug": someone named Dude, who said "my anti drug is the marines," and Jaden of LBC, who wrote: "My anti-drug? My future lets face it folks turning to drugs isnt exactly getting rid of your issue or issues that made you turn to them drugs a whole new set of issues sometimes the key to helping oneself is through helping others if your life sucks that bad join the military or do community service helping others is quite possibly the greatest feeling you can get when you feel appreciated."

People posting to various pro-drug sites, blogs, and Indymedia sites criticize Freevibe and discuss ways to jam it. At smokedot.com, a user named Fiend claims to have sent an essay on writing as his anti-drug, featuring names of authors who were all drug users; Fiend said Freevibe posted the essay. At a Portland Indymedia message board, someone quoted an anti-drug message they'd found on Freevibe: "EyeHeartJesus—Once I was asked to smoke a joint rolled in Bible paper. I was totally like 'No way buddy, smoking weed is for devil worshipers and Nelly.' I showed that guy." Wrote the Indymedia poster, with the handle of "no one in particular," "Come on, we can do more! It'll be fun! Try to get the most outlandishly rediculous thing past the moderators that you can."

On the other Freevibe message boards, no one had posted for days. Posters cannot talk to each other, and replies to questions come from auto-mailers. The Freevibe officials don't seem to understand that without interaction—or with surveilled and censored interaction—there can be no culture around drug non-use. On the pro-drug sites, by contrast, discussion is constant and users interact all the time.

Young, impressionable minds aren't the only audience for sites like Erowid, Bluelight, and Yahooka. They're also where law enforcement investigators check on what the "bad guys" know—without having to get out of their seats. The Internet "is a good resource to check whether a specific substance is being abused, or for methods of abuse," says Bob Klein. "That's valuable for the really obscure stuff, or weird combinations, or for tracking developing or declining trends."

Such "drug abuse sites" also have proven useful to the medical community. Paul Wax, a toxicologist in Phoenix, says he visits Erowid once a month or so to look up substances that aren't in the medical literature. In one recent case, Wax recalls, "someone came in to the hospital and was acting delirious, saying they'd taken something called tryptanite. I said, 'Tryptanite? I've never heard of it.'" So Wax put the word into Google and pulled up www. ecstacy-stuff.com/trip2night.html, which described an ephedra and dextromethorphan product. This knowledge saved the patient a trip to the psychiatric ward. "The nurses thought he was crazy," Wax says. "They thought he was a psych patient. Some who didn't know what he was taking might conclude he had some psych problems and needed to go to some facility. But the drugs wore off, and he cleared up."

In 2002 Wax published a paper about recreational drug sites in the academic journal Pediatrics. He described the case of an 18-year-old boy who took several tablets of a hallucinogen called 2C-T-7, more widely known as "blue mystic." Wax found that the standard medical literature didn't contain any information about 2C-T-7 on Medline. When he searched the Web, however, he found extensive descriptions on two Web sites, Erowid and Lycaeum (lycaeum.org).

In his Pediatrics paper, Wax warned that "adolescents, who are often adept at navigating these Internet resources, may be particularly susceptible to these communications." In an interview he is more sanguine about the Internet. "I don't think these sites are going away," he says, "and I'm not an advocate that they do."

This was the informational context in which Microgram went public. Ultimately, DEA officials say, they recognized that the spread of information via the Internet had made the law enforcement restriction on Microgram obsolete, so they decided to end it. "A lot of the information that was previously sensitive is now very common knowledge that's available to anybody," says Bob Klein. "It's basically made moot many of the previous reasons for keeping [Microgram] law enforcement restricted." In late 2002, the publication split: Microgram became Microgram Bulletin, the monthly newsletter with the colorful stories, and Microgram Journal, a scientific, peer-reviewed journal aimed at drug chemists (online at www.usdoj.gov/dea/programs/forensicsci/microgram/journals_index.html).

Microgram remains so obscure that few drug-oriented sites have linked to it since it went online. It receives only 7,500 or so hits a week, mostly from law enforcement. Klein says he expected a deluge of requests for back issues, but it hasn't occurred; he suspects that some of the fringe pro-drug groups haven't figured out that Microgram is now available on the Web. (His theory why: "Because they're doing too much dope.")

"I think the impact of liberating Microgram will be zero," says Richard Glen Boire, general counsel at the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, a Davis, California-based nonprofit that has mirrored Microgram on its Web site. (He heard that the DEA and FBI were collecting the IP addresses of browsers who came to the site, and he didn't think people accessing public information should be surveilled.) Last year Boire unsuccessfully sought the release of back issues of Microgram under the Freedom of Information Act—for older issues the restriction still holds—but despite that, he says, the now-public newsletter is mainly "a useful P.R. publication for the DEA, for getting increased funding and media attention."

Yet some observers of the U.S. government's information policy are buoyed by the DEA's decision, because open publication of Microgram engages a larger pool of scientists and others in forensic science, and it opens up channels of communication—for example, between the medical community and law enforcement. "I think DEA made the straightforward calculation that in this case the benefits of openness far outweigh the risks," says Steven Aftergood, editor of Secrecy News, a publication that tracks U.S. secrecy laws for the Federation of American Scientists. "The release of Microgram is a rare flash of rationality in government information policy."

John Robinson of Bluelight also praises the release. "We've long applauded Microgram's decision for full disclosure," he says, "and do think it is a positive sign." If nothing else, the DEA's new openness suggests that drug warriors are starting to see the futility of promoting abstinence through ignorance.