Civil Liberties

Drug Warriors Are Losing Online


In 1967, government chemists started a newsletter called Microgram to share techniques for identifying and analyzing illegal narcotics. The Drug Enforcement Administration later took over the publication, and by 2003 some 8,000 people within that agency and 1,000 other law enforcement officials around the country were receiving it.

That year, as Michael Erard reported in the October 2004 issue of reason, the U.S. government made Microgram available to everyone online. Previously it had been a "law-enforcement restricted" publication that the public wasn't allowed to see.

But the chemical underground hardly noticed the change, because the Internet had already made most of the information in the newsletter widely available. As Microgram's editor complained, "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."

At the turn of the century, Erard wrote, drug warriors "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."

The feds didn't go online just to spread propaganda. The agency monitored dozens of drug reform websites and targeted the online sellers of illegal drugs for prosecution.

In 2013, with the federal government engaged in a vigorous campaign against the Internet's ability to facilitate the trade of controlled substances, Microgram went back to being "law-enforcement restricted." As it has for two decades, the government continues to run various anti-drug websites. And in 2015, Ross Ulbricht received a life sentence for running Silk Road, a "Dark Web" site that had become a prominent hub of online drug sales.

But drug warriors can't spread myths with abandon as they once did. The U.S. government lost the battle to control the conversation, and the open speech found online won.