Cannabis online: click now and it's with you in 24 hours
As the drug is downgraded, police crack down
on internet vendors offering supplies by post
It will arrive next day by registered delivery in an unassuming padded envelope, promises the blurb on the British website. Inside, vacuum-sealed, will be 7.5g 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 a Guardian investigation has established that at least five large-scale online cannabis vendors are operating in this country, 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 7g (0.25oz), maximum 28g. Many are open from 9am until 5pm weekdays and provide customer service via email. Orders placed before 1pm are guaranteed to arrive the next day. They can even be tracked via the Royal Mail website.
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 December 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. One, similar in scale to Pepe's, has taken an extended Christmas break. A promise on its homepage to "reopen fully on December 29" has not been honoured. Forums are swollen with pot smokers bemoaning the loss of their suppliers.
Given the scale and openness of the industry, few seem surprised that the crackdown has been launched.
"Advertising a website in that way, they were asking for it. I would never do that," said Hermes the Hash Trader, a Dutch online dealer with a large customer base in Britain.
Hermes, in his late 20s, is one of several dealers who operate out of email addresses to minimise their chances of being caught.
The former trader and funds administrator has been running his e-business for six months. "I spent months, not to mention thousands of euros, establishing a network of contacts," he said.
His downloadable menu offers 50 varieties of grass and hash. Prices range from £15 to £75 for an eighth of an ounce. The minimum order is £50.
But he confesses to being dogged by constant worries about being busted. "Generally I do enjoy it," he said.
"It's a good job, and usually fun, but it has its downside. It can get very stressful at times."
Customs' seizures are also a constant bugbear. He estimates that one in 50 of his deliveries is intercepted en route to Britain. He does offer refunds for lost orders but only to customers who supply a digital scan of the official Customs and Excise 271 form received if controlled drugs are discovered in your mail.
Most of his customers come from word of mouth and referrals. Most traders are hard to find and prefer it that way.
Websites are hidden from search engines like Google. Most experts agree that the given the scale and anonymity of the internet, the online drug trade is unstoppable.
"The government is going to learn what the music industry is learning. The net is a wall-buster," the technology journalist and former Wired magazine columnist Jon Katz has said.
"It's not policeable. There are not enough cops in the world to monitor all the communications and digital commerce that's going on."
Forensic experts of the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit are examining the computers seized in December for electronic evidence, including the names and email addresses of customers. The unit would not comment on whether this would lead to arrests of those who had used the service.
Most buyers, however, are not put off by the risk of potential intercepted mail or arrest.
"My source got busted but I definitely would buy from an online supplier again," said Sam, 31, a video technician who ordered nearly two ounces from one retailer last year. "I haven't found a new source yet, but I'm looking."
The police insist the downgrading of cannabis to class C will not change their attitude to online cannabis retailers.
"We will target any site engaged in the wholesale supply of controlled drugs," they say. "This is one of our key priorities."
The dealers, however, are hoping it will signal an upturn in business. "There's a fair chance the trade will mushroom when the laws relax," Hermes said. "My plans are to expand until I reach full capacity."