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In the secretive world of online drug dealing, an underground website named Silk Road entices shoppers with a wide range of illegal substances -- from Ecstasy and other synthetic drugs to heroin and high-grade marijuana.
The site, launched in February, is one of many new online outlets fueling a sudden and dangerous surge in synthetic drug abuse in Minnesota and nationwide, a Star Tribune investigation shows.
Of 86 drug sites that were examined, 64 do not appear to have existed even just two years ago, according to Internet Exposure, a Web design and research firm that analyzed traffic data for the Star Tribune. Unique visitors to those sites soared from 122,090 in June 2009 to 404,469 in June 2011.
The sheer volume and clandestine nature of these online sales are making it difficult, if not impossible, for authorities to stop illegal trafficking of dangerous drug products in this lucrative, anything-goes virtual marketplace.
Just two months after Minnesota started enforcing a law banning many synthetic drugs, the products -- typically sold as bath salts, plant food, herbal incense and research chemicals -- remain widely available and easy to purchase from online retailers, the Star Tribune investigation found.
Minnesota lawmakers already were moving to ban the substances when a mass overdose at a house party in Blaine this spring left a 19-year-old man dead. The synthetic hallucinogen that killed him was bought online.
Last month, when the Star Tribune surveyed 20 popular websites that sell synthetic drugs, just four sites blocked sales to Minnesota and other states that have enacted bans. Many websites offered to ship their products anywhere, telling shoppers it was their responsibility to figure out whether their purchases were legal.
Other websites falsely claimed their products "were legal in all 50 states."
"You can rest assured that there are no illegal or harmful substances in any of our products," claimed wholeearthpacking. com which shipped a container of Bay Spice XO to the Star Tribune on Aug. 25. "We just have you and Mother Earth in mind!"
But a lab test performed for the Star Tribune revealed that Bay Spice XO contained JWH-210, a chemical specifically outlawed in Minnesota as of July 1. The website did not respond to the newspaper's subsequent inquiries.
In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) banned five chemicals found in synthetic marijuana, but manufacturers simply used other chemicals that produce similar results. Last week, the agency announced that it was moving to ban three chemicals found in bath salts.
'Hard to track'
Identifying the merchants who actually operate synthetic drug sites can be extremely difficult.
"Anyone who wants to cover up their involvement in a website can register a domain with false information or use a domain privacy service," said Jeff Hahn, CEO of Internet Exposure, in Minneapolis. Such privacy services specialize in concealing the identities of their clients.
A DEA official said the challenge of dealing with online drug dealers can be overwhelming, considering that "thousands" of websites sell the chemicals. If the agency finds an illegal website hosted by a U.S.-based company or server, it notifies the company and encourages it to take the site "offline," according to DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.
"Unfortunately, there are underground labs all over the world who ship their products globally to customers," Payne said. "DEA works with other countries to attack these global drug networks, but we do not have the legal authority to shut a website down immediately when discovered."
In cases where the agency has managed to terminate a synthetic drug site, officials have been frustrated by how quickly operators were able to resume operations at another site, said Will Taylor, a spokesman for the DEA's division in Chicago.
"It's hard to track down who is selling it," Taylor said.
Bulkresearchchemicals. com, which sold the Star Tribune 4-Meo-PCP, an analog of the infamously dangerous drug PCP, appears to operate out of England, based on information on its website. The site ships merchandise through British Royal Mail.
But the computer the company used to conduct online sales this summer was actually located in a rural area of central France, according to its Internet Protocol address. Meanwhile, the company's website was registered by a proxy server in Los Angeles that charges a fee to shield its clients' identities from the public.
A company representative insisted that its products are "totally safe" as long as customers use them only as intended: for scientific research.
"I would like to make it clear that nothing we have done or that you have done with the product you purchased from us is dangerous," Harry Costa said in an e-mail response to the newspaper.
Shortly after the newspaper purchased 4-Meo-PCP, the drug disappeared from the website. The site said it would soon debut a "superior" version called 3-Meo-PCP.
Such tweaking of chemical compounds is routinely done by manufacturers, often to create new products that might skirt bans on existing compounds.
Silk Road's secrets
Many websites promise to protect their customers by shipping drugs in discreet packages. But for those who want to leave fewer tracks, an even more covert marketplace has appeared.
At Silk Road, which describes itself as an "anonymous marketplace," users can buy 738 different drugs, including 27 types of cocaine, 81 psychedelics and 269 varieties of marijuana, based on a recent site visit. A gram of brown heroin was recently priced at $171.34. Users can also obtain prescription drugs, including Valium, Xanax and Viagra.
The site connects buyers with independent sellers, who must promise to destroy a customer's shipping address "as soon as it is used to label their package." Sellers are advised to use "vacuum sealed bags" and take other precautions to "maintain the secrecy" of each shipment.
Instead of credit cards -- which are routinely accepted at other sites -- Silk Road accepts only "Bitcoins," an untraceable digital currency available through online currency exchange services. Recently, the exchange rate was around $7 per Bitcoin. Customers are advised to use fake names and have their goods shipped to P.O. boxes or the homes of friends to avoid detection.
Users can reach Silk Road only through an "anonymizing network" called TOR, which routes clients through a worldwide network of volunteer servers to help conceal a client's identity. Data for each Silk Road transaction are "fully encrypted and totally unreadable," according to the site's buyer's guide.
In June, two U.S. senators asked Attorney General Eric Holder to seize Silk Road's domain name and shut down the site. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has called Silk Road the "most brazen attempt to peddle drugs" he's ever seen.
Asked why the government hadn't moved to shut down Silk Road, Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, replied: "The DEA takes the threat of illegal online drug markets very seriously. Although we don't confirm investigations against individuals or groups, the DEA aggressively pursues criminals using any means to sell illegal drugs."
A tangled Web
One of the biggest purveyors of synthetic drugs in Minnesota has been Down in the Valley, a Golden Valley-based music and novelty chain that claims it has been "supplying what's cool since 1972."
Immediately after the state outlawed many of the new drugs, the company removed the products from its shelves and its website. The company, along with several other retailers, is now trying to overturn the ban in court.
It's not hard to see why. In an affidavit the company filed as part of its legal challenge, it revealed that the banned products generated 40 percent of the company's sales, and that it stood to lose more than $1 million in profits.
Much of that business may have come from the Web. In the first six months of 2011, the company's website -- which touted an array of bath salts and herbal incense products -- attracted an average of 12,632 unique visitors each month, up from 1,644 in the last half of 2009.
In June, someone calling himself Greg McManus posted an attack on downinthevalley. com: "HOW DARE YOU SELL CRAP THAT DESTROYS LIVES? NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION LABEL MEANS NOTHING. If you feel it's 'safe,' then you give it to your kids. KILLERS BURN IN HELL."
Steve Hyland, owner of Down in the Valley, declined to speak to the Star Tribune on the advice of his attorney, Marc Kurzman.
A few weeks after the company removed the products, downinthevalley. com started sending shoppers seeking bath salts "down the street to our sister site," k2incenseonline. com .
Kurzman, who represents Hyland and other retailers in their attempt to overturn the ban, said his client informed him that the so-called sister site sells only to residents of places that haven't banned its products.
"I understand there's a California corporation set up to do distribution," Kurzman told the Star Tribune. "They're not handling the products in Minnesota."
The sister site initially accepted an order for bath salts from the Star Tribune in late August, but subsequently canceled it and refunded the newspaper's money. In an e-mail, the site explained that it could not ship bath salts, herbal incense or similar products to Minnesota because of the new state law, "even if they are labeled 50 state legal."
Other online merchants have ignored Minnesota's ban, helping customers seeking a new connection for synthetic drugs.
For example, a St. Paul man turned to an Illinois website after his neighborhood smoke shop stopped selling Black Mamba synthetic marijuana.
"I haven't been around drugs in so long I wouldn't know where to find real weed," said the 45-year-old customer, who asked not to be identified to avoid legal problems. "This was just easy."
When he placed an order with TobaccoGeneral (www.tobaccogeneral. com), he asked if his purchase was legal in light of Minnesota's ban. "All of our incenses are legal even after the new law went into effect," the website assured him in an e-mail he forwarded to the Star Tribune.
When the newspaper asked for an explanation, the website sent an e-mail that showed its operators hadn't kept up with the changing legal environment.
"Minnesota currently does not have any regulations against synthetic substances," TobaccoGeneral replied on Aug. 17 -- six weeks after the state's ban took effect.
Minnesota Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, who pushed for the state ban, said she knows it didn't shut down all synthetic drug sales to Minnesotans. But she said she's glad that many Minnesota retailers quit selling synthetic drugs after the new law took effect.
"At least this one avenue of availability has been cut off," Sieben said. "It was crazy to see it in gas stations in Minnesota."
Staff writer Pam Louwagie contributed to this report.
Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751