My Top Secret Meeting with One of Silk Road’s Biggest Drug Lords
Dread Pirate Roberts captained a ship that many thought was unsinkable. But when the FBI seized the original Silk Road on October 1, 2013 ,and arrested the alleged kingpin—29-year-old Ross Ulbricht—the online drugs empire began to capsize. Its hundreds of thousands of customers scattered across the Deep Web, and up to seven known Silk Road vendors were identified and arrested.
As the chaos unravelled into the mainstream and stories of Dread Pirate Roberts’ (DPR) alleged murder-for-hire antics made headlines, one prominent Silk Road drugs syndicate sat in their European safe-house with a ton of opium and a decision to make—would they cut their losses and disappear into the ether while they were still ahead, or keep their lucrative online drugs network running in the midst of all this extra attention?
The displaced drugs syndicate, known on the Deep Web as the Scurvy Crew (TSC), decided to go back to work. For them, back to work meant laundering Bitcoins, vacuum packing drug parcels, and jumping the Moroccan border with bags stuffed full of uncut drugs. Silk Road may have died a sudden death at the hands of the authorities, but as one of the highest rated vendors before the FBI shut-down, the Scurvy Crew saw its demise as an opportunity to diversify.
After six months of negotiation, via encrypted email and several phone calls from throwaway SIM cards, the boss of the Scurvy Crew agreed to meet me. He told me he would explain to me the inner workings of his Deep Web drugs venture, from its humble beginnings to the near million-dollar profits it now apparently generates. Known to me only by the pseudonym “Ace,” the boss claimed to represent a new breed of drug dealer.
“I don’t do this just for the money,” he wrote to me via email. “I like to provide a premium service.”
Smoking Coffee to Get High Will Make You Feel Like Shit
If you’re in the minority of teenagers without access to pot, you’re liable to do some pretty stupid shit to catch a buzz. Lately, the parent-fear-machine, aka the internet, has been ablaze with warnings about kids smoking coffee grounds. The side effects of ingesting caffeine in this fashion include convulsions, diarrhea, dizziness, hallucinations, vomiting, fever, and a bunch of other scary nonsense that has little to do with the method of ingestion. This potentially fake fad is nothing new; in 2011 a Reddit user outlined his experiences as a bean-head, and a post on Erowid from 2007 summed up the stupidest way to consume caffeine. Obviously, I had to try it out. Luckily for my dumb ass, my friend Elizabeth was there to both capture the magic and call an ambulance if I started hallucinating and shitting uncontrollably.
First we scoured YouTube for tutorials, and after stumbling across multiple videos of grade school-aged children rolling coffee joints using Post-It notes and cotton balls (unfortunately taken down), I realized that it was up to me to blaze the trail. As a veteran smoker, I started with the classic: a spliff.
I pulled out my coffee grinder, cigarettes, rolling papers, a cotton ball, and George W. & Laura Bush rolling tray, and I mixed a hefty portion of ground hazelnut flavored dark roast in with my tobacco. I managed to roll one of my least impressive spliffs to date, complete with a homemade filter, because despite the years of abuse my lungs have suffered in the name of “chillin’ balls”, I still wasn’t quite ready to subject them to something I had just watched a child almost vomit from without the benefit of a barrier.
Out on the balcony, I shouted “TURN UP!”, lit the tip, and took my first drag. I thought I could make out the faintest hint of hazelnut, but beyond the artificial flavoring, there wasn’t much of a difference from a regular cigarette. Perhaps I hadn’t used enough grounds. I rolled a second spliff with twice the fun, and went for a hefty pull, expecting to come up heaving. Surprisingly, the smoke came in smooth, although a bit bitter and lacking in any recognizable coffee taste. I felt stupid and Elizabeth asked if this was supposed to make me hallucinate. I didn’t think so, but I was truly hoping it would help clear a two-day blockage in my lower intestines. I felt a little lightheaded.
As any self-disrespecting toker, I was anxious to kick it up a notch, so I grabbed my vape pen and did my best to clean out the remaining wax before filling it up with some finely milled Turkish coffee my grandmother had given me before going on vacation. I hope she never reads this.
Like any good British girl, I can sit and down pills till the hallucinatory cows come home. But if I have to read one more nonsense story about some celebrity checking into rehab after trying one bump of coke, I’m actually going to break into the Daily Mail’s headquarters and shit and piss on their computers so that they can’t print any more fucking shit and piss about people taking drugs.
The English actor Michael Le Vell had a tough time last year. He was suspended from the soap opera, Coronation Street, while on trial for child sex charges and has since been found not guilty. Recently, he was suspended again after he admitted to doing coke—as in the refreshing white stuff, not the syrup that rots babies if you pour it over them. Michael told the Sunday Mirror that he first tried coke during the stressful lead up to his trial, “For a few brief minutes, the first time was a relief from everything that was going on. Afterwards I felt so ashamed and I never thought I’d do it again. But I did it once more after the trial… I never thought that I was the sort of guy who would like cocaine.”
Seriously, how much bullshit was that statement cut with? I don’t know, maybe Michael “I never thought that I was the sort of guy who would like cocaine” Le Vell really does look down on people who take drugs. Maybe he’s just playing sad boy for the media. Who knows? We’re about as capable of knowing how much crap his statement contains as we are of knowing how much levamisole was in last weekend’s bag of sniff. (Answer: always far, far too much.)
I have no doubt that Michael—and other recent cocaine apologists, such as Nigella Lawson, Demi Lovato, and Jim Davidson—have felt pain in their lives, and that truly sucks. But are we really supposed to believe that people only do coke when they’re in mourning, or in abusive relationships, or on trial for child-sex charges? Could it be that some people do a fat line of coke simply because they love a fat line of coke?
In the wake of the original Silk Road’s closure, everything became a little turbulent for its users. First, they had to get used to not getting high-quality, peer-reviewed drugs delivered direct to their sofas. (Though presumably they didn’t stop getting high, instead forced back to the “mystery mix” street dealers and surly ex-Balkan war criminals who have spent years filling cities with drugs at night.) Some users were pissed off that they’d lost all the Bitcoin wealth they’d amassed, or that paid-for orders would go undelivered, while small-time dealers freaked out about how they suddenly lacked the funds to pay off debts owed to drug sellers higher up the food chain.
Viable Silk Road replacements have been few and far between. Project Black Flag, one marketplace purportedly created to fill the void, appears to have been a scam. The site’s owner recently closed up shop and made off with a load of Bitcoins without sending any product out to customers. Another alternative, Sheep, has been plagued with security worries, with many vendors deciding to hold off until a more stable site is launched.
'Grand Theft Auto V' Is Going to Destroy My Social Life
Grand Theft Auto IV came out in the same week as my first and only (thus far) root canal. I had been prescribed Tylenol 3s, which I rationally mixed into my diet of purple kush and takeout. At the time I had a roommate, whose freeloader brother was sleeping on a couch in our basement while I was up all night playing GTAIV, one level above him. At one point, probably around five in the morning, he yelled up at me to keep it down and go to bed. So after hearing this complaint from a virtual stranger—who was couchsurfing at my house in the middle of one of my precious GTAIV sessions—I told him to fuck off. And that’s when I understood GTA’s grip on me.
If you’ve never played a Grand Theft Auto game, they are infinitely more addictive than basically any other video game that purports to have unlimited boundaries. While The Sims is a fun, family-friendly time where you can build yourself an in-ground pool, install a bar beside the diving board, get your Sims drunk, then send them for a drunken swim right before you remove the ladder and watch them drown in their own alcoholic misery—Grand Theft Auto provides an exponentially more insane set of circumstances for someone to cause digital mayhem.
The hemotoxins in a tree viper’s venom attack human blood cells and can result in an agonizing death in less than 30 minutes. The neurotoxins in a cobra bite can kill a person in half that time. So why has Steve Ludwin has been sticking all this lovely snake juice in a syringe and mainlining it for the last 20 years? Because he’s on a quest for immortality. Milking an array of deadly snakes including rattlesnakes and monocled cobras, with a few vipers thrown in the mix, Steve has been injecting what would for any normal human be fatal amounts venom into his body since the late 80s.
The basic principle—laid out by pioneer herpetologist Bill Haast, who died last year at the age of 100—is that regular exposure to the venom develops an immunity. Steve claims to never get ill, and that cobra venom is the ultimate pick-me-up, with effects lasting days after injecting, making Steve stronger, faster, and more resilient. And now, it looks like mainstream scientific research might be catching up.
British School Kids in Dubai Are Getting High on Butane (and Dying)
Remember being 15, not being able to buy weed, and getting turned down at every bodega you tried to buy beer at because your “European driving permit” didn’t stop you sounding like a choirboy on a rollercoaster? If you were opportunistic, you may have stolen your parents’ booze. If you had access to it, you may have bought some poppers or laughing gas and called it a (kind of half-assed, shitty) day.
In Dubai, however, access to all those things is somewhat restricted, so instead, ex-pat teens with a passion for temporarily altering their brain chemistry have taken to inhaling butane gas from cans of lighter fluid, because why the hell not? This may come as a shock, but huffing the noxious fumes of a highly flammable liquid isn’t particularly good for your health. It can freeze your lungs if you’re not careful and at least six ex-pat teenagers have died from it in the last few years. With access to any fun-inducing chemicals severely restricted out there, I suppose you take what you can get, but inhaling butane still seems like the dumbest thing imaginable.
To try to understand why people don’t just wait a couple of years to buy booze and not inhale deadly gas, I spoke to “Steph” (Dubai’s authorities aren’t that keen on drugs, so she didn’t want to share her real name), who lived in Dubai for three years, before leaving her parents and two sisters there to come back to the UK. One of her sister’s friends died a couple of years ago after inhaling butane gas.
Everything an ex-pat teenager in Dubai needs for a great night.
VICE: When did you first hear about this whole huffing butane thing? "Steph": The first time I saw it was when I was at my friend’s place in 2007. He went and sat in a store cupboard, did some butane and was just a mess after that. I guess the closest comparison you could make is to laughing gas, or something, but it lasts longer. You just stand there laughing and giggling and being confused. Your depth perception goes and you end up laughing at your hands a lot. Only, unlike laughing gas, it can kill you instantly, which isn’t a lot of fun. And it’s not subtle, either. Everyone on it looks so fucked—that horrible fucked where your eyes roll back into your head and you look like you’re going to die.
Sounds like fun. Is it only big with ex-pat kids who go to private school? As far as I know, yeah, because local kids can get hold of proper drugs and pretty much get away with whatever. If they get caught, they’ll just ring an uncle who knows someone, then everything’s fine. I think it’s because all these ex-pat kids, who could readily buy drugs in the UK, arrive in Dubai and realize they literally can’t get anything. So the easiest thing to get is a legal substance you can abuse. It’s definitely a teenage thing, though. My sister’s friend Anton—who died from huffing butane—was 16, and it definitely seems like something you stop doing when you’re 18, because you can go out to clubs around that age if you have fake ID and blonde hair.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Colombia is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, providing around 80 percent of the whole planet’s supply. In true entrepreneurial spirit, mom and pop coke shops, or “kitchens,” pepper the countryside, churning out 345 tons of the white stuff last year alone. As a commercially-minded fellow who understands the pitfalls of a consumer-driven culture and the importance of production, I decided to spend a day as an apprentice with a cook in the Colombian village of San Agustin.
Although San Agustin is only 200 miles from where I was staying in Ecuador, getting there took me two full days. In true South American tradition, my journey was colored with confusion and mishaps, including rain, mudslides, three-hour immigration lines, lack of tickets, unpaved mountain roads, and chicken buses with no suspension that came very close to cracking my tailbone.
When I arrived at my destination, however, all of those inconveniences seemed trivial. I was about to make some artisanal blow.
Some of the wildlife on Pedro’s property.
The proprietor of the cocaine factory’s name was Pedro. He greeted me warmly on a portion of his property that served as a coffee farm, and told me our class would last about two hours.
After a perfunctory glance at Pedro’s coffee field, I was led up to his ramshackle house, and into his cocina.
A heap of fresh green leaves sat atop a canvas bag on the table. They were so fresh that the fields they were picked from must have been very close. Not wasting any time, Pedro put a razor sharp machete in my hand and told me to start chopping.
Over vigorous hacking, Pedro’s story was revealed. He had learned his trade during eight years of service in a cocaine kitchen—a kitchen once visited by Pablo Escobar himself during a casual pickup of 70 kilos of pure cocaine, fresh off Pedro’s production line.
After the leaves were sufficiently minced, I was told it was time to add a binding agent. If he had asked me to guess what this agent would be, I would have said an egg, or something equally benign. I would have been wrong. Pedro pulled out a bag of cement, sprinkled it all over our wonderfully chopped leaves, and began to knead the dough by hand.