IT CAME IN A PLAIN BROWN WRAPPER - two varieties of high-grade marijuana totaling a quarter-ounce, delivered to a downtown San Francisco office building via regular mail. The pot had been ordered off a Web site in Amsterdam, which is designed to look just like a Dutch coffee shop menu. The site offers two types of weed and five types of hash, all pictured and listed on a pull-down order form with boxes to let buyers specify how many grams of each kind they want. After ordering, customers receive an e-mail with an address on it. They're instructed to send cash.
Of course, buying marijuana online is illegal. But enforcing marijuana prohibition online isn't easy, especially when sellers live in countries with more tolerant drug laws, like the Netherlands. Even harder to detect is the flourishing online seed trade, because packages of pot seeds are undetectable by customs' drug dogs. The result is that the Internet, which for years has been making national borders increasingly porous, is slowly helping to subvert marijuana prohibition.
"The government is going to learn what the music industry is learning. The Net is a wall buster," says technology journalist Jon Katz, who wrote the Netizen column for Hotwired and who now writes for the tech news site Slashdot.
"It's not policeable. There are not enough cops in the world to monitor all the communications and digital commerce that's going on. The effort to control the flow of drugs into the U.S. is a complete failure with or without the Internet. The Internet is just going to make it harder. There are millions of new ways for consumers and retailers to find each other. The DEA can sniff all the packages it wants, but it can't make more than a fraction of a dent in the business."
The online marijuana business is just the latest example of ways the Internet has made national borders amorphous and national laws hard to enforce. The wide distribution of prescription drugs online without prescriptions is well-documented but difficult for the government to fight, especially with Internet doctors willing to write virtual prescriptions after brief questionnaires. There are dozens of online overseas pharmacies that will ship drugs that are controlled in the United States but not abroad.
Online gambling also thrives. Though a congressional commission recently recommended a ban on Internet gaming, they couldn't come up with a viable way to enforce it.
Writes Declan McCullagh in Wired News: "The commission identified overseas betting sites as a major problem. Such sites are often located in countries that license those businesses, as the state of Nevada does for physical casinos. The group appears to have recognized that the only way to stop eager Americans from connecting to offshore sites would be to censor all overseas links, much as Singapore and China do when restricting access to information that their governments find objectionable. The report notes that such a law 'may be easily circumvented.' "
The same is true, it seems, for marijuana law.
Even if digital dealers are caught, the Drug Enforcement Administration has no jurisdiction outside the United States. Not that it's admitting powerlessness.
"In cooperation with authorities in other countries, we can arrest and extradite dealers," says Evelyn James, DEA special agent and public information officer. Dutch police have shut down marijuana Web sites, usually at the request of foreign governments.
Nevertheless, the possibility of legal trouble doesn't much worry Joey Phdfort, a 35-year-old Amsterdam man who runs a Web site where people from around the world can order weed.
"I live in the Netherlands, where cannabis is allowed. I do nothing wrong," he says.
Phdfort, who is suffering from liver cancer, believes he is doing humanitarian work. "In Holland, doctors give cancer patients cannabis and it helps. I can help other people who need it also. Most of the people who are buying from me are ill. Most of them have cancer themselves. That is why they buy it on the Internet. If somebody is 40 or 50 years old, how can he buy it if the government won't allow it? If you are sick and you need it and you know that it helps, why not?"
Phdfort says that he used to send out 1,000 packages a week, but now that his sickness has progressed, he has time to serve only a few dozen regular customers, making about 25 mailings a week. Customs, he says, is rarely a problem -- he estimates that 99 percent of the marijuana he sends out makes it to its addressee intact.
Recipients in the United States are obviously subject to our drug laws, but although importing drugs is a federal crime, buyers are unlikely to face penalties much stiffer than they would for possession of the same amount in their city and state.
"The whole purpose for having federal law enforcement as opposed to state, county or municipal law enforcement is so that we can most efficiently and effectively utilize taxpayer resources. It is not appropriate for federal-level resources to be used to prosecute someone in possession of one joint," says the DEA's Evelyn James. "That does not mean we won't arrest you and prosecute you through the state system. If you're using the mail, that's a separate crime that you can be charged with."
But the Postal Inspection Service, the government agency in charge of investigating crimes involving the mail, is also unlikely to throw the book at minor buyers, especially sick ones.
"If a Web site is in Amsterdam, we don't have any jurisdiction there," says Postal Inspector Linda Joe. "If marijuana does come here and if customs doesn't catch it and we do, then of course we'll seize it. There we run into the issue of whether it will be prosecuted. That varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Sometimes the U.S. attorney's office doesn't want to prosecute, but a local D.A. will.
"It would depend on the quantity of drugs and how often a person had been receiving them."
Rather than buying actual marijuana online, some people are purchasing seeds from one of the dozens of flourishing online seed banks based both in the Netherlands and Canada, where possession of pot seeds is legal.
The seed trade is thriving because seeds, tiny and odorless, are easy to ship, and because selling seeds is more profitable than selling actual marijuana.
"In the economics of marijuana, cultivating for seeds is a better industry than cultivating for bud," says John Entwistle, legislative analyst for Californians for Compassionate Use, a medical marijuana lobbying group.
There's even a guide for seed banks where online seed stores are rated for reliability, speed of delivery and convenience of ordering. Here you can learn which sites take checks, which take money orders at no extra charge and which provide free shipping. Additionally, the Web master warns users against sites known to burn would-be buyers.
Even those involved in the fight for marijuana legalization caution against buying anything illegal through the Internet.
"We have run several messages on our Web site saying that one of the stupidest things you can do is buy pot through the Internet. It's even riskier than going up to somebody in the street," says John Holmstrom, multimedia director for High Times magazine.
"Who knows who's behind the Web site? What if it's a government agency and they're keeping a list of everyone they're sending pot to?"
Suspicions run especially high around sites that offer to ship marijuana domestically, because people worry that such sites are government sting operations. Arizona Company Medical, for example, is a pot Web site registered to an address in Anaheim, Calif. It's run by Anaheim resident Mike Aranov, who refused to answer questions except to say that this site ships to people throughout the country, which is, obviously, illegal.
Online buyers must also be wary of scams. Seed buyers tend to protect themselves by constantly exchanging information, but those who actually order pot online are less likely to 'fess up to it.
"Most of my clients have been ripped off many times on the Internet before they came to me," says Phdfort. "There's a lot of scum on the Internet."