A growing number of tech-savvy Australian teenagers are turning to the dark web to buy illicit drugs using cryptocurrency. As authorities scramble to combat the trade, parents are speaking out about the devastating impact online drugs can have on families
Edward* was just 13 years old when he first used the dark web to buy drugs.
A student at one of Canberra’s most elite private schools, he used cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Monero to purchase vast amounts of illicit substances.
"The first thing I ordered from the deep web was a letter of 30 pills. The guy actually messed up my order so he sent me 14 grams of ketamine instead by accident which was worth a lot more, so I was happy with that."
For over two years, Edward ordered drugs like MDMA, LSD and speed, which were delivered in letters and parcels to his home.
Now 15 years old, Edward has developed a drug addiction.
He had to be taken to hospital after overdosing on a cocktail of illegal drugs he bought online.
His mother Mary*said she had no idea he was using drugs, and felt like she was failing as a parent when she learnt of the full extent of his activities.
“I thought my own son was just gaming with friends. I had no idea that behind his door in his room he was doing drug deals on the web."
While Edward’s life was saved, others aren't so lucky.
Greg Skelly's son Daniel died in 2013 at just 21 years old.
The promising engineering student had been buying cocaine, marijuana and opioids via the infamous Silk Road site, which has since been shutdown by the FBI.
Mr Skelly says he learnt of Daniel's death while on holidays with his wife in Vietnam.
"Unless you've lost a child, you have no idea what it’s like. It's the exact reversal of how things should be. It just makes the world a very dark place, sometimes for a very long time.”
He argues that for those of an older generation, it's difficult to comprehend the size of the dark web.
"Daniel procured his drugs from Silk Road. There are many sites. They're in Russia, China, God knows where they are. It was like the Amazon of drugs. He and a few friends were all doing it, and selling it to each other. You can get anything you want, it's user-rated. It looks like a big Amazon department store."
A common occurrence in Australia
New South Wales Police Detective Inspector Gordon Arbinja says the problem of Australian teenagers buying drugs on the dark web has been rapidly developing over the last decade.
“It's been exponential in its growth. This basically started after Bitcoin came out after 2009, and then dark market soon after. It is easier for the children to buy these drugs because they use the anonymity of the internet.”
The problem has become so pervasive authorities across the country have been forced to increase their resources to fight crime on the dark web, with New South Wales Police even establishing a dedicated Cybercrime Squad.
Detective Inspector Arbinja says the war against drugs is no easier to fight online than it is on the streets.
"This is a borderless crime type so we're dealing with cross borders, we're dealing with laws that vary from state to state and internationally, and that's the difficulties, and this is why there has to be cooperation between all law enforcement."
Cryptocurrency exchanges are also bolstering safeguards to prevent children from using Bitcoin that can be traded on the dark web.
Professor Talis Putnis from the University of Technology Sydney explains.
“To open a bank account I have to provide a lot of identification documents that have to get verified, so the bank knows who it is that they're dealing with. And similar requirements have been imposed on cryptocurrency exchanges, which makes it more difficult for say a juvenile to go and buy Bitcoin."
Even so, Greg Skelly warns drugs remain just a few clicks away for tech-savvy teens and urges parents to be more vigilant.
"You are not their friend, you are their parent. You have your own friends, they have theirs. I know you love them and they love you. But they're kids and they are going to do what their friends are doing. That's my advice from a man with a broken heart."
*Certain names of people in this story have been changed to protect their identities.