The freest: The beginnings of online drug culture

February 25, 2013

“If you tried ecstasy then you’d know why I did what I did!”

In 1997, journalist Jon Katz wrote an essay titled “Birth of a Digital Nation” in Wired magazine.

During the previous year, Bill Clinton had won the second term of his presidency in what Katz had hoped would be “the first wired election.” Although the internet failed to make a major impact during that cycle, Katz still looked on in amazement at the rise of the internet and wondered just how profoundly it would affect the world as it grew.

One episode that he hoped would be emblematic of the web’s new power was the defeat of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. When the CDA threatened to make “indecent language” a federal crime in order to protect children, the internet community was part of the push back that eventually saw key sections of the law struck down.

“The online world is the freest community in American life,” wrote Katz.

A few years earlier in 1993, Henry Edward Hardy wrote his master’s thesis at Grand Valley State University on the history of the net. In the introduction, he reflected on just what the net was:

The Net represents the growth of a new society within the old.

The Net represents a new model of governance.

The Net represents a threat to civil liberties.

The Net is the greatest free marketplace of ideas that has ever existed.

The Net is in imminent danger of extinction.

The Net is immortal.

A new culture was spawning from the “primordial digital muck” that would touch every facet of our lives, Katz mused, changing everything from economics to politics to freedom and the evolution of ideas. It seemed antithetical to what he had watched in the 1996 election.

“I couldn’t bear The New York Times pundits, CNN’s politico-sports talk, the whoring Washington talk shows, the network stand-ups,” he wrote. “Why attend to those tired institutions when what was happening on the monitor a foot from my nose seemed so much more interesting?”

For those who have grown up on the web, it’s easy to forget the scale of change that Katz (born in 1947) and others felt they were seeing when they looked to the future of the net. As Jon Katz watched a wave of unknowable size approach, he hoped for a tsunami.

In examining the reasons why the web might change the world, Katz identified what he saw as one of the common threads in the new digital culture: a distinct strain of non-partisan libertarianism. In particular, he noted how that strain was applied to recreational drugs such as pot and ecstasy. He wrote about discussions in mailing lists and newsgroups concluding that the war on drugs was a ludicrous failure and that radical solutions such as legalization were the generally agreed upon way forward.

The internet community’s ingrained disdain for the war on drugs and its affinity for some big libertarian ideas manifested itself in the birth and blossoming of online drug culture and then online drug trade. The digital highway (described in 1997 by Katz as the way information traveled down linked “Web sites, passed on to newsgroups, mailing lists, and computer conferencing systems”) provided an ideal new environment in which the trade could grow freely for some time.

Law enforcement had a relatively minimal presence in many online communities into the 1990s. Even when dealers and manufacturers were arrested and their actions explicitly connected to the internet, the police rarely if ever appreciated the full importance of the roles those online communities were already playing in drug culture.

Usenet is an early precursor to internet forums as we know them today. Established in 1979, the network supported newsgroups organized (over the years) into eight major groups known as hierarchies: comp, humanities, misc, news, rec, sci, soc and talk. These eight groups were governed under similar rules by administrators known as the backbone cabal who had a reputation for a heavy-handed governance. The cabal refused to allow groups focusing on taboo subjects such as sex or drugs. Other newsgroups existed outside of the big eight for various subjects such as specific products or nations but none attracted the audience that the eight did.

In 1987, the “alt” newsgroup was created as an alternative by John Gilmore (later a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Brian Reid. John was moved to launch the project when the cabal forbade him from creating a discussion group focused on drugs. Brian saw similar refusals when attempting to create a group discussing sex. Some time after the creation of alt.* and that refusal to create a sex-centric group, Brian Reid sent this now famous email to the cabal:

To end the suspense, I have just created alt.sex.
That meant that the alt network now carried alt.sex and
alt.drugs. It was therefore artistically necessary to create
alt.rock-n-roll, which I have also done. I have no idea what
sort of traffic it will carry. If the bizzarroids take it
over I will rmgroup it or moderate it; otherwise I will let
it be.

Brian Reid

Alt became popular immediately thanks to freewheeling discussion in alt.sex and, soon thereafter, alt.drugs became one of the most active groups.

Alt.drugs hosted a FAQ with the following introduction for newbies:

Welcome to alt.drugs.  This is a forum for the discussion generally
of recreational drugs.  To a large extent the traffic on this group deals
with both currently legal and illegal recreational drugs.  Discussions
commonly are concerned with both the psychological and chemical effects of
drugs, along with the social aspects of drug use.

The discussion about illegal drug use is frequently very
controversial. One item should be immediately cleared up:  It is *NOT* a
commonly espoused theme that irresponsible illegal drug use should be
*ENCOURAGED*, and the purpose of this list is not to encourage
irresponsible illegal (or legal) drug use.  The majority of people who
read alt.drugs, however, do generally condone legal or illegal drug use
provided it is done *RESPONSIBLY* and that means knowledgably.

Reflecting the level of demand, the first question in the FAQ was about how to buy illegal drugs.

“Don’t,” came the answer. “The network is scanned by authorities.”

While outright buying and selling was never the norm on alt.drugs, sales happened in private that were facilitated by the newsgroup. The groups of alt.drug.* became the focal point of online drug culture well into the 1990s as Usenet declined (see: Eternal September) and the commercial net rose, allowing access to the world outside of academia and industry. Textfiles.com has a long list of important and emblematic posts from the history of alt.drugs to give you an idea of what the place was like at its peak.

Here’s a sampling of threads available for reading:

  • absinthe.faq 20582 bFAQ: Absinthe, by Matthew John Baggott (March 2, 1993)
  • bad-trip-death 3159 STORY: A Bad Trip, A Small Death
  • cocainesyn.drg 11130 A Complete Guide to Manufacturing Cocaine
  • gor_growgde.drg 10847 Gorrila Growers Guide (For Beginners)
  • holland 7747 The Real Guide to Amsterdam from Martin Dunford and Jack Holland (Excerpts) (May 18, 1991)
  • picking.guide 24345 A Field Guide to the Psilocybin Mushroom (June 2, 1994)
  • crack.info 25311 Information about Freebasing Cocaine
  • mathematical-trees 3578 STORY: The Mathematical Trees

Alt.drugs never became an outright marketplace. However, the group did openly and prolifically produce what would become one of the most controversial aspects of online drug culture: detailed manufacturing guides known as cook books. Some of the most prized posts provided instruction on how to make MDMA, how to grow marijuana and how to produce a long list of other drugs ranging from popular to obscure. The guides were and are legally protected free speech in the United States, placing them outside of the reach of the legal and moral authorities.

Alt.drugs.chemistry was a particularly popular group within alt.drugs dedicated to clandestine chemistry.

One important member was known as Eluesis, the nickname of  then-anonymous Florida resident Jeffrey Jenkins. The name is a reference to a town in Ancient Greece whose famous religious festivals involved mind-altering substances and the honey from local bees, considered a divine insect revered in myth and ritual. This reference would become relevant later on.

safroleEleusis found alt.drugs.chemistry in 1994. From there, he dove into the science. A portion of his work is still available today.

“Organic chemistry intrigued me,” he wrote in his memoir. “It tempted me with its secret language of symbols, its demand for (nearly) blind faith in unseen collisions. MDMA intrigued me as well, with its strangely universal experience, its ability to make even the hardest soul empathic. I had tried neither organic chemistry nor MDMA, so I decided to try both.”

Eleusis became a prolific poster in the group, sharing his knowledge and experience while looking down upon those who used that information “for purely economic reasons.”

“You can see my struggling in practically every post I made,” he wrote, “the schizophrenic vacillations in tone between erudite dissertation and egomaniacal evisceration. Though I knew my posts would be put to use by those less scrupulous, I posted nonetheless for the benefit of those who were.”

I broke every rule in the book, and I did so knowingly. I ordered glassware from Aldrich with my real name and credit card. I ordered chemicals from all over with my real name and money orders. I had boxes shipped to my parents (and, later, my co-conspirator’s). I spent hundreds of hours in the library and posted everything I found that sounded remotely useful to the process of making MDMA. I conducted my experiments in a freakin’ apartment complex, of all places, but none of these mistakes got me busted.

I did all of this in blind faith because the first time I took MDMA was my own.

The story of Eleusis becomes more complicated after that. After a trip to Texas purchase chemicals for production (or, as he sarcastically puts it, “a bunch of fairly innocuous chemicals”), the shipping hit a snag and the chemicals never made it to his home. Convinced they’d be confiscated by the police, Eleusis publicly quit alt.drugs.chemistry, packed up his lab and anxiously awaited the arrival of the police.

Months passed but no sirens sounded.

Eleusis’s lab started again.

“I cranked out a 2000 dose batch of 2-CB and gave it all away. I mustered up a 16g batch of Mescaline and gave that away too. TMA, DMT, 4-Methylaminorex, et. Al., just to know that I could and to see what they were like.”

That’s when the DEA called. They had raided his parents’ home. After questioning him about the missing package and an ex-girlfriend of his now in custody, it was clear that he’d been busted.

“Consent was then asked for to search my apartment, under the threat that I would be arrested if I said no and they would get a warrant anyway,” wrote Eluesis. “I knew this would happen because of what POP-I had told me so I signed my life away. Agents were standing by at my apartment and busted in the door as soon as my pen hit the paper. I was cuffed and taken to my apartment to identify the contents as mine (a formality) and then I was taken to DEA Holding. Apparently seconds after I was taken away the reporters arrived. My driver’s license picture was on the 6:00 news. The entire block I lived on was evacuated. Rumors started flying and all of my friends, of which only a very few knew what I did, started calling each other.”

The DEA agent assigned to the case said it was “the most technologically advanced lab I have ever seen.”

“We’ve never seized a lab like this before,” said Sergeant Jose Penichet. According to articles in several Tampa Bay newspapers (such as the St. Petersburg Times and The Tampa Tribune), the lab was capable of producing “up to 2 ounces of methamphetamine or ecstasy a week”, “enough ecstasy to supply Southern Florida.”

His memoir is written in part from jail, a place “so fucking boring someone like me would go insane within weeks.”

The next morning I had my bond hearing in front of a Federal Magistrate. I was chained to two other people by the hands and feet. Reporters crowded the pews watching my every expression. My mother was there with one of her friends from work. At that moment I knew that I had truly fucked up big time; that I had let down every one that said I was a genius that could have done anything I put my mind to. What did my clever brain get me? Shackled to a health plan embezzler and an illegal alien bank robber.

A few details from the prosecution against Eluesis can be found in his memoir.

Hidden toward the end of the essay was the paragraph many alt.drugs.chemistry users were most curious about:

It is rather apparent from my interrogation and the investigation thus far that the DEA either *does not know about a.d.c.* or they *do not care*. Yes, friends, hard as it may be to believe, outside of the “did you get the recipe off the internet” question, they didn’t ask me jack shit about the net.

In 1998, Eluesis was sentenced to six years in federal prison. He was released in 2002.

The growing list of guides and FAQs put together byt alt.drug’s population amounted to a significant knowledge base of immense value to chemists looking to cut out the middle men and produce drugs with cutting edge techniques.

As alt.drugs and all of Usenet declined in the mid-1990s, the online drug community moved on towards standalone websites and forums. This marks the beginning of a fracturing in the online drug community that continued for over a decade, reversed only recently to a significant extent by the unprecedented rise of Silk Road.

In 1997, one of the most significant heirs to the alt.drugs community came into existence: the-hive.ws.

hivess

The purpose of the Hive was to provide a place in which the “bees” could discuss home chemistry. From the topic at hand to the specific users discussing it, the Hive was a direct descendant of the alt.drugs.chemistry newsgroup.

“The Hive was a forum dedicated to the hypothetical synthesis of drugs, and other chemicals,” wrote user HeyDude.

The “hypothetical” use was, of course, instruction for the real production of illegal recreational drugs, just as it had been in the Usenet days. Along the same lines, the acronym SWIM (someone who isn’t me) was born on the site to half-jokingly throw authorities off.

The site was founded in 1997 by an anonymous user named Strike. “[Strike] wrote 2 books,” HeyDude continued. “Total Synthesis 1 & 2, and Sources, which were basically the first MDMA cook books.” Strike himself described Total Synthesis 2 as “the most comprehensive and detailed book on the underground production of ecstasy and amphetamines ever published.”

You could reach Strike at Strike_knows_X@msn.com but he was notorious for too rarely answering emails.

Whereas the Total Synthesis books were top-of-the-line cook books, Sources listed “nearly every place in the world that sells chemicals, equipment, glassware, essential oils, and aromatic chemicals” after being personally interviewed and scrutinized by Strike. The author promised customers that the sources would provide home chemists with the materials they needed to create their drug of choice. Strike’s favorite choice by far was MDMA, “the most benign drug [I have] ever encountered.”

The books retailed for around $30 on release. Today, they can sell for much more.

As The Hive and Strike’s fame grew, he was described as a “cult hero” in the drug community, a man whose online “swagger” was “like a pirate on the high seas,” said journalist John Larson on Dateline NBC in as menacing a voice as he could muster. Strike was fond of referring to himself in the third person, projecting a persona of supreme, over-the-top self-confidence in his online activity. He was “an ecstasy and amphetamine chemist from Texas that used to be very frustrated by the lack of basic chemical information about ecstasy, and other psychedelic amphetamines,” reads a 1999 introduction to the site.

Strike provided day-to-day guidance for fellow chemists on subjects such as where to buy equipment and specific recipes for kitchen chemists of every stripe. For most chemists, this was a difficult task. Chemical companies were obligated by law to check into customers who were buying the sort of chemicals that Hive users purchased. To skirt potentially dangerous questions, Strike pointed most bees toward Science Alliance, a Humble, Texas-based chemical company that, he said, would sell the goods with no strings attached.

By early 2000, after three years at the help, Strike had ostensibly retired from the Hive. He posted the following message on the Hive in February 2000:

Listen, I don’t want to preach but just lay it to you straight. Strike has been doing things lately that are above-board assaults on the drug war. Primarily Strike has joined a group called the November Coalition that some nice person clued me to in an email (emails: those things Strike[<-bastard] never answers). Apart from the usual objectives they are attacking the one thing that sickens Strike most of all: Manditory Minimum Sentencing and the horrors they cause.

The Hive became known nationally in 2001 after a major broadcast on American television news. A ten month long investigation into the site and its users by Dateline NBC began when they obtained tapes by a group of college students documenting hours of ecstasy use, partying, talk and, most damning of all, the illegal purchase of industrial-strength lab equipment and wide-scale production of the drug.

The Dateline investigation is featured below. The first part has bugged video (the audio is fine) but is worth watching. The remaining four videos should be fine.

 





Strike, revealed to be Hobart Huson on that episode of Dateline, was directing Hive users to buy his books, equipment and “precursor chemicals” from his own company (Science Alliance, co-owned by Darren Harlow who said he ran the business side while Hobart dealt with the chemistry). Huson, the revered chemist and underground icon, was shown to be an a poor liar forced to come to terms with his being caught while the cameras rolled and the melodramatic music played.

Viewers — Hive members and the entire audience — were shocked at Strike’s choices on that day. Why would Huson agree to an interview with NBC? When asked about Strike sending customers his way, why would he say something like “I’m going to beat him up if I find him”? Why would he have a bee stuffed animal sitting on top of his computer monitor while NBC peppered him with questions about the Hive?

“I think Strike was a tiny bit arrogant, a tiny bit willing to show off what he was part of and what he’d done,” wrote Von Bass. “To be honest, I sympathise with him, to a person with his mind set creating and organising the hive and undertaking various synthetics where really something to be proud of. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t tricked and taken advantage of by the reporters.”

Science Alliance grossed $450,000 in 2000 with a profit of over $100,000 according to court documents. Huson and Harlow both took home $50,000 salaries (which, Hobart insisted, “I paid taxes on!”). The rest of the balance was invested back into the business. In 2001, the pair were expecting $60,000 salaries. Huson told the police that he shipped about 15 orders of chemicals and equipment per day on average. His trio of books grossed about $15,000 per year, money that he said helped him and his family live.

“There were 3 members of The Hive featured in that story,” explained user HeyDude. “One was Spitball, who got arrested in 2000 for MDMA/meth manufacturing. He got sentenced to 16 years in federal prison, due to some junkie bitches informing on him to cop a lighter sentence. He’s the guy whom the stupid chemistry students are filming when they purchased the 22L flask, the 11 litres of safrole for $2000. The other member was phas3d, whom was filming Spitball in the garage. And of course, Strike. It’s a stupid show that Strike got busted for. If he wasn’t so fucking stupid, he’d be a free man. Instead, hes spent a good 8 years in jail.”

The college students busted on Dateline weren’t the only ones caught producing illegal drugs with Huson’s help. Most notably, a California drug ring was busted in 2001 and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2005. The group, based in Escondido, California, were allegedly customers and students of Strike’s.

The process sometimes broke down. At one point, a chemical reaction went on too long and yielded a solid that gummed up some equipment. But the biggest problem they [the Escondido operation] had was efficiency, according investigators. They weren’t making enough Ecstasy to make a profit, and they needed to tweak the chemistry to increase their yields.

As they refined the process, they relied on Hobart Huson, who wrote three books on drug manufacturing under the pseudonym “Strike,” to supply some of their chemicals.

“Huson was arrested in Texas on drug conspiracy charges in October 2001 [at age 33] after Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided a drug lab in southern California as part of an operation called XXX,” wrote the Associated Press. Speaking to the high level at which they group operated and inadvertently tipping their hat to the Hive’s highly sophisticated knowledge base, the report stated “the laboratory was one of the largest and most sophisticated Ecstasy labs ever identified.”

After Huson’s products were, according to police, found in illegal drug labs from Oregon to Atlanta, he was convicted in 2003 and remained incarcerated until June 2009.

When interviewed by the police in May 2001, Huson praised ecstasy, going so far as to say he couldn’t understand “tweakers” and why they would do meth. He criticized what he saw as harsh drug laws, acknowledging his activism and proselytizing against the war on drugs. When the police asked Huson about users who had slipped into comas as a result of his products, Huson said only that, as far as he knew, the people had recovered. A detective asked Huson if it bothered him that his books were being used to teach the manufacturing of ecstasy.

“No! If you tried ecstasy then you’d know why I did what I did!”

Huson had one request of the police.

Huson suddenly exclaimed, “Oh shit!” Detective Toulouse inquired of Huyson what the problem was. Huson asked Detected Toulouse if he (Huson) could wash his dishes  at his apartment before he was taken away to jail. He then explained that he had been contemplating “this day” (referring to being arrested) for some time. He said he always tires to clean his dishes every day because “I thought I might be arrested”. He said his dirty dishes were his barbecue dishes and he had forgotten to clean them that morning. He then referred to his prior arrest and stated that he was allowed to clean his dishes while they were searching his apartment.

Operation Triple X was publicly announced by the DEA three days after Huson’s arrest, five months after he was initially interviewed.

On October 18 and 19, 2001, DEA agents, primarily from the San Diego Division, successfully completed Operation Triple X. The action dismantled a major methamphetamine and MDMA (Ecstasy) drug lab in Escondido, California. During the two-day takedown, 20 people were arrested for their participation in the trafficking organization that was capable of producing millions of Ecstasy tablets. Operation Triple X got its name from the “XXX” logo imprinted on some of the Ecstasy tablets produced by the organization.

The success of the operation was the result of tremendous assistance provided by numerous DEA field offices throughout the country, as well as state and local law enforcement agencies that provided intelligence and support.

Huson was charged with providing the California labs with “chemicals and glassware used to manufacture controlled substances, including Ecstasy,” prosecutors said.

“This clearly was a very sophisticated, clandestine operation,” said U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Whelan during the hearing.

Who else was involved in the Hive?

One theory from user alyssaiactaest wonders about how big a role Eluesis played in the founding of the Hive. The iconic member of alt.drugs.chemistry had a name taken from an ancient festival centered around bees, suggesting a connection to the Hive and its symbolism. Many of alt.drugs.chemistry’s users moved directly to the Hive.

Eluesis was known throughout the Hive community and his memoirs were prominently linked to from the front page of the Hive in 1998 (the year he was sent to prison). The memoirs were then titled “THE HIVE CHEMIST.” Underneath that link sat this: “There is a new chemist in town (or is it an old one?). The Hive proudly welcomes a new ally to the site. Click on the above link to go the site of a chemist who’s knowledge far exceeds our own!”

HIVECHEM

Eluesis’s memoir recounts an important trip he took to Texas (Strike’s state) to purchase production chemicals in 1994. Eluesis also admitted to pretending to being the man behind multiple prominent users on a.d.c., demonstrating how plausible it was for him to slip into other online identities.

Strike was the founder and face of the Hive but, despite his absence, the site continued to grow to thousands of users. Other administrators, most notably Rhodium, took the helm.

“As someone who visited the place almost daily from its beginning,” wrote phase_dancer, “I can say that while Strike played a big part in the beginning, in the last years it was Rhodium and other admin who made the place what it was at its peak. Very few Hive posters know what happened to Rhodium.”

Much of Rhodium’s vast archives remain available today on sites such as Erowid and Drugs-Forum.com. His or her identity remains a mystery. In an interview with police, Huson said he thought Rhodium was “a very good chemist from a foreign country,” he thought Sweden. Thomas Lillius, former owner of a Swedish chemicals company and accused by the DEA of instructing several alleged chemists caught by Operation Triple X, is one much-discussed candidate for the man behind Rhodium, a figure still revered today. Lillius was not arrested in Operation Triple X due to extradition laws. He remains at large today.

The Hive was taken down due to unspecified “server problems” in 2004. While material from users such as Rhodium remain publicly available online, the forum’s complete archives are not available.

One site, TorDrugResource, contains incomplete but significant archives of the Hive’s forums.

Rumors circulate that old administrators possess the complete knowledge base including private, holding it for private use. It is not known if the complete archives still exist a decade after the site’s demise.

When the Hive was taken down, online drug culture fractured further into a multitude of then-smaller sites.

“There’s more then one forum where most of the old bees fled when the hive got sprayed;” wrote user Doctor War, “but if you’re looking for more info about strike you won’t find much – the majority of those who were active users at the time tend to keep quiet because the less associated you were with all that the better – Shit went down, and those who wanted to stay free and uninvestigated, did so. And they usually try not to mention the good/bad old days except in private to those who were there with them – Keeps the scene tight-knit, means you know who you’re talking to to some extent. Anyone who needs to know, already does :).”

“methamphetamine people went to www.wetdreams.ws and the MDMA cooks went to www.drug-forums.com,” wrote supdoods. “There’s also ChemHead which is like wetdreams and another MDMA cooking website.”

The exodus included bees heading to sites such as “L.Tips at times, there was also Synthetikal,” wrote BongTech.

The diaspora continued for a decade. Drug marketplaces began to establish themselves online at the turn of the century but, due in large part to poor security, they never held their beachheads for long. The most significant reversal of fortune for online drug marketplaces has been the Silk Road.

Today, rumors of a reborn but hidden Hive pop up with some regularity around the web. Where are you, bees?

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