Marijuana’s Lawless Online Frontier

Abby Haglage on the foreign-based sites selling marijuana to Americans—and why they’re getting away with it.

“I’m not a criminal. I just really like smoking pot,” says Nick, a 24-year-old web developer in Washington, D.C.

After years of buying marijuana from drug dealers, Nick decided a few weeks ago that growing his own weed would not only be more cost effective, but safer. “I just wanted to take control of the situation and remove myself from the black market” he explains. “I’m tired of texting with drug dealers. It’s super shady.”

Spending an hour researching online, Nick (not his real name) purchased five “Big Buddha Blue Cheese” seeds—which promised to grow into a plant with “fruity characteristics” and “heavy high.” Less than a week after placing the order, which Nick admits made him a bit uneasy (“I had to give my credit card number, address, everything”), he received a small package in the mail. Inside the blank DVD case it held, he found a blank disc. Underneath it, his seeds. Still educating himself on the best method for growing them in his apartment, Nick hasn’t yet planted the Big Buddhas. But even when he does, he won’t be worried about getting caught. “I don’t see myself getting arrested,” he says. “I’m just not that important.”

Nor, it appears, is the world of online cannabis seed sales he is now a part of. Despite an apparent role in the high-profile case of Andrea Sanderlin, the 45-year-old “Scarsdale Pot Mom” who pleaded guilty this month to running a multi-million-dollar marijuana operation from her suburban New York home, a small cottage industry of foreign-operated websites that blatantly advertise and sell cannabis seeds to American clients has been allowed to flourish with few signs of interference from the DEA, the federal agency that lists marijuana as a Schedule I prohibited substance.

Sanderlin, who was nabbed growing some 2,800 plants worth about $3 million, is thought to have used the website WeedPortal.com, but she had plenty of options. There’s also WorldHerbal.com, SeedBay.com, Nirvana.com, and others. The sites are often based in the U.K. and the Netherlands.

In stark contrast to the DEA’s recent participation in a crackdown on the drug trafficking site Silk Road—an operation spearheaded by the FBI that has resulted in eight user arrests so far—the feds’ tolerance for users of these online retailers suggests that even the drug warriors themselves are changing their tune on marijuana.

Silk Road, of course, made sites like WeedPortal.com look like child’s play. Silk Road sold everything from heroin to methamphetamine, traded in an anonymous virtual currency called bitcoins, and counted nearly one million registered users. WeedPortal.com and its brethren only sell cannabis seeds, accept credit cards, and don’t guarantee anonymity, as Sanderlin’s case illustrates. WeedPortal.com, founded in June 2010, has only 5,000 registered users.

The DEA can’t necessarily prosecute the founder of WeedPortal.com., who lives and works in the Netherlands, for shipping cannabis seeds to America. What it can do is crack down on Americans buying them. Skimming a plethora of responses on weed website forums, it appears that they seldom do. “Confiscation is rare,” one user writes. “The sheer amount of mail makes it practically impossible to have anyone in customs to notice anything.” Those that are caught often receive nothing more than a letter saying their seeds have been confiscated.

The message: a website secretly selling cocaine is worth tackling. One openly selling marijuana? Perhaps not.

“It is illegal to possess and to sell marijuana seeds, period,” Dawn Dearden, a spokesperson for the DEA tells The Daily Beast. “If you’re purchasing them from a foreign country, it is illegal to import them into the U.S.” she continues. But in a follow-up email about how, with this knowledge, the DEA allows websites that openly sell cannabis seeds to Americans to continue to operate, Dearden is tight-lipped. “I can't confirm or deny whether we have or had investigation into a company or person.” Without a press release, she says, there’s “nothing else to say.”

Advocates of marijuana legalization are heartened by this lack of teeth. Many also see it as part an inevitable path toward complete decriminalization.

“I think it should be legal,” says Tim Bingham, an independent drug researcher and consultant who has published research on Silk Road. “Many people would prefer to grow their own cannabis and therefore know exactly what’s in it,” Bingham says, a decision he considers a smart one. “We have seen a significant increase in synthetic cannabis which is more harmful…resulting in more harm to individuals through overdoses and psychotic episodes,” he explains. “Online shopping adds some guarantee of the product—on some sites, not all.”

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Mark Kleiman, the UCLA public policy professor tasked with overseeing Washington state’s marijuana legalization, says the unfettered existence of websites like WeedPortal.com signals the end of an era. “This is the process by which cannabis prohibition has collapsed,” he says. “I think we’re now in the endgame.” For the first time, the majority of Americans agree. A Pew Center national survey published in April found that 52 percent of Americans believe marijuana use should be made legal, the first time in more than four decades that it has reached this level, suggesting that a nationwide legalization of marijuana is just around the corner.

The statistics for marijuana prosecutions, however, suggest the opposite.

In 2012, 48 percent of the more than one million drug arrests were for marijuana, according to data published by the FBI. Out of those 2012 marijuana arrests (749,825, exactly) 87 percent were for possession alone. Classified in the Schedule I Category, which the DEA defines as substances that “have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse,” marijuana is considered just as dangerous as drugs like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy.

But as the Drug Policy Alliance, a national non-profit with the goal of ending the “War on Drugs,” explains on its website, the classification is not only outdated—but false. There is proof that marijuana is successful in treating a variety of medical conditions. There is none that it increases traffic accidents or fatalities, causes long term cognitive impairment, or leads to clinical dependence.

As for WeedPortal.com, after I exchanged emails with the founder of the site, who said he was considering giving a comment for this story, the website shut down, and he stopped answering. Now it’s gone black, with a disclaimer that says it’s "undergoing maintenance." Perhaps it is. Or perhaps when I dropped the word “legal,” the people behind WeedPortal.com got spooked.

The point is, maybe they shouldn't be.