The New York Times
Friday, June 20, 1997
pages A1,A9

A Seductive Drug Culture Flourishes on Internet

by Christopher S. Wren

Even as parents, teachers and government officials urge adolescents to say no to drugs, the Internet is burgeoning as an alluring bazaar where anyone with a computer can find out how to get high on LSD, eavesdrop on what it is like to snort heroin or cocaine, check the going price for marijuana or copy the chemical formula for methamphetamine, the stimulant better known as speed.

Teen-agers need only retreat to their rooms, boot up the computer and click on a cartoon bumblebee named Buzzy to be whisked on line, through a graphic called Bong Canyon, to a mail-order house in Los Angeles that promises the scoop on "legal highs", "growing hallucinogens", "cannabis alchemy", "cooking with cannabis", and other "trippy, phat, groovy things".

Or they can download advice on cultivating marijuana plants from the Web page of HempBC, a store in Vancouver, British Columbia, that offers "everything marijuana- and hemp-related: bongs to books, clothes to cosmetics and more", including an assortment of hemp and marijuana seeds.

"Anybody can set up a Web site", said John Holmstrom, publisher of High Times, a monthly magazine that has celebrated the marijuana culture for more than two decades and created a site of its own on the World Wide Web two years ago. "There are hundreds of pro-marijuana sites out there. I can't keep track of them."

Alarms have rung in Congress and around the country about the risks that online pornography pose to the young. But few such warnings sound for what has become a virtual do-it-yourself guide to drug use, at a time when adolescents' experimenting is on the rise.

"We're really losing the war on the Internet", said Kellie Foster, a spokeswoman for the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, which hopes to establish its own Web site next month. "We've got to get out there, and we're not."

The audience is certainly there. The Center for Media Education, a Washington group that monitors quality on the Internet, reports that nearly 5 million children from 2 to 17 years of age used online services in 1996 and that more than 9 million college students use the Internet regularly.

"We really are witnessing the development of the most powerful medium that has ever existed, in terms of its ability to attract and interest young people", said Jeff Chester, the center's executive director.

The drug culture on the Internet has proliferated in several ways. One is in the tolerance or outright endorsement of illegal drugs, especially marijuana, in online forums and chat groups. Another is in explicit instructions for growing, processing and consuming drugs.

Critics like Gen. Barry McCaffrey, retired, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, say they also detect a campaign on the Internet to undercut the government's anti-drug policies by generating the appearance of rising grass-roots sentiment for modifying or scrapping drug laws.

"We say in a democracy that good ideas will drive out bad ones", McCaffrey said in a telephone interview. "So if the good ones aren't there, we're left with the bad ones."

"The question", he said, "is not whether they have right to put this kind of material out in the debate of ideas. The question is, Do parents, teachers, coaches and ministers understand that this information is out there?"

The indications are that they do not. Because they are less computer-literate than their children, many adults have no clue that their warnings against illegal drugs can be eclipsed by a few keystrokes.

And, partly owing to free-speech protection, the Internet lacks a quality control mechanism to separate fact from hyperbole or from outright falsehood, even in discussion that may ultimately encourage an activity that remains illegal, for Americans of all ages.

Online testimonials make recreational drugs sound like fun.

Tripping out on LSD, a high school student reported, "was one of the coolest things I've ever done".

A frequent snorter of cocaine said, "I always enjoy the first toot", adding: "I can place a phone call and within an hour get it delivered. It's as routine as coffee in the morning. And just about as necessary."

There has even been a chat group for people "thinking of trying heroin".

That kind of talk would be nothing new to a high school or college bull session, but face-to-face contact can help adolescents evaluate a speaker's credibility. The anonymity of online discussion, in contrast, tends to make even outlandish statements seem credible to impressionable young eavesdroppers.

A connection among young people, drugs and the Internet was noticed by Walter Shultz, the campus safety coordinator for a suburban school district near Pittsburgh, who says he discovered numerous online promotions of local "raves" -- all-night dance parties -- where designer stimulants like "cat" and "special-K" were popular.

"There's no doubt in my mind that they have information on illegal drugs and supply" through the Internet's links, Shultz said. "Some of those take you into places where you wouldn't want a child to go."

The online tolerance of drugs is in part a reflection of the nature of Web discourse.

"The online world is the freest community in American life", Jon Katz wrote in the April issue of Wired, a magazine that analyzes the Internet. "Its members can do things considered unacceptable elsewhere in our culture."

That includes challenging any assumption that drug use is wrong.

"I'd have to agree that the status quo folks are pretty much being hammered", said Mark Greer, a director of the Media Awareness Project, which uses the Internet to lobby for the weakening or repeal of drug laws. "They don't seem to even be trying to compete with us on the Web."

"There are a lot of people", Greer said, "who have just had it with the prohibitionist mentality. This is an outlet where you can put in your time and really make a difference."

Robert Curley, a freelance writer and consultant on Internet use, estimates that three-quarters of the online voices speaking about drugs favor some kind of legalization.

"They definitely control the discussion on the Internet", Curley said. "The pro-legalization people are light-years ahead of the anti-legalization people."

One group, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, has been working on line since 1993 to change drug laws, although its founder, David Borden, distances its campaign from unabashed proselytizing like that of High Times.

"While we're friendly with them", Borden said, "we want to stay away from anything seen as promoting the use of drugs."

In a report last March, the Center for Media Education accused alcohol and tobacco companies of promoting their products on the Internet with "captivating, fun, interactive sites that are very appealing to under-age youth." Other critics are saying the same thing about Web sites that promote marijuana with a sassiness that leaves sober arguments against drug use looking pallid.

David L. Rosenbloom, president of Join Together, a Boston organization that helps community groups fight drug and alcohol abuse, says marketers of marijuana seeds and drug paraphernalia are copying the alcohol and tobacco companies, which promote their products through glitzy Web sites that have featured croaking Budweiser frogs and a Camel cigarette Party Zone.

"Sophisticated graphics make a difference", Rosenbloom said. "It's more powerful than television and radio, because it is interactive."

Holmstrom, of High Times, says the monthly number of electronic visits to his magazine's Web site has doubled since last December. Now, he said, "we are averaging 200,000 home page visitors a month."

High Times dispenses an array of online advertising and other services that Holstrom says have turned a profit, like coaching on how to beat a drug test. The best of the tips are left to a related telephone service, a call to which costs $1.95 a minute.

A survey that the magazine conducted among its Web site visitors found that 85 percent were male, 43 percent were full-time students, and most were young. Holmstrom says 64 percent of respondents identified themselves as being 18 to 24 years old, and 12 percent 25 to 29 years old. The number admitting to being under 18 was "not significant", he says.

High Times posts a disclaimer on its Web site that says users must be 18 or older. But "we can't prevent under-age people from accessing the site without keeping everybody off", Holmstrom said.

One clue to adolescence on the Internet is the prevalence of cartoons in praise of marijuana.

A High Times cartoon showed a character called Pot-Peye getting stoned with his chums. "I'm mellow to the finish, 'cuz I smokes me spinach", said Pot-Peye, who resembled the genuine Popeye.

A counterculture Web site called Paranoia had a cartoon pothead declaring: "You know this stuff should be legal! It can make an ordinary day so much brighter!"

The Internet also abounds in casual advice like the "suggestions for first-time users" of "ecstasy", a hallucinogenic stimulant that has been found to damage the brains of monkeys in research at Johns Hopkins University. Nicholas Saunders, the author of this online advice, cautioned ecstasy neophytes only to "avoid alcohol and other drugs, & if you are dancing, realize that you may be dangerously overheated even without feeling uncomfortable."

Anecdotal misinformation appears particularly rife in online chat groups. When a man asked whether it was safe to mix methamphetamine with alcohol -- a dangerous combination, medical experts say -- a seasoned user named Durto assured him, "Yeah, you can drink on speed, and drink and drink."

Not all online drug information is pro-drug. Join Together uses the Internet to help isolated community groups around the country trade experiences in fighting drug and alcohol abuse. Its Web site downloads for subscribers more than 300,000 documents a month about alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

"We're finding it a very powerful medium for disseminating information much more rapidly and in a user-friendly way", said Rosenbloom, Join Together's president.

Ethan A. Nadelmann, the director of the Lindesmith Center in New York, which advocates a liberalizing of drug policies, said the Internet allowed an unfettered discussion that government had foreclosed in more structured public debate.

"The more the battle is played on this field, the more drug reform policy advances", said Nadelmann, whose Web site gets 30,000 to 40,000 visits a month.

The battle is not always civil. In late March, Greer, one of the opponents of the drug laws, posted instructions on the Internet for jamming the toll-free number of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. The 5 calls he made in 10 minutes, Greer announced, could be "quite devastating to Cadca if we can multiply my efforts by a few thousand."

Ms. Foster, the Cadca spokeswoman, said her organization had been forced to change its telephone format as a result.

"While we're trying to spend money preventing children from drug use", she said, "these people are trying to spend our money so that we can't do positive work."

In a subsequent interview, Greer said his "call to action" to inflate Cadca's telephone bill had been "a kind of an experimental type thing". His bread-and-butter advocacy is a weekly Focus Alert over the Internet that encourages campaigns of letter-writing to newspapers, to try to shape their coverage of drug issues.

"I think that we've only just seen the tip of the iceberg on the results that are going to promulgate from Internet activism", Greer said. "You're at such a big advantage if you're trying to get truth and accuracy out."

Copyright © 1997 by The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.