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Illicit But Informed Acts
Web Sites Say They Make Drugs, Sex Industry Safer
by Sascha Segan
Oct 2, 2000
Originally published in ABCNews.com
Oct. 2 — You're looking for a no-holds-barred party. The escort ads look enticing, and a few pills might liven things up. But how can you make sure you'll get the time you're looking for?

A growing community of Web sites is trying to guide those illicit desires. The operators say they aim to make prostitution and illegal drugs as safe and easy as more legitimate activities — bungee jumping, say, or getting a tattoo. They say they give uncensored, honest perspectives that bring shady activities into the light.

"My site is basically a Consumer Reports site for the escort business," says "Heaven," the operator of heavenorhell.com, an escort review operation. He did not want his real name used.

But law enforcement officials worry the sites are full of dangerous lies, and will just serve to increase Americans' appetite for dangerous illegal substances and experiences.

"By promoting the view that drugs can be done in a safe manner, you increase the likelihood of use," says Dave Des Roches, an analyst for "drug czar" Barry McCaffrey at the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The High Life
The pro-drug community is out in full force on the Web. Drug information sites like the Lycaeum, Erowid and the Bluelight bulletin board system are full of tips from enthusiastic users on how to get the best experience, without overdosing or getting ripped off.

Some of the sites even take their crusade off the Web. Bluelight works with DanceSafe, an organization that says it makes Ecstasy use safer by providing kits that allow users to test for adulterated pills.

Erowid, like a Consumer Reports of illegal drugs, features more than 920 "experience reports," ranging from folks who get high on caffeine to heroin and cocaine addicts.

Some of the stories are both riveting and terrifying. An ex-heroin addict named Will talks about watching his best friend die and turning to a life of stealing and forgery because of the drug.

But the site also includes seductive stories that verge on invitations. A cocaine user identified as L.C. claims coke is "the ultimate partying tool" and says, "Why do I do it? Because nothing in the world feels better than snorting your first line!"

Representatives of Erowid did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.

Surfing the Sex Sites
The managers of the sex sites, mostly men who spend a lot of money on prostitutes, say they're trying to regulate a black-market business.

"I was tired of the hit-and-miss nature of the business. I was tired of the no-shows, the bait-and-switches and the cash-and-dashes," says Heaven.

Most of the sites rate women from 1 to 10 in categories like looks, attitude and service — even breaking down "service" into the quality of various sex acts performed. The Holy Grail on these sites is a "GFE" — a "girlfriend equivalent" or "girlfriend experience."

"This girl looks like Anna Nicole Smith," reads a rather tame review on heavenorhell.com. Some reviews get downright pornographic, so we won't quote them here.

"Travelers to Amarillo, TX beware! [This] Escort Agency is a cash & dash operation," warns another review.

"Amanda Witherspoon," a 27-year-old escort in Texas, says the sites make prostitution safer by preventing potentially violent conflicts with disappointed customers. She pointed out the escorts themselves are among the most avid readers of the review sites.

"Girls get on the boards and see all these posters. I can go look up [a man's] posts and see what kind of a guy he is," she says. "If he's a jerk, I'm not going to see him."

Not Your Average Stoner
The users of drug review sites aren't your stereotypical stoners. They're often articulate, twentysomething professionals who've been using drugs for years — though the Ecstasy-centric sites have more than their share of teenage club kids.

Stephen Carpenter, a 22-year-old computer systems administrator, hangs out on the Lycaeum sites. He wants drugs to be thought of like any other recreational activity.

"The role that I see the Lycaeum in, is providing a place for people with interest in recreational drug use to come together and share their experiences … The result, hopefully, will be bringing it out in the open," he says.

Medical or Misleading?
People who claim to be doctors or medical students also lurk around the drug bulletin boards. They say they try to provide accurate information. But sifting out the truth from the rumors can be a difficult job, when anyone can claim to be an authority.

One user on the medical board at Bluelight, an Ecstasy-centric site, asked about a friend with hepatitis who does Ecstasy. He got answers including "Anyone with a liver disease should NOT be taking drugs" and "MDMA is rather harsh on your body, including your liver and kidneys … if your friend has Hep C, I would strongly recommed that, if she *has* to roll, to take at least half doses."

That contradictory advice makes people with medical experience nervous.

"What I find dangerous about Bluelight is the information given out is often from other Bluelighters, whose average age group I would imagine is 15 to 19. I would bet most anything that these kids have not done actual research on the pharmacology of MDMA or MDMA- related neurotoxicity," says Duane Broadnax, a 27-year-old programmer who's a member of the bulletin board.

The Safety Debate
Drug site members argue that people are going to take drugs, no matter whether or not they're illegal, so it's best to provide what they see as accurate information.

"I believe that people, teens and otherwise, will always take drugs (or do anything that makes them feel good, really), and some folks will always experiment," says "raverdoc," who claims to be a New England doctor. Raverdoc provides medical advice to Bluelight members, but didn't want his real name used for fear his employers would connect him with illegal drug use.

Officials shoot back that much of the information on the sites is unverified, inaccurate, and potentially even dangerous.

"General McCaffrey points out that a lot of people who make arguments like that miss out on the reason why the drugs are illegal: Because they're dangerous," says Des Roches. The government runs its own Web sites with anti-drug medical data and information.

Sleeping With the Enemy
The advice on the sex sites also appears authoritative, but that can be misleading.

"The reviews I get are not validated," says "the Banker," who runs the World Sex Guide prostitution review site — though he tries to filter out obvious fakes and messages inspired by personal vendettas.

With the profusion of competing sites, fake reviews, and rumors in the industry that prostitutes sleep with site owners in exchange for good reviews, it's very difficult to tell the good from the bad, says Witherspoon, the escort from Texas.

"One bad review can turn you into a bad provider, and we women rely on the review sites" for business, she says.

Reviews can also be set up to sucker men into dangerous situations, says Kathryn Kassel, a sergeant with the vice squad in Charlotte, N.C. After all, the site owners can only cancel reviews after, not before, somebody's had a bad experience.

"When you go to the location, it doesn't mean you're not going to be robbed by her boyfriend, or be assaulted, or get some sexually transmitted disease," Kassel says.
Safe From the Law
The owners of the drug and sex review sites don't need to worry much about being busted.

Drug information sites like Erowid and the Lycaeum aren't breaking the law as long as they don't provide information about buying drugs online, law enforcement officials say.

When Americans do sell drugs online, they can get busted. On Sept. 22, Michael Aronov, 48, of Anaheim, Calif. was fined $200,000 and sentenced to five months in a halfway house and five months under house arrest for selling marijuana over the Net to undercover agents in Louisiana.

It's pretty easy to buy pot seeds online from abroad, though. Marc Emery Direct Marijuana Seeds, based in Canada, stocks 421 strains of marijuana at prices down to around $17 for 10 seeds. Emery is a famous pro-marijuana activist who used to run Vancouver's Cannabis Café his businesses have been raided several times by police.

"Marijuana is an illegal substance in Canada, but possession in British Columbia, when prosecuted, is usually punished with a fine," says U.S. federal policy analyst Dave Des Roches.

Kathryn Kassel, a police sergeant in Charlotte, N.C., says prosecuting sex-review sites is a low priority for overworked vice squads. However, she keeps an eye on review sites to plan busts and to help undercover officers learn how to act like johns.

"They do help us locate people and businesses," she says.

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