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Connolly, Johnny (2015) Drug markets and the internet. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 54, Summer 2015, pp. 11-12.

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The importance of the internet in the sale and supply of both licit and illicit drugs, and new psychoactive substances (NPS) is reflected in the growing body of research literature dedicated to the investigation of this elusive market. The study of illicit drug markets has traditionally always been methodologically challenging, with researchers often having to negotiate access to buyers, sellers and drug law enforcement officials in order to gain insights into the largely hidden behaviour surrounding drug transactions.1 And now, the growing role of the internet in facilitating the illicit sale and supply of controlled drugs, and new psychoactive substances (NPS), is transforming the illicit drug market in ways that pose new challenges for law enforcement, public health, research and monitoring. The three studies reported here give an insight into the challenges.


An EMCDDA study, undertaken in September–October 2014, aimed to increase understanding of the online supply of drugs and to map the range of drug markets in existence.2 A specific focus was on ‘the role of social media and apps; online sale of NPS; online sales of medicinal products for illicit use; and the sale of drugs on the deep web’ (p.3). The study was based on a literature review and an international meeting of experts who provided insights from information technology, research and monitoring, law enforcement, internet and drug user perspectives. It looked at the role of social media, which operate mostly on the ‘surface web’, in drug markets, for example Facebook (1.6 billion registered users), YouTube (1 billion active users) and Twitter (500 million registered users). It was reported that social media play a role in the sale of NPS, research chemicals, medicines such as lifestyle products (for erectile dysfunction, slimming or hair restoration) and, more recently, performance enhancement products and controlled prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines. The study also investigated law enforcement responses to online drug supply, and reported that they are focused on market disruption through measures such as reducing ‘trust around anonymity’, and on covert operations seeking to infiltrate online markets. Finally, the study considered the ‘deep web’, defined as a part of the internet not accessible to traditional search engines such as Google, and the ‘dark web’, defined as a small portion of the deep web intentionally hidden and inaccessible through standard web browsers.


The dark web is the focus of a recent policy briefing.3 The sale of illicit substances on dark net drug markets has grown rapidly in recent years, facilitated by the release of The Onion Router (TOR) in 2002, which is ‘a technology that bounces internet users’ and websites’ traffic through “relays” run by thousands of volunteers around the world, making it extremely hard for anyone to identify the source of the information or the location of the user’ (p. 5). The policy briefing discusses the limitations of traditional law enforcement strategies in ‘matching, let alone exceeding the sophistication and innovation of the hidden web and digital crypto-currencies used for payment on the Dark Net drug markets’ (p. 2). The authors raise a number of points for policy-makers to consider:


  • For vendors and purchasers hidden markets present a safer environment for drug transactions and they reduce the multiple risks (coercion, violence, arrest, exposure to other drugs) associated with street sales.
  • Anonymised user forums and online chat rooms encourage and facilitate information-sharing about drug purchases and effects, representing a novel form of harm reduction for drug users and an entry point for drug support services.
  • Enforcement efforts through surveillance, hacking and other forms of interdiction may be successful in closing down a particular site, but at the cost of proliferating hidden drug markets and incentivising technological innovation.


Given the technical and legal challenges facing law enforcement in this area, the authors conclude that ‘Dark net interdiction efforts should prioritise high-end crimes such as child sexual exploitation, cyber terrorism and weapons trafficking, and work with self-regulating “ethical” drug sites to enhance understanding of high-level criminality on the dark net’ (p.1). The forthcoming 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem provides the opportunity, they suggest, to discuss how to ‘better deal with the challenges of the increasingly complex illicit drug market in the twenty-first century’ (p.1).


That these challenges are likely to intensify in the years ahead is reflected in the findings of the latest update from the EU Early Warning system on NPS, published in March.4 It is reported that over the past five years there has been an ‘unprecedented increase in the number, type and availability of NPS in Europe’.



  1. See Ritter A (2006) Studying illicit drug markets: disciplinary contributions International Journal of Drug Policy (17): 221–228. For recent Irish research, see Connolly J and Donovan A (2014) Illicit drug markets in Ireland. Dublin: National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/23302/
  2. EMCDDA (2014) The internet and drug markets. Summary of results from an EMCDDA Trendspotter study. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/23352/
  3. Buxton J and Bingham T (2015) The Rise and challenge of dark net drug markets. Global Drug Policy Observatory. Wales: Swansea University. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/23274/
  4. For more information on the EU Early Warning System, established in 1997 to gather and report data on NPS from the 28 EU members states, Turkey and Norway, see emcdda.europa.eu/activities/action-on-new-drugs
Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 54, Summer 2015
July 2015
Page Range
pp. 11-12
Health Research Board
Issue 54, Summer 2015
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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