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Galvin, Brian (2016) The internet and drug markets. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 57, Spring 2016 , pp. 17-18.

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Probably the most profound change in the market for illicit drugs over the past twenty years has been the proliferation of synthetic psychoactive substances, sometimes designed to mimic the effect of traditional plant-based drugs. Alongside this emergence of a vast range of new drugs the mechanisms by which users obtain drugs is also being rapidly transformed.  While the deal on the street corner or supply by a friend still dominate exchange in illicit drug markets, online purchasing is becoming a more common form of transaction. 


A recent collection of studies published by the EMCDDA points out that almost any kind of drug can be purchased on line and delivered through the postal system without any direct contact between buyer and provider. 1 Given the nature of the illicit drug market, offline encounters bring with them considerable risk of physical harm or arrest.  The anonymity provided by the internet offers a degree of safety to both buyer and seller who can operate from whatever location they choose.  It also offers the potential for markets to expand rapidly, still operating in a covert manner. 


As our economic and social lives move increasingly online, the threats to privacy and personal security from those who wish to use our information is a constant theme in public discourse around internet usage. Countering such threats is a significant driver of new internet technology and innovation in this area is expertly exploited to keep criminal activity hidden.  This collection of papers examines several aspects of the role of the internet in drug markets and is a very useful overview of this topic and builds on a growing body of work in this area in recent years.2,3


The surface web

The extent to which online communication is, or can be, hidden defines the various levels at which business is conducted on the internet. Online pharmacies and other sources of non-controlled substances use the accessible surface web.  This is also the level at which new psychoactive substances (NPS) can be exchanged between countries with differing levels of control and where discussion around new drugs takes place on social media.  NPS are often sold on the surface web as ‘research chemicals’.  While sales of NPS in dark net markets are increasing, the surface web, where most online shops and pharmacies are based, is the most common source of new drugs. 


The dark net

Below the surface web, in parts of the internet not accessible to standard web browsers, is where the dark net markets or cryptomarkets operate. This part of the web is only accessible using special software such as The Onion Router (TOR), which facilitates online anonymity and makes the type of clandestine exchanges used in the supply of illicit drugs possible, and bitcoin, a special trading currency for online transactions. Projects monitoring the dark net report that around 70 per cent of all drug-related sales on cryptomarkets are for cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine-related products.


Separate chapters in the EMCDDA collection of studies explain the technology behind the specialised browsing software and encryption and cryptocurrencies and how they have been used to hide the identity of both vendors and buyers in black market goods.


The Silk Road

The Silk Road, established in 2011, is probably the best known drug-related cryptomarket. Apart from the guarantee of anonymity this website functioned in many respects like mainstream digital markets like eBay.  Silk Road was closed down in 2013 and its second iteration, along with 400 other deep web sites, were taken down in 2014.  It is not clear yet how this disruption has affected the organisation of this market but it would appear that, following a period of increasing openness, the dark web is becoming increasingly closed and is often used as a means to facilitate one-to-one interactions between a seller and buyer looking for a secure supply.


Judith Aldridge and David Décary-Hétu investigated the Silk Road before it was taken down and describe how they see the sale of drugs on the dark web impacting on the global drugs trade.  They argue that, while currently online exchange comprises a tiny fraction of the overall drugs trade, it has the capacity to complement conventional trade by allowing the purchase of a wide range of substances that would not be available otherwise.  The need to become adept at TOR-like technology, security fears and the degree of planning required may be limiting factors on the growth of this market.  The removal of the threat of both violence and arrest may encourage greater use and growth is more likely if the recent pattern of disruption of cryptomarkets without significant arrest continues. As in the conventional market, vendor reputation is important and John Cox explains how vendors need to score well on a sophisticated rating system if they are to establish themselves in this market.


Eileen Ormsby studied Silk Road for many years and presents her insights into the motives, political outlook and concerns of those who administered it or engaged in this cryptomarket as buyers or sellers. As happens in conventional markets this type of virtual market presents opportunities for harm reduction interventions. The experience of a medical doctor providing advice to users of online drug markets are recounted in a separate chapter. 


Enforcement and monitoring

Two chapters examine the criminal aspects of dark net markets, the nature of supply and trafficking online and the efforts of law enforcement to counter illegal activity in this sphere. A chapter on the I-TREND (Internet Tools for Research in Europe on New Drugs) project describes a method for monitoring online NPS shops using specially designed software which builds on the snapshot studies conducted in this area since 2012. The project identified 584 online shops, 18 per cent of which were duplicates designed to distract attention from the original site. It is a very dynamic market which is difficult to monitor, but improvements in method indicate a considerable expansion in reliable data on use, retailers’ marketing approaches and the survival rates of such online enterprises.


Emerging issues

Technological innovations in encryption, digital currencies and browsing are key drivers of change in online drug markets. These facilitate anonymity for the seller, from both organised and ‘disorganised’ crime sectors, and for the buyer, as well as greatly reducing the risk of harm from violence as those involved in transactions do not have to meet. 


Social activism and the personal benefits of membership of an online community attract a wide audience to the user forums and discussion boards which gather around cryptomarkets and expand the potential pool for buyers of products online. The popularity of this social media, and the willingness of those who contribute to them to offer advice, opinion and provide important market feedback, presents a rich opportunity to research this environment and provide a greater understanding of the operation of the dark web. 


This type of research will be relevant not just for uncovering the mechanisms of the market itself but for providing insights into how the existence of these markets affects drug use and the consequences of this use. These concerns and the manner in which the internet may provide both expansion of supply and opportunities for harm reduction interventions will probably be the focus of research in this area in the coming years. 


  1. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2016) The internet and drug markets Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
  2. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2014) The internet and drug markets: Summary of results from an EMCDDA Trendspotter study. Lisbon: EMCDDA.
  3. Buxton J and Bingham T (2015) The rise and challenge of dark net drug markets Global Drug Policy Observatory. Wales: Swansea University.
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 57, Spring 2016
May 2016
Page Range
pp. 17-18
Health Research Board
Issue 57, Spring 2016

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