Home > Drug cryptomarkets in the 2020s: policy, enforcement, harm, and resilience.

Horton-Eddison, Martin and Shortis, Patrick and Aldridge, Judith and Caudevilla, Fernando (2021) Drug cryptomarkets in the 2020s: policy, enforcement, harm, and resilience. Swansea: Global Drug Policy Observatory. Policy brief 16.

PDF (Drug cryptomarkets in the 2020s: policy, enforcement, harm, and resilience)

Key points:

  • Despite repeated recommendations from the UN General Assembly and several UN subsidiary bodies since 2013, there remains an absence of a single UN cybercrime convention, with specific provision for the illegal trade in drugs online.
  • In this absence – and a decade after the founding of the original drug cryptomarket (SilkRoad) - the standard and longstanding strategic enforcement model of ‘takedown’ endures.
  • Evidence suggests that takedown is ineffective at reducing the size or scope of the illicit trade, increases market proliferation, and catalyses wide-spread market innovation, adaptation, and target hardening across the environment. This increases resource requirements exponentially, with ever-decreasing returns.
  • It is likely that the current rate of technological evolution will create a shift to market types that lack some of the harm-reducing benefits of cryptomarkets, and that are more resource-intensive for law enforcement to monitor.
  • New market types - encrypted apps or other peer-to-peer market platforms - lack some of the beneficial features that cryptomarkets provide over offline markets, reducing opportunities for harm reduction advice to reach users effectively. They may also increase the complexity of the response required (and the ability) of law enforcement agencies to curtail injurious elements of the online trade.
  • Policies that encourage a nuanced enforcement approach – away from blanket takedown-might more efficiently focus limited human and financial resources only on the most injurious of substances and markets, freeing skilled cybercrime specialists to prioritise more pernicious criminal activities online, such as terrorism and child sexual exploitation.
  • Such a guided approach might also ameliorate the negative consequences of take down operations for ongoing harm reduction efforts, including for substance testing services that rely on drug cryptomarkets as conduits through which to communicate life-saving information

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