Much of the research and discussion about drugs and the internet has focused upon either buying drugs online or seeking drug-related information online. News coverage has particularly focused upon the capacity to buy drugs from web vendors (eg, Psychedelic drugs just a click away online, Deadly drug on the net).
Yet, evidence from the last decade indicates that most drug transactions still occur in the traditional way.
Popular illegal drugs are not generally available online: unless the product can be marketed as 'legal' or 'not for human consumption', the legal risk and practical problems associated with selling heroin, MDMA, amphetamines, and cannabis through an online marketplace are just too big, for both buyers and sellers.
It's not that the demand doesn't exist for online drug vendors. I interviewed forum moderators for my thesis who prohibited 'sourcing' on their message boards and regularly edited, closed or removed discussions they believed were motivated by attracting potential sellers.
An example would be a forum user posting that 'isn't it hard to find ecstasy in Perth at the moment'. If anyone in Perth had ecstasy to sell, they could send a private message to the forum user offering their services.
Although this was possible and likely occurred despite swift moderator action to remove those threads, most forum users did not use the internet to buy drugs.
In a paper I presented at the 5th International Conference on Communities & Technologies, forum users discussed their views on talking about drugs in public online forums and their strategies to avoid the risk of incriminating themselves.
One popular strategy was to avoid all discussion of supply or dealing so as not to attract the attention of law enforcement who may be watching the forums. Most believed that law enforcement were after 'dealers, not users'.
I conducted those interviews 3 years ago in 2008. In 2011, the situation has shifted considerably with the arrival of Silk Road, an anonymous online marketplace where anything*(1) can be bought or sold.
Silk Road is accessible only to people who are using TOR anonymising software. TOR uses encryption to make it impossible for anyone to trace your IP address (the electronic address assigned to each computer on the internet).
The front page of Silk Road looks a lot like an Amazon or an Ebay. Goods and services for sale are categorised. Sellers receive ratings from buyers and comments about the quality of their products, how fast they ship, and the level of professionalism and discreteness of the transaction. Trust in sellers is built on reputation.
Silk Road traders use the anonymous currency Bitcoin. This decentralised international currency operates through peer-to-peer technologies. It has an exchange and a lively forum of users.
The possibilities of a non-government-controlled anonymous international currency are quite mind-boggling. The obvious possibility is being played out right now on Silk Road: buying and selling illegal products is now possible and may dramatically increase in the near future.
What may stop an exponential increase in the use of anonymous online drug marketplaces is the hurdle of delivery. At the end of the transaction, the physical product still needs to be sent to the buyer.
Sending products between countries allows Customs the opportunity to intercept packages and potentially attempt to arrest the would-be importer. Sending products within the same country may make arrest less likely.
There are also fairly large barriers to entry for most ordinary people who might want to buy drugs online. Installing and using TOR, buying and using Bitcoins in a secure way, and taking the risk of fraud or arrest through package tracing from Customs may deter the majority of would-be users. In a recent example of the volatility of this new system, Bitcoin exchange Mt Gox was hacked, causing the currency to rapidly devalue.
But for the minority who master these concerns and are willing to take the risk, Silk Road and its successors have forever changed how the internet can be used to source drugs. After all, buying drugs in the real world also involves considerable risk. For some, the online equivalent may prove more secure than trying to arrange a standard deal.
From one angle, buying drugs from Silk Road could be understood as a harm reduction strategy. On Silk Road, action can be taken if someone rips you off by providing sub-quality product: the buyer can rate the seller poorly and give a scathing review. Sellers with negative feedback are less likely to attract more buyers. While similar warnings can be provided through social networks in real-world drug markets, sellers can simply find new buyers without that knowledge of their dodgy deals. Silk Road provides a public reviewing system that could help people avoid adulterated or sub-quality product. The quality controls inherent in this publicly reviewed marketplace may also increase the purity of drugs that make their way into offline drug markets.
I also observed that some sellers provided harm reduction information alongside their product advertisements. This screenshot shows a seller offering established harm reduction websites to buyers. In another exchange, I read that one seller would divide the research chemical they were selling into single doses as a free service to buyers, they just had to be prepared to wait an extra day or two to allow time for these divisions. With research chemicals which require only micro doses, this service could enable buyers who do not own their own set of scales to avoid overdose.
There are a lot of unanswered questions about Silk Road. The extent to which law enforcement can bring down a site like this is yet to be seen. Equally, the extent to which ordinary drug users will use this new technology is also unknown. Needless to say, if anonymous online drug markets do end up expanding into mainstream drug markets, they will pose a real challenge to existing drug laws and policies. Maybe this technology will be the catalyst for drug law reform if it becomes impossible to effectively police anonymous online drug markets?
*(1) In this exchange from Silk Road's founder, he notes that some goods/services are not tolerated due to their capacity to harm others and attract controversy. In this category, he includes pedophilia, hitmen and counterfeit currency.
Monica Barratt is a full time Research Fellow. Her PhD focused upon internet technologies and drug practices. Monica writes a blog about Drugs, Internet &Society and tweets about drug and technology issues. All opinions expressed in this article are of the author only, and do not represent the views of any organisations that the author works for or is affiliated with.