In the past 20 years, since the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction began monitoring the drug situation in Europe, the kind and variety of drugs available has changed hugely, as has the way they can be acquired.
The days of handing over tiny packets in dark doorways has changed to clicking on a website and paying often with unregulated “money” such as bitcoin.
The drugs agency has for the first time investigated this new world, gathering evidence from a range of international web, drug, and law enforcement experts and built up as complete a picture as possible on this new supply chain.
However, it says there is a lot it doesn’t know yet as drug markets can make use of various levels of the web to buy and sell the ever-expanding range of products and using increasingly sophisticated technology.
The study, however, reveals a vast market place with the surface web, often used for illicit medicines and new psychoactive substances, and the deep web, “with its dark net markets or cryptomarkets, supported by innovative technologies to protect privacy”.
Drug markets operating on the surface are mainly involved in non-controlled substances or those where legal controls differ between countries and including lifestyle products and new psychoactive substances being sold as ‘research chemicals’ and ‘legal highs’.
However, much of the activity is shifting to what has become known as dark net markets that exist in what is in effect a hidden part of the internet and not accessible through ordinary web browsers, the report says.
Buyers and sellers can remain anonymous using services, such as Tor, the onion router, to hide a computer’s IP address and allows purchases using relatively untraceable ‘crypto currencies’, such as bitcoin and litecoin.
Buyers and sellers can judge one another’s reliability from responses left from previous purchasers.
Buyers are increasingly interested in knowing that what they are buying is safe — and some of the experts said that the first online deep web market, Silk Road, that was shut down in 2014 — may have helped users reduce the harm caused by illicit drug use because products were tested and experiences of the effect of the drugs were shared.
The internet however, works as more than just a shop. Social media and the development of web technologies that allow users have greater interaction with other customers and sellers acts as advertising, influencing people about drug use.
These forums and mobile applications facilitate dealers, users and would-be users, discussing the various types of drugs, advertising them and sometimes selling them. Their investigation finds that at the moment the online drugs market is in its infancy but it has the potential to become a major supply chain in the not-too-distant future.
“All of this raises certain questions. For example, how will illicit drugs be marketed and trafficked in the future, and are the current tools and responses fit for purpose in such a dynamic, fast-changing environment?” says drugs agency director Alexis Goosdeel.