The Internet and Drug Markets

Shining a light on complex and dynamic systems

The Internet has disrupted drug markets just as much as it has changed the way in which we buy and sell groceries, books or any other commodity.

A new 140 page report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Abuse based on the work of a dozen experts across Europe gives us an excellent primer in everything from darknet markets and cryptocurrencies to speculation on how we will need to adapt our drug prevention messages to reach an online generation.

I was fortunate to see an early draft of  The Internet and drug markets (published on 11 February 2016) and strongly recommend you read it if drugs is your business or interest.

In the meantime, here is a brief summary of some of the interesting issues it covers.

Changing times

The report describes how online drug markets operate on the ‘surface web’ (accessible via common search engines) as well as the ‘deep web’ (inaccessible via standard browsers). The report also explores ‘dark net’ markets residing on the ‘deep web’. Otherwise known as ‘cryptomarkets’, these allow goods and services to be exchanged between parties who use digital currencies (e.g. bitcoin) and digital encryption software (e.g. Tor) to conceal their identities. The growth of social media has also seen online fora and mobile ‘apps’ emerge, where drugs are discussed, advertised and sometimes sold.

According to the report, the ‘surface web’ is primarily associated with the distribution of non-controlled substances (e.g. new psychoactive substances/‘legal highs’, medicines, precursor chemicals), or substances around which there may be legal ambiguities (e.g. due to differences in national legislation). By contrast, most sales activity linked to illicit drugs appears to take place on the ‘deep web’.

Interventions to reduce both supply and demand for drugs have been gathering pace on the ‘surface web’ (e.g. online information campaigns). Health and law enforcement professionals are also seizing opportunities on the ‘deep web’. The report describes the growing interest in the provision of health-related interventions to ‘dark net’ users. Law enforcement agencies are also building up experience in the area of monitoring online drug markets and are tackling supply by disrupting markets, reducing trust around anonymity and prosecuting ‘cryptomarket’ sellers.

The report also looks at the unofficial sale of medicines online:

online medication

The future of internet drug markets

The report concludes that a wide range of factors appear to be driving change and development in internet drug markets, mostly linked to technology, globalisation and market innovation. Digital literacy and knowledge are increasing and thereby expanding the pool of potential market users.

The technology is clearly important, and new developments are changing how we interact both commercially and socially across the board. Developments in encryption, digital currencies and anonymous browsing are among the technologies driving change in dark net markets. The authors also note the influence of marketing innovations, for example the establishment of the deep web search engine GRAMS. This search engine for Tor-based dark net markets allows users to search multiple markets for products such as drugs and guns from a simple search interface.

One of the most interesting themes of the report is the exploration of the reasons why experienced drug users choose to use online drug markets rather than conventional sources of supply. Among this population, recurrent themes include easy accessibility, availability of their drugs of choice and good quality of products. The main factors hindering use include the need for a certain level of technical competence and fear of financial scams.

The report’s final conclusion sets out the challenges ahead:

The speed with which the internet allows transformation to occur in drug markets will continue to present major challenges across the board, to law enforcement, public health, research and monitoring agencies.


You might also be interested in this brief EMCDDA video which explains the differences between the surface web, deep web and dark net.


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