Do darknet drug markets make the bad guys less bad?
Online drug cryptomarkets make illegal markets function more like legal ones, says Judith Aldridge. Might they also reduce some of the harms created by prohibition too?
With little progress on the war on drugs the illicit market has only increased - and taken on new forms.
In recent times we have seen the particular emergence of online drug cryptomarkets, also known as ‘darknet’ drug markets, which enable drug sellers and buyers to transact anonymously. It is just the latest way the market has innovated to make sellers more resilient to avoid law enforcement.
Cryptomarket drug selling is dominated by drugs like cannabis and MDMA. Although substances more likely to be associated with harm, such as heroin, are available on these markets, sales are comparatively small.
Drug cryptomarkets have a number of benefits for traders. For instance they make it difficult to trace internet activity to real-world identities. Payment via cryptocurrencies obscures payment trails, while markets accessible only via anonymity software hide users’ IP addresses and so their identities.
Drug buyers also have a wider choice of sellers available to them than would be possible in their local ‘offline’ illegal drug markets, making comparison shopping on price and product quality a real possibility.
Markets also provide ‘third party’ services. For instance payments are held by the marketplaces in escrow until shipments are received by their customers, so offering drug buyers a degree of protection against drug sellers setting out to scam them.
Administrators can also intervene and mediate in the case of disputes between buyers and sellers. And alongside customer review systems, drug sellers may also become more accountable to their customers, carefully guarding their accumulating reputation scores. Depending on the drug, cryptomarkets could also potentially shorten supply chains too.
Against this backdrop, is it possible then that uncertain substance content and associated harms like overdose may be lessened when drug sales occur on a cryptomarket platform? Does their virtual location reduce opportunities for violence?
Research with cryptomarket users suggests that superior drug quality is one reason customers elect to access drugs this way. Emerging research using forensic testing of substances purchased on cryptomarkets suggests that these may be less likely to be adulterated, and have higher purity levels than drugs purchased in local offline markets.
To the extent that drug buyers receive ‘as advertised’ substances with known purity, they may be less likely to experience harms that result from the ingestion of substances with unknown content. Evidence also suggests that cryptomarket buyers are less likely to report experiencing violence or threats connected to their purchases when compared to purchases made from unknown dealers, known dealers, and even friends.
Under prohibition, illegal drug suppliers are inevitable. They exist precisely because of laws that criminalise the production, sale and distribution of controlled substances. Moreover, prohibition itself creates some of the very harms for which drug suppliers themselves are blamed and even demonised. Via the so-called ‘iron law of prohibition’, intensive law enforcement produces more potent substances.
“Harms can in large part be directly traced to the effects of prohibition.”
Yet the moral condemnation of drug sellers in popular and official discourse often proceeds from the assumption that drug sellers themselves are responsible for the harms that arise from drug use, even though these harms can in large part be directly traced to the effects of prohibition.
To the extent that drug cryptomarkets are designed – and actually function – as self-regulating eco-systems, we are encouraged to revisit policies and practices that cast drug supply activity as morally reprehensible and exclusively harm-producing; indeed, as the antecedent and eradicable cause of the drug ‘problem’.
Judith Aldridge is a Professor of Criminology at the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice.