A majority of youths get some of their information concerning drugs online.  Many have a general mistrust of the drug education they received in schools which is often piecemeal, based on scare tactics, delivered by nonprofessionals,  and consisting of inaccuracies and half truths.

Many turn to online resources such as Erowid, Bluelight, Drug Wise, Psychonaut Wiki,  Drugs Forum, r/Drugs, Universo de la Drogas (Spanish), DrugStoryPillreports, drugsand.me , touchbase  etc. to learn about drugs; interactions; harm reduction techniques; and to engage in peer communication.  

Concurrently, online drug markets  have developed in recent years both on the surface web and the deep web.  An European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)overview of research on the phenomenon can be found here:’The Internet and Drug Markets’.  A 2015 Irish survey of university students found that 4.5 % of respondents reported that they procured their drugs through online sources.

The Silk Road was probably the most well known of these online markets, having gained notoriety during the high profile trial of suspected founder Ross Ulbricht. As one of the world’s first and largest online marketplaces, it is partially responsible for popularising the concept of cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin– which is hitting record highs) and the TOR browser. Today, many different cryptocurrencies can be used including Ethereum, DASH and Monero and many market places have replaced Silk Road e.g. AlphaBay and DreamMarket

As Buxton and Bingham, 2015 note in their policy brief:

  • For vendors and purchasers who use the sophisticated, user friendly and increasingly secure Dark Net sites, hidden markets present a safer environment for drug transactions and they reduce the multiple risks (coercion, violence, arrest, exposure to other drugs) associated with ‘street’ sales
  • Research demonstrates that anonymised user forums and online chat rooms encourage and facilitate information sharing about drug purchases and drug effects, representing a novel form of harm reduction for drug users and an entry point for drug support services.

Dr. Fernando Caudevilla (a.k.a. ‘Dr.X’) is a pioneer in the field of deep web harm reduction. He operated several forums where he answered a wide range of drug-related questions.   A catalogue of some of his exchanges can be found here.  He also works with Energy Control which provides an international drug checking service which can be accessed here . 

Fernando considers deep web marketplaces “one of the most important things that has happened in relation to drugs in the 21st century” and believes that they present an important opportunity to engage in harm reduction interventions (e.g. Deep Web Marketplaces: An Opportunity for Harm Reduction) with both users and vendors.

He blames prohibition for leading to a situation whereby people feel more comfortable talking anonymously to a stranger online rather than their doctor in the real world.  The deep web can provide a space where people can exchange honest and credible information with far less fear of stigma, discrimination or legal reprimand.  This can facilitate the development of  more honest conversations surrounding drugs between harm reduction professionals and consumers; consumers and vendors; and vendors and researchers (e.g. Van Hout and Bingham, 2014)

Information spreads quickly.  An online community can rate and comment on vendors.  If a product is low quality, consumers are likely to complain and the vendor is likely to lose business.   Fernando cites the example of Energy Control discovering some PMMA in a batch of ‘Superman pills’ using drug checking techniques. PMMA has been linked to numerous deaths around the world. When EnergyControl released this information many vendors stopped selling pills similar to these.  As he notes “it is a semi-regulated market”.

Slowly, authorities are  recognising Information Communication Technologies (ICT) as valuable resources in reducing drug-related harm. A recent European Commission Drug Action Plan proposes:

“.. enhanced use of information and communications technologies (ICT) for prevention purposes, such as awareness raising activities, targeting young people in particular. It also encourages measures to better address the needs of older drug users and vulnerable communities as well as focusing on the reduction of health and social harms caused by drug use”.

It will be interesting  to what extent such interventions will develop in the deep web!