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Surprise: Now-Illegal 'Legal Highs' Are Widely Available on the Dark Web

As governments crack down on "new psychoactive substances," their presence on the dark web is inevitable.
Methoxetamine powder (apparently). Image: GreenZeb/Wikimedia

On Wednesday, a man was sentenced for selling drugs on the dark web. But he wasn't selling the usual street drug suspects like cocaine or ecstasy.

Alex Middleton, 20, was charged with possession of "4-MEC, methoxetamine and alprazolam," an NCA spokesperson told Motherboard, with intent to supply. He was sentenced to two years four months jail time. Alprazolam is the generic name for prescription drug Xanax. But methoxetamine, commonly known as MXE and with similar effects to ketamine, was until recently legal to buy and sell: it's what's known as a "new psychoactive substance" or "legal high" (though it was made a Class B controlled substance in 2013).


The vendor's arrest highlights the continued presence of these drugs on deep web marketplaces as other outlets diminish.

For years, regular clear web sites have existed where customers can purchase a cornucopia of different psychoactive substances usually from factories in India and China marketed as "legal highs"—chemicals often specifically manufactured to mimic the effects of more traditional drugs, but that aren't subject to the same criminal penalties for possession or sale. Brick-and-mortar shops have also been able to sell them with no problems.

"It's an obvious choice for dark net vendors who have supply access."

But as governments crack down on specific psychoactive substances, and in some cases introduce blanket legislation on these kind of drugs, they can still be found on the dark web.

"It seems inevitable," Judith Aldridge, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester who has researched the dark web drug trade, told Motherboard in an email. "Where legal
psychoactives have been available on the clearweb and demand develops, it's an obvious choice for dark net vendors who have supply access to offer these substances for sale."

MXE, which Middleton was arrested for, is typically used as an alternative to ketamine—a drug that the UK has had a notoriously low supply of in recent years.

Many of the dark web listings for new psychoactive substances are for vast quantities, with plenty offering 500g or one kilo of each drug, according to Grams, a search engine for the dark web markets.


It happened in the analogue drug trade, and it's now happening in its digital counterpart

Benzofury, which first attracted the attention of UK legislators in 2013, is for sale on a number of different marketplaces. Ethylphenidate suffered a similar fate from the UK government in April of this year, but dozens of listings for the drug are available. Lisdexamphetamine, a medicinal product sometimes used as a study aid, and was banned in 2014, is also to be found.

Perhaps the most well-known formerly-legal high, mephedrone, which was a hugely popular drug that entered the UK club scene around 2009 and was met with a ban after much media hype is, naturally, also available.

Clearly, when something is made illegal, the demand for that product does not necessarily disappear, though the trade is likely to go more underground. It happened in the analogue drug trade, and it's now happening in its digital counterpart.

Tim Bingham, an independent drugs researcher who has covered the dark web, suggested there could be other attractions to the dark web market. "It's actually probably safer purchasing from these sites as opposed to the street as at least there is some user feedback," he said in an email.