This post first appeared on VICE UK
When we talk about the future of drugs, there are three certainties that cannot be ignored:
Certainty #1. Until the planet explodes, melts, or drowns, humans will want to get intoxicated.
Certainty #2. People who supply these intoxicants, particularly banned ones, will pocket a load of cash.
Certainty #3. We will be blindsided by a new drug phenomenon, a bolt from the blue, that everyone will pretend they knew was coming.
In 2003, a group of 50 eminent scientists and professors were gathered by the UK government's Foresight think tank in order to focus their collective brain power on the answer to one question: What will the drug world look like in 2025?
The answer was revealed two years later, in a series of 21 documents. The scientists' huge crystal ball revealed a Britain in 2025 awash with smart, lifestyle drugs—drugs to help people learn, think, relax, sleep, or simply to forget, a bit like the creepy, hangoverless pleasure drug Soma in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. So far, this prediction is not looking like a bad one; there is already a huge gray market in drugs that enhance performance, image, and mood—and it's a market that is rapidly expanding.
But what is interesting about the Foresight project is not what it got right, but what it missed. It failed to predict the biggest phenomenon to hit the drugs world since ecstasy: the explosion, a mere four years after their report was published, of new psychoactive substances sold on the back of a fledgling online drug trade. It opened the gateway to hundreds of untried substances, and crucially, it revolutionized the way illegal drugs were bought and sold.
Yet the future will not be about the endless procession of legal highs. A smattering of new psychoactive substances (or NPS) will always be around, and to an extent always have been, but they have had their day in the sun. An interesting sideshow, they have served a purpose. Yes, mephedrone is here to stay and maybe 2C-B will hang around too, but now that the ecstasy and cocaine markets have righted themselves, with the purity of both drugs up considerably, the old school drugs are back. Stimulant clones will still have an appeal to those who are broke, unable to get hold of decent drugs, or who want to avoid getting caught out in piss tests, but the imminent clampdown on head shops will stifle supply to teenagers and the homeless—two of the keenest buyers of NPS products.
The online drug trade, however, will be blazing a trail into the next decade and beyond, whether the world's police like it or not.
I spoke to Mike Power, author of Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High, about how the online drug trade might fare over the next decade or two. "At the moment, the online trade in drugs is a minority sport, a good way of buying high quality drugs," he told me. "Even now it's tipping over from early adopters into the mainstream. It will get bigger, easier to use, and more widespread. There will be more sites and more people using them because it is the perfect business model: anonymous, commission-based, peer-reviewed, postal drug dealing. Online dealing is not a replacement for trafficking cartels, it's never going to work on that level, but if you've got a kilo of MDMA it's the way to go."
And what's more, predicts Power, it's a trading zone that will remain highly resilient to any attempt to destroy it. In November, the world's police—including the FBI, Europol, and Britain's National Crime Agency—closed down the biggest online drug market, Silk Road 2.0, in a blaze of publicity during Operation Onymous. But just weeks later, the dark market was back doing a roaring trade.
On "Cyber Monday," sites were offering 50 percent off LSD, buy three-get-one-free deals on liquid mushrooms, and ounces of marijuana reduced to $200. Customers couldn't get enough of it. "Observing the online trade, two weeks before Christmas, on the five or six sites that took up the slack from Silk Road 2.0's demise, was like watching Oxford Street on Christmas Eve," says Power.
Behind the FBI's hype, and its impressive claim of closing 427 sites, things looked pessimistic for the enforcement agencies trying to shut down this trade. "Onymous looked like a major shakedown," explains Power. "But what Onymous actually did was to make it far easier and safer to buy drugs online, because most of the sites it closed down were clone sites made by criminals to rip Bitcoins off drug users. Tor, the PGP message-encryption system, and Bitcoin—the dark web's holy trinity—remain un-cracked."
Beyond this holy trinity, the possibilities for buying drugs online while avoiding the attentions of future cyber rozzers are endless. Jonny Y, a seasoned online buyer, former psychonaut, and onetime online vendor, told me the internet now has a thriving number of close-knit online drug-trading communities who've gravitated away from the dark market and moved onto the clear web. Funded by monthly subscription fees rather than commissions from Bitcoin transactions, they're helping to make hiding in plain sight a new camouflage for the online drug buyer.
But for all its nifty encrypto-nerdism, the internet drug trade still represents only a tiny proportion of the global trade in drugs. Barring the mass return of polio or a totalitarian style curfew regime, most people will still be out and about buying their drugs from family, friends, friends of friends, junkie acquaintances, and blokes saved in their phone as "Johnny Coke 1" in pubs, clubs, colleges, house parties, street corners, crack houses, Audis, and off other moms and dads on the school run.
In the future, if the notoriously early adopting gay drug scene is anything to go by, this will probably be aided and abetted by mobile phone apps. London's ChemSex community hooks up with drugs by using apps such as Grindr, which inadvertently offers instant, location-based drug booty calls. David Stuart has run some of London's pioneering club drug and ChemSex support services. I asked him how he saw the mainstreaming of this kind of drug consumption panning out.
"More than half of my clients do not use a dealer; they just put the word out on sex-apps, and they're sorted," says Stuart. "The shameless queuing in nightclubs for drugs has become the shameless sharing of them online. Whether the non-gay communities will follow suit... I assume they will. Tinder is right there, getting more popular by the month."
One of the most common profile names or sub-headings on Grindr has become "GMTV," which implies that the person is using, has to share, or has to sell, G (GBL) M (mephedrone), T (Tina, a.k.a. crystal meth), or V (Viagra). By using colloquial slang for drugs, and using search fields on certain sites, you can hunt for the drug you're after, or people who are using it who might be willing to hook you up electronically with someone who'll get some for you.
"Whether you're looking to buy, share your own drugs, or just shag some ugly bastard so he'll share his drugs with you, this is the modern way of scoring drugs," asserts Stuart. "Not a sniffer dog, drugs outreach worker, or needle-exchange bus in sight."
The need to keep it subtle won't matter if drugs are regulated. Over the next few years more US states—presumably including the big one, California, in 2016—will legalize cannabis. Because the policies have been voted for by the people and big business has jumped on for the ride, even a Republican president will find it hard to reverse or stem the tide.
Within ten years, more than half of Americans are likely to be living in a state where it is legal to buy marijuana, an ironic situation for a country that kicked off the global War on Drugs. Brand names such as Marley Natural and Humboldt Haze could be accompanied by Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Apache Gold, as Native Americans begin to produce and sell their own weed.
How much of an impact the American ganja revolution will have on the rest of the world is a hard call, so I spoke to Martin Jelsma, a political scientist and international drug policy expert from the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam.
"I'm quite convinced the cannabis regulation trend will continue and gradually speed up in the course of the next decade, as it will be shown in practice that a legally regulated market can be introduced in a responsible manner.
"Within a few years, especially once California take that step in 2016, it is very likely that several countries in the Americas will follow suit: Jamaica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, and, yes, even Canada after the elections." Jelsma tells me that national and EU legislation will likely inhibit cannabis legalization in Europe, where public support for the move is patchy. He says that pressure for change is building up from below. "Numerous local initiatives are being prepared: 50 mayors in the Netherlands are asking for regulated supplies to the coffee shops; in Frankfurt, Berlin, Geneva, and Copenhagen regulation proposals are on the table; the Basque country and Catalonia in Spain are moving in that direction." He says these changes could have a domino effect on countries in Africa and Asia, with Morocco, Cambodia, or India (which campaigned to keep cannabis legal in the 1950s) being the most likely to spring a surprise and legalize weed.
Despite all this, and with the high chance of countries agreeing to disagree at the United General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the global drug problem in 2016, we are heading into an increasingly polarized world in terms of drug policy. While Hollywood A-listers will be sucking on spirulina and sensi lassis on Melrose, poor fuckers in Iran and Saudi will be swinging from the rafters after being caught with a dub.
Where you happen to be on Earth when you are taking drugs will have increasingly contrasting consequences. With cannabis legalization in the US, the mantle of World Drug Policeman is heading in the direction of either Russia or China, both countries where users, addicts, and dealers are treated with almost medieval severity by the authorities.
But as mafia expert Federico Varese, a criminologist at Oxford University, points out, the Chinese authorities will likely be busy locked in a battle with the Triads as the country moves from being a transit country into a zone of high heroin and crystal meth consumption. "Although China is ruthless in terms of security and clamping down on dealers, it is also corrupt, so it will be hard to stop the rise of the Chinese drug gangs," says Varese. "There are already existing alliances between these gangs in Macau, Hong Kong, and China through gambling, and this makes shipping drugs and laundering drug money easier."
Varese also points out that for organized crime, which the world over has close links with drug trafficking, the online drug trade and US cannabis legalization are mere irritants that are easily compensated for by the rising global security focus on terrorism, rather than drugs.
Back in Blighty, our drug users will continue to play a leading global role in getting hammered. Yet whoever wins this year's general election, it's unlikely there will be any big changes to drug laws over the next decade. Radical drug proposals do not win elections or benefit political careers. Most MPs are too scared of the right-wing press to risk their careers by sticking their heads above the parapet to back anything that could seem remotely radical.
There may be the odd blip where the Sun comes out for reform in an editorial as it did in October, but will there be any end to the media's steadfast grip on the evolution of our drug policy? I put this question to Rich Peppiatt, a recovering tabloid hack and media campaigner who turned the tables on some of Fleet's Street's grubbiest editors in his film One Rogue Reporter. "I had a dream that Paul Dacre might get hit by a terrible bit of arthritis, only to find solace in a big joint," he jokes. "He'll experience an abrupt about-turn on cannabis decriminalization and stick the Daily Mail's masthead over a cannabis leaf. Then I woke up.
"But newspaper readership is dwindling, so the power the right-wing media has over policy will lessen. The spell will be broken, so you are more likely to have politicians standing up for more rational debate. I would love it if we got to the point of an MP standing up and saying: 'I do smoke weed—in fact I smoke it every night.' I'd vote for that guy. The dope-smoking MP would be great, but maybe twenty years' time is too soon."
Britain is facing another five years of austerity, and the effects will be felt for the next 15, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The more people become mired in poverty, social exclusion, and the trauma that surrounds it, the more likely their drug use is to become problematic. Meanwhile, local authorities are cutting back on the very services that can help them.
I asked Kevin Flemen, who has been advising drug services for ten years, for his vision of the future for Britain's most vulnerable, drug-addicted people. And it doesn't look good.
"As people are bounced out of the welfare system and pushed into less and less stable housing, they are pushed further adrift from mainstream society. So they will vanish into the weave of a frayed social fabric—sleeping in the woods, under bridges, outside of the urban areas and the key sources of help. Austerity will have an impact on the capacity and ability of agencies to respond to this dispossessed population. And if we do get an upsurge in problem drug users, we will be woefully ill-equipped to deal with it."
As police have already admitted, austerity will have an increasing effect on the war they are being asked to wage on drugs, as they won't be able to afford it. Over the next decade, cannabis grows will go undetected as thermo-imaging helicopters are grounded. Street drug dealers will be less likely to be arrested because there's too much overtime involved. To the horror of people like Peter Hitchens, the cutbacks could lead to the de facto creeping in of "de-penalization" of some drug offenses, which is a truncheon's width away from decriminalization. Carrying out the surveillance needed to catch the guys pulling the strings will become too pricey for many police forces, so while the gophers may get pulled, the bigger players will increasingly be left in peace to work out how to do that pesky laundering.
Not that the Mr. Bigs and drug trade monopolies will be too pleased about that, because they are gradually being replaced by what Dick Hobbs, a criminologist and author of Lush Life, calls a "community of practice"—"a trading zone that anyone can engage with... a complete democratization of drug crime.
"Basically, the old underworlds based on the industrial working class and the old working-class neighborhoods are gone, and the new market is open to everyone," says Hobbs, who has spent 30 years researching London drug crime.
"You don't need a 'family' background, ten years being staunch and stand-up in various prisons, or any special skills [to sell drugs]. The most unlikely people in terms of class, gender, and background can now get involved. Four mates having a beer over Christmas put their hands in their pockets and divvy up. One of them flies out of Stansted and is back from Amsterdam by 9 PM with a holdall full of pills. Next time, they take a transit van. Overnight they have become international drug dealers. This is the future of organized drug crime."
One last prediction. Although this might ruin my chance of a guest slot on the Gadget Show or Doctor Who or whatever, I'm willing to make the call that "chemputers"—which will supposedly print 3-D drugs—and electronic highs—which allegedly get people frazzled via their iTunes—are both bollocks, and that even by 2025, will be used regularly by fewer people than have been to the moon. And if this line comes back to haunt me, I'll be hiding somewhere in the dark market.
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