This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The sale of drugs, like the humans who consume them, is destined to evolve. This decade has seen transactions move from backseats and street corners to DMs and the online black market. According to 2019’s Global Drug Survey, the number of users who bought drugs on the darknet has doubled to nearly 28.6 percent since 2014. Meanwhile the 2019 "DM For Details" report on social media dealing by Volteface, a UK-based harm reduction organisation, revealed that 24 percent of young people had seen narcotics advertised on social media. Bearing in mind the relative newness of the technology – it's only in the last ten years that we've had mobile internet and platforms like Instagram and Spotify – this is swift progress.
So, how did the 2010s become the decade of internet drugs? Let’s go through it, drug by drug.
2010 – 2011: Mephedrone
Research published at the start of January 2010 found that mephedrone – the synthetic cathinone referred to as “meow-meow” by the papers and your da – was the fourth most popular drug for UK clubbers: an impressive feat considering the then-legal substance only came to prominence in 2009.
“Mephedrone’s popularity really took off when media outlets started to falsely report that there was a new 'killer’ drug in circulation,” says Niamh Eastwood of Release, a drugs law organisation. Indeed headlines like “Meow Meow Made Man Rip His Scrotum Off” in November 2009 set a vanguard for tabloid drug hysteria. Helping meph’s cause was the poor quality of MDMA and cocaine at the time, with coke skirting a record-low average purity of 20 percent. It was also beguilingly cheap – around £10 a gram – and freely available across the internet, where online stores with natty names like discofood.co.uk and ravegardener.org sold the drug, often under the guise of “plant food.”
“The first time I took it was August 2009,” says Rory Taylor, 33. “We were running out of drugs at about 7AM, found a shop on the internet and picked it up an hour later. It was so easy.” Mephedrone was reclassified as a Class B Drug under the Misuse Of Drugs Act in April 2010 and nowadays, is found mostly on the chemsex scene, with Home Office figures stating that just 46,000 people used in in the last year of records.
“In some ways, this [mephedrone] started to popularise online buying of substances, however increased use of the dark web is more linked to increased awareness of sites selling drugs on this medium,” says Eastwood. It was a 2011 Gawker article about Silk Road, an online black market used to sell illegal drugs, that helped the dark web marketplace emerge from the shadows. With their identities and location made (almost) impossible to trace through the Tor browser, Silk Road purchasers could trade directly with vendors and leave public feedback on every drug under the earthly sky.
2013 – 2015: The Silk Road Years
The Silk Road site was driven by the libertarian principles of founder Dread Pirate Roberts, who believed in free markets and the individual's right to choose to take drugs. Unfortunately for Roberts – real name Ross Ulbricht – the authorities did not share the utopian vision and swooped to arrest him in San Francisco in October 2013. FBI special agent Christopher Tarbell declared they’d put the kibosh on “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet today,” with prosecutors eventually stating that The Silk Road facilitated nearly $213.9 million in sales, of which $180million were attributed to drugs through more than one million deals.
Regardless, the near-40 year history of the war on drugs proves that the market is both stubbornly adaptable and resilient. And so it proved with Silk Road 2.0, which the FBI says started trading in November 2013, just five weeks after the original was seized.
“The dark web, or digital encrypted trading of illegal substances, will always adapt and remain one step ahead of the law,” says Mike Power, author of Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High. “It's too profitable, convenient and popular.”
Sadly for Silk Road 2.0, it too was shut down in November 2014 – with authorities saying it presided over $8 million of sales a month, generated by 150,000 active users. But, undeterred, users simply moved on and got their wares from competitor marketplaces like Alphabay or Agora.
On 29 May 2015, the full weight of the American justice system fell on Ross Ulbricht and he received two life sentences, with no chance of parole. Did it make a difference? Not in the way law enforcers had they hoped. A 2018 study released by the British Journal Of Criminology adroitly displayed the futility of it all: sales on the dark web drug market Agora doubled in days following Ulbricht’s original sentencing in 2015, with Wired reporting that international sales jumped from $100,000 daily to $250,000 in this time.
2017: The Rise of Darknet Marketplaces
The Psychoactive Substances Act was passed in the UK on the 26th of May 2016, with former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt, calling it "arguably the worst piece of legislation in living memory.” Primarily conceived to target head shops selling “legal highs” across the country, research into the policy's influence on the availability of the synthetic cannabinoid MDMB-CHMICA online suggested it made little impact on the online drugs market.
The following year in 2017, darkweb marketplaces Alphabay and Hansa were closed by authorities. More recently, a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction suggested that organised crime gangs are becoming the darkweb’s principle drug vendors. Could the closures of dark web sites have done more harm than good for a country now experiencing record drug deaths?
“People using the dark web can have a lot more control over the market they are interacting with,” says Eastwood. “Despite negative media portrayals of online vendors, such as Dread Pirate Roberts, there is in fact a lot of harm reduction advice provided by vendors and the larger online community. With increasing knowledge of online platforms it is inevitable that this market will grow and arguably online markets, such as the dark web, are much safer than open markets.”
2018 – 2019: The Move to Social Media
“The web has always been used to buy and sell drugs,” says Mike Power. “Connections and platforms just got more ubiquitous and cheaper and faster and more reliable.” Arguably, none simplified the transaction more than the social media apps we have twitching on our smartphones. Of the 24 percent of young people that had seen drugs advertised on social media according to Volteface's "DM For Details" report, 56 percent saw the ads on Snapchat, 55 percent on Instagram and 47 percent on Facebook, with cannabis by far the most popular, followed by cocaine and MDMA/ecstasy.
“This is the new public space and the ideal platform for dealers,” says Liz McCulloch, director of policy at Volteface, who curated the study. “They can advertise in really creative ways – pictures, prizes, reaching out to people’s friends, building organic relationships. Among young people, there is a perception that they can ’vet’ them, get a sense of whether they are trustworthy.”
McCulloch says there’s a huge knowledge gap between young people and the people enforcing drugs laws. “The way dealers use emojis and language will always evolve,” she says, enabling them to stay one step ahead.
Legitimate concerns abound in this new era of social media dealing – not least the normalisation of drug use and dealing to impressionable minds. Volteface's report recommends the introduction of a regulatory requirement for social media sites to monitor drug-related activity on their sites and share with the police. And what does it call for most loudly? “We need to legally regulate cannabis,” says McCulloch. “This is how we will take out social media's largest drug market.”
Here’s hoping the 2020s gives us what we really want.