In May this year, a UK law came into force which banned all new psychoactive substances, or "NPS". Instead of prohibiting new drugs such as synthetic cannabinoids as they hit the market, the law bans all substances that have an effect on the brain (bar a list of pre-approved drugs, such as alcohol and nicotine).
But banning a drug does not stifle customer demand for it. In its latest National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime, the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) has said the trade of these substances will likely move to the online black market.
"Change in legislation around NPS in May 2016 effectively banning so-called 'legal highs' is likely to see a large increase in these drugs being offered through the dark web instead," the report, published late last week, reads. According to the report's methodology, "likely" refers to an "associated probability range" of 75-85 percent.
The NCA is right. Substances advertised as "spice," a broad term for synthetic cannabinoids, are being sold by a number of different vendors across multiple dark web marketplaces.
On Dream Market, for example, a UK-based seller calling themselves SaintSymbiosis is selling 7 grams of Spice for 0.1094 bitcoins, or around £50 ($66).
"This was a legal high in the UK untill [sic] very recently, it is extremely strong and unless you are an experienced user of this type of product I would strongly urge you not to order this, it will be too strong for you to enjoy and certainly not a drug you would want to take up as a new user," the product description reads.
As Motherboard found in October last year, a myriad of other previously legal drugs are widely available on the dark web, including Benzo Fury, whose effects resembled ecstasy, and which was first banned in 2013; the psychostimulant ethylphenidate, which attracted the attention of legislators in April 2015; and lisdexamphetamine, which acts as a stimulant and was outlawed in 2014.
Before the ban, people could easily source these "legal highs" from digital shops on the normal web, and some sites still offer them—though buyers and sellers may risk facing prosecution (The ban does not cover possession, but does apply to production, supply, import, and export).
Of course, the trade in new psychoactive substances likely won't only move onto the dark web, but will continue to proliferate throughout the analog black market drug trade as well. Last week, the BBC reported that NPS, and in particular synthetic cannabinoids, were being sold on the street.
"It's still endemic I suppose. Obviously you can't buy it in the shops, but there's still plenty of people who sell it here," one user told the BBC.
An NCA spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that, "I don't think we have anything more to add on the subject above and beyond what is in the [National Strategic Assessment]."
A Home Office spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that, "These dangerous drugs have already cost far too many lives. The Psychoactive Substances Act is sending out a clear message - this government will take whatever action is necessary to keep our families and communities safe. These drugs are not legal, they are not safe and we will not allow them to be sold in this country.
"Legislation is part of our approach to drugs which involves preventing drug use in our communities and helping dependent individuals to recover," the spokesperson said, "while ensuring our drugs laws are enforced."
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