This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
Ross Ulbricht, founder of Silk Road and the man who's become synonymous with internet drug sales, recently found out that he'd be spending the rest of his life in jail. During his sentencing, the judge told him that what he did with Silk Road was "terribly destructive to our social fabric". His lawyers are currently appealing the verdict, but Ulbricht remains behind bars for now.
Of course, there are plenty more dark web marketplaces dealing in illegal goods than Ulbricht's shuttered site. While taking pretty much any drug isn't exactly the least harmful thing you can do to yourself, there is a theory that these deep web pharmacies might actually be preventing harm to users and society as a whole.
The reasoning is twofold: selling their product online, drug dealers no longer need to fight each other out for territory, and by moving their business online and constantly being rated by those using their product, they would be forced to vigilantly monitor the quality of their gear. In turn, the reviews allow users to read about the potency and recommended dosage, something you're probably not going to get from the kind of street dealer who texts you routinely throughout the week with: "Fat Busting Bags of MD ** Best Party Powder in Town ** Don't Forget to Holla :p".
These theories, however, were completely speculative – until now. The Global Drug Survey 2015, led by specialist Dr Adam Winstock, questioned over 100,000 people worldwide about their experiences when it came to buying drugs on deep web marketplaces. Only a small number of participants (roughly 5,000) had actually used sites like Silk Road, but that still makes it the largest study of dark web users to date.
Forty percent of the dark web shoppers surveyed say they've been sold drugs by a street dealer that have turned out to be something other than what they'd expected. Only 10 percent of those who've bought online had shared similar experiences. In general, users reported online prices to be lower, the quality to be higher and the experience much safer. They also claimed to make fewer impulse purchases and only bought the amount they needed, rather than bulk buying.
The only negative aspect of online drug markets reported by those surveyed was that the chance of you losing your money was much higher. And it's easy to understand where that worry comes from; multiple drug markets have been shut down by authorities, and the owners of the website Evolution once took off with a huge amount of users' money. Twenty-eight percent of dark web users claim to have lost money this way, compared to only 11 percent of those who buy from regular dealers.
Adam Winstock, Head of the Global Drug Survey, is glad that his research is making this sort of data available.
"How does access to really good drugs – away from street criminals – change people's drug behaviours?" Winstock asked over the phone. "That's one of the things we're trying to find out. Shopping on Amazon completely changed my life – being able to buy all these things for such little money. I wonder how these online markets will change drug consumption."
The survey also asked questions about changes in users' consumption patterns, which highlighted one particular trend. Almost half of those surveyed said that they have started using more diverse types of drugs thanks to these marketplaces. Because the selection on offer is so varied, experimenting naturally becomes easier.
Although users experienced less violence and have easier access to higher quality products, Winstock still has some concerns about online drug markets:
"Getting really great drugs isn't necessarily a good thing," he said. "There are a lot of really, really good ecstasy pills around nowadays. What we are seeing is that emergency room visits are going up because the ecstasy has got so strong. So we really need to start talking about dosage here."
The most popular drug on the dark web is MDMA. Almost 64 percent of online shoppers say they have either bought MDMA in pill form, or as a powder. LSD's high ranking is noteworthy, too – a possible explanation being that LSD is a well-known drug, but fairly hard to come by through the regular channels.
Floor van Bakkum, Prevention Team Manager at the Jellinek organisation in the Netherlands, thinks that the number of online drug shoppers will only continue to grow.
"It's utopian to think that you can stop this. Booking an aeroplane ticket is something we do online, so buying drugs will eventually become an online experience, too. Especially in countries where they're still very illegal and complicated to come by. In any case, it's still a good idea to try and get your drugs tested, also when you buy them off the deep web."
The European Union echoed Floor's feelings in a report last week, recognising that online markets are growing, but that they don't have the means to stop them. "The growth of online and virtual drug markets pose major challengers to law enforcement and drug control policies," the report said.
So there you have it: buying drugs online is safer and more cost effective than getting them off a fugitive war criminal in an Asda car park – but don't be surprised if you end up losing a little money along the way.
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