The internet poses unique challenges for drug prohibition

Following is my article published at The Conversation yesterday. It’s a summary of my current work based on my recent presentation which you can view on vimeo if you prefer audio-visual 🙂

The Australia21 report argues the “war on drugs” has failed and we should consider other options for controlling drugs, such as decriminalisation or regulation. In addition to these arguments, an important challenge for drug prohibition has been overlooked in the drugs debate so far: the internet.

While the internet has opened up new opportunities to buy drugs, it has also accelerated new drug trends. In the past year, we’ve seen the emergence of two key trends: synthetic cannabinoids (sold as Kronic, K2, Spice, among other names) and the anonymous online marketplace Silk Road.

What are synthetic cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are drugs that mimic the effects of cannabis. They are typically sold as a smokeable herb mixture which has been sprayed with synthetic cannabinoid chemicals and then dried. They first appeared internationally around 2004 and became the focus of increased media and regulatory attention in Australia in 2011.

Research into the harms of these products is in its infancy, but early reports suggest some synthetic cannabinoids may be more likely to produce paranoia and adverse cardiovascular problems than cannabis itself.

The internet is used to sell these products, as Googling the word Kronic will show you. Nevertheless, preliminary results from our yet-to-be-published survey of 316 synthetic cannabinoid users found that only 22% bought from online stores. Most preferred to buy from bricks-and-mortar stores such as herbal high shops, adult shops and tobacconists.

Comparisons of Google search statistics with our survey data suggest a link between the discussion of synthetic cannabinoids in online news, online searches for synthetic cannabinoids, and reports from survey respondents of when they first tried the drug. Increased media coverage of synthetic cannabis seems to pique public and drug user interest in these substances, which leads to further media interest in an iterative cycle.

Policy responses under prohibition

Various Australian states and territories, as well as the federal Therapeutic Goods Administration, legislated against specific synthetic cannabinoids during 2011. In response, manufacturers have attempted to get around these laws by creating new blends which they claim are legal.

It is still too early to tell whether soon-to-be-enacted federal laws – prohibiting eight broad categories of synthetic cannabinoids and any drugs that claim to mimic cannabis – will effectively end this cat-and-mouse game.

Silk Road

Silk Road is like an eBay for illicit drugs. All kinds of substances are available, including heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine and cannabis. Similarly to eBay, buyers rate sellers and provide comments about the quality of their products, how fast they ship, and their level of professionalism and discretion.

Silk Road is accessible only to people who are using Tor anonymising software. Tor uses encryption which aims to make it impossible for anyone to trace the internet user’s IP address. Buyers and sellers on Silk Road also use the encrypted currency Bitcoin, which is supposed to prevent the financial transactions from being traced.

Australian buyers may be concerned about the potential for customs to discover the illicit contents of the package they receive in the mail. But discussions in the Silk Road forum suggest that Australians are using Silk Road to buy from both overseas and Australian sellers.

There is a lot we don’t know about Silk Road and other similar marketplaces. My colleagues and I will soon begin a pilot study to better understand how Silk Road works.

Policy responses under prohibition

It’s unclear whether any policy responses to control Silk Road have been effective.

One approach is to try to regulate overseas internet content through the proposed internet filter. But I doubt it will have any effect on Silk Road because it operates in what is known as the “hidden web”.

The second approach is to ban the technologies that make Silk Road work: Tor and Bitcoin. This does not appear to be possible because both are peer-to-peer technologies and it’s hard to imagine how such a ban could be enforced.

The third is to increase scanning of posted letters and parcels. But while scanning of the parcel post has been increased over recent years, it’s not clear how effective such measures are and what impact they have on the speed of the postal system.

The fourth is for law enforcement to infiltrate Silk Road to gather intelligence. This is probably already occurring. We’re yet to see whether such law enforcement measures are capable of disrupting the Silk Road market.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that synthetic drugs and online anonymous drug marketplaces pose unique challenges for drug prohibition. Policy makers must keep these challenges in mind when considering alternative ways to control and regulate drugs.

3 thoughts on “The internet poses unique challenges for drug prohibition”

  1. The synthetic cannabinoid products presented a great opportunity for policy and law makers to look at regulation versus a prohibitionist approach of these then legal substances. At the same time we are seeing reports such as the Global Commission on Drugs Report and the Australia21 Report highlighting this debate again. Through the media we receive unclear and non-debated reasons for the choice for prohibition. Have you come across much honest debate by law and policy makers around this particular prohibition choice?

  2. Hi Felicity, thanks for the comment. Yes there are some academic researchers who produce decent arguments considering different ways of regulating new emerging drugs – I don’t have them with me now but there are some journal articles on the topic. Some suggest they could be regulated through the medicinal system, others suggest a new class of drugs could be created like in New Zealand.

    I think the issue of how to regulate synthetic cannabinoids is directly linked to how we regulate cannabis. Most of the data I can see shows that the synthetics are not ‘safer’ than cannabis – there are more side effects and variations in the synthetics. So, if cannabis is prohibited, so too should synthetics. However, if we had a different approach to cannabis, maybe we could consistently have a different approach to synthetic cannabis. It’s not surprising to me that the synthetics have been prohibited given the current paradigm of prohibition, but I think the trends in new drugs mean this prohibition just leads to newer and newer substances being available, ostensibly increasing harm to users.

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