Are blogs even a thing anymore?

I began this blog in 2010, when the internet looked a little bit different to today. But I’ve just gotten a new job at RMIT University (hello again Melbourne!) and I’ve decided there is still a role for the humble blog. I’ve even renamed this website from the quaint sounding ‘Drugs, Internet, Society’ to ‘Drugs in Digital Society’. Perhaps in 5 years I’ll just say ‘Drugs’. Perhaps we are already so embedded in the digital that it almost ceases to be a thing that we speak of – it’s more like the air we breathe these days. (See The end of cyberspace).

I look forward to sharing more of my stuff with you in the months to come!

Pill testing is still a great idea, if we use the right equipment

Andrew Leibie (Pill testing sounds like a great idea, but there’s a catch, Sydney Morning Herald, 20/1) argues that pill testing is flawed. The technology is not accurate or reliable. It can’t detect all ingredients in pills, including some of the new drugs that are active in micro-doses. It can’t provide data on dose or concentration. He also argues that the evidence from countries where pill testing is conducted shows that it doesn’t work. He concludes that “the reality is that pill testing kits will never be able to detect all the illicit drugs entering the community”.

Many of the statements Leibie makes are factually correct. The problem is that he makes a number of assumptions about what pill testing is and how to evaluate it.

Image: Energy Control

First, let’s start with a summary of what we are talking about. ‘Pill testing’ (or drug testing) is a service that invites ordinary citizens to anonymously submit samples of illegal drugs for forensic analysis, and provides individualised feedback of results and counselling as appropriate. This kind of testing service has been operating in some form for 50 years across multiple countries around the world, with the longest running services operating in Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain.

Leibie assumes that ‘pill testing’ involves colour reagent test kits. But pill or drug testing services acknowledge that testing kits as a main testing tool are poor technology. They only use test kits as their main tool when they don’t have access to better technology, due to lack of funding or government resistance to their operation.

Fully funded pill testing services use proper laboratory equipment. Mobile laboratories in Switzerland and Austria can determine contents and purity comprehensively in less than 30 minutes, with a minority of samples that require additional analysis sent to the main laboratory. In the UK, infrared spectrometers are used in the field, [edit: alongside other techniques, thanks Fiona Measham!] providing indicative results in less than one minute. Reagent test kits may be used to determine which next test to conduct. A suite of tools is needed depending on the drug, its form and whether there is evidence of multiple drugs.

Although testing services acknowledge the limitations of using test kits as the only analysis method, there is still important information that can be gleaned for consumers under specific conditions. For example, in the case of a pill sold as ecstasy or MDMA, the use of a Marquis kit can definitely tell you whether or not an MDMA-like substance is present can definitely tell you when there is no MDMA-like substance present and can be used to rule out MDMA as a possible component [edit: thank you to Earth Erowid]. For the consumer who is not interested in consuming anything but an MDMA-like substance, a negative result on the Marquis will prevent the use of the unknown substance. In many surveys of people who use drugs, including a recent survey that I led of 800 Australian festivalgoers (paper under review), the vast majority say they would discard a drug in this scenario. This decision could save their life if the drug they were about to consume was high dose NBOMe or PMA.

Yes, I agree with Leibie that there are scenarios where the use of test kits alone is problematic. One such scenario is where Ecstasy/MDMA is combined with another potent drug, like an NBOMe, as mentioned by Leibie. In this instance test kits would indicate an MDMA-like substance, leaving the consumer in the dark about the NBOMe. Another scenario is a pure MDMA pill that is high dose, with reagent kits unable to provide purity or dose information. These flaws underscore the importance of governments supporting the use of more sophisticated laboratory equipment in the field. They are not an argument against pill testing altogether.

Leibie also implies that testing has to be fast in order to be acceptable to the target group. We asked festivalgoers in our survey how long they would be willing to wait. Most were willing to wait half an hour, and many were willing to wait days or even weeks to find out what is in their drugs. A testing service does not just have to be stationed at a festival. It can also be available through fixed site booths, as it is conducted in the Netherlands, where people can have drugs tested in the late afternoon in preparation for their activities that evening or the next weekend.

It is absolutely true that reagent tests are not comprehensive. And this is why we need to fund access to laboratory-grade equipment to find out quickly what is contained within particularly lethal batches. A rapid turn-around of information from a credible source can make a difference. For example, in the Netherlands, a pill was identified through their testing service with high dose PMMA in late 2014, just prior to New Year’s Eve. Dutch services distributed warnings widely and no deaths were reported. Unfortunately the UK did not have a similar warning system and recorded 4 deaths due to consumption of this same pill.

Which leads me to the most inaccurate part of Leibie’s piece. His depiction of the UK is nonsense. Firstly, the UK did not have a pill testing service in 2015. Secondly, even now, the UK has one service, The Loop, which conducts testing at a handful of events. It is nonsense to try and evaluate the effectiveness of The Loop by pointing to one statistic about the number of NPS related deaths across the whole country a full year before any testing had been conducted in that country.

The technology is available for an Australian testing service to test samples and disseminate accurate information that could help people avoid harms and help health workers treat people more effectively. There should not be a need in this country to use old technology to provide a substandard service, unless governments continue to ignore the needs of people who use drugs in our community. Until that point, test kits and online reports will be the best information people have, with all their flaws.

Help inform harm reduction in the EDM space

We need your help!

Harm reduction group Energy Control – famous for their international and local drug testing services – have collaborated with Australia’s DanceWize to do some research into safer drug use practices. We will see how drug use patterns and safer use practices differ between Spain and Australia, countries with quite different policy settings.

If you have been to festivals or dance parties recently, please complete the survey and help harm reduction groups understand what’s really happening!

Rainbow Serpent Festival
Rainbow Serpent Festival

Call for papers: Drug Cryptomarkets




Guest editors:

Monica Barratt and Judith Aldridge

Cryptomarkets (or ‘dark net markets’) are digital platforms that use anonymising software (e.g. Tor) and cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) to facilitate trade of goods and services. Their emergence has facilitated transnational access to a wide range of high-quality psychoactive substances. Cryptomarkets are similar to open markets (e.g. so-called street markets) in the sense that trades can occur between strangers; however, cryptomarkets also offer the advantage of relatively efficient inbuilt trust mechanisms such as rating systems and forum discussions.

We invite papers that critically examine and advance our knowledge of drug cryptomarkets. The extent and quality of the submitted abstracts will determine whether we publish a full issue or a themed cluster of papers.

Abstracts (not exceeding 350 words) are invited that address the following questions:

  • What are the scope and scale of cryptomarkets?
  • How are cryptomarkets located within other internet structures (dark web, deep web, etc.)?
  • How are the drug use and harm/benefit trajectories of cryptomarket users affected by these new supply modes, compared with conventional drug market configurations?
  • How do cryptomarkets respond to threats from scams and law enforcement efforts?
  • What challenges do cryptomarkets pose for drug policy?
  • How is sense of community understood and enacted within the cryptomarket environment?
  • What is the potential for harm reduction digital outreach in cryptomarket environments?
  • To what extent do cryptomarkets flatten hierarchical supply network chains? What are the implications of their effects on network structures for drug markets?
  • To what extent can new drug trends emerging from cryptomarkets complement existing drug trend monitoring systems?
  • What are the methodological and ethical issues that arise from researching cryptomarkets?
  • How can participatory research models be implemented successfully in this space?
  • Any other research questions not mentioned above that relate to the theme.

We anticipate a wide range of disciplinary approaches will be included in this volume, as the topic invites consideration from sociological, criminological, economic, historical, epidemiological and policy perspectives. Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods research are welcome. Papers must discuss the implications of their findings for drug policy.

We invite six types of contributions (NB: in rare circumstances word limits may be exceeded with permission from the editors):

  • Research papers: Research papers are usually based on original empirical analyses, but may also be discursive critical essays. These papers are usually between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
  • Research methods papers: These papers explore methodological innovations in the field and are usually between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
  • Commentary: These papers explore in depth a particular topic or issue for debate, and may also include evidence and analysis. The Editor may invite expert responses to commentaries for publication in the same issue. Commentaries are usually between 2,500 and 4,000 words.
  • Viewpoint: Short comments and opinion pieces of up to 1,200 words which raise an issue for discussion, or comprise a case report on an issue relevant to research, policy, or practice.
  • Policy or historical analysis: These are focused specifically around contemporary or historical analyses of policies and their impacts, and are usually between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
  • Review: These papers seek to review systematically a particular area of research, intervention, or policy. Reviews are usually between 4,000 and 8,000 words.

Abstracts should be emailed to and to by Friday 10 April 2015. The email subject heading should read “IJDP Special Issue”. The editors will inform authors by Friday 1 May whether to proceed to full submission. If selected, complete manuscripts will be due Friday 7 August. All manuscripts are subject to the normal IJDP peer review process. Accepted papers will be available online from late 2015 and the special issue or section will be published in print in early 2016.

For more information about the International Journal of Drug Policy, see:



A discussion about dark net terminology

As a social scientist, I continue to be interested in understanding the intersections between internet technologies and psychoactive drugs, especially drugs that are otherwise difficult to obtain due to prohibition. These intersections are numerous: the internet can facilitate drug trades, information exchange, and safe spaces for communication between like-minded people. While all of the above occurred prior to ubiquitous internet use, current digital technologies lubricate these existing processes making them quicker, easier and more efficient, changing the scale of what is possible.

One enduring problem I have noticed when discussing these issues is a lack of clarity about terminology. This lack of clarity can lead to serious problems in logic and argument.

An example of this problem can be found in reporting by the Australian TV program 60 minutes from 2014, as described at AllThingsVice. In this program, the terms ‘deep web’ and ‘dark web’ were conflated. This conflation led to the reporters claiming that the dark web was 90% of the total content of the web, when in fact, it is many magnitudes smaller than the surface web. This conflation suited the tone of this story as it supported the scaremongering: making the dark web threat appear very large. Nevertheless the lack of shared definitions of terms makes this space harder to understand and easier to misrepresent.

I am by no means the definitive expert on all things dark net. What follows are my thoughts on what I believe we are talking about. I include here my sense of doubt and ambiguities that I believe exist regarding terminology and definitions of internet structures that surround or are present in the dark net. I invite your comments and hopefully these may lead to a more definitive document, although I doubt you can ever get ‘the internet’ to agree entirely on anything!

If we consider ‘the web’, that is, all of the content accessible through browsers connected to the Internet, we can divide the web into two parts: (1) the surface web, (2) the deep web. All content that can be accessed through search engines is the surface web. The remaining web content is the deep web: which we can define as content inaccessible via search engines. These terms and definitions were first used by Bergman in 2001. In his calculations the deep web was many magnitudes larger than the surface web, which he represented with an iceberg image, the surface web being just the tip of the iceberg of web content available. We are nearly 15 years on from this original formulation, so I have no idea the scale of content the web now contains. A very large number I’m sure!

So, what is contained within the deep web? Some examples include: content that is locked behind pay-walled websites, content accessible through company or academic databases, any kind of database that cannot be searched directly by Google, websites that are not linked to other websites, private websites and forums, etc. An example of typical deep web content is the results of a search for accommodation using a travel website. This content can only be accessed after a text search, which is something a search engine cannot do. A vast amount of website content can, therefore, not be indexed by clicking on links, and this is the deep web.

A small part of the deep web content includes hidden internet services, usually accessible through Tor but also through alternative anonymising software like I2P. By its users, this part of the internet is called the dark net. The terminology ‘dark’ refers to the difficulty finding the content rather than its nature being dark: content in the dark web is being intentionally hidden. The term dark net and the term dark web are often used interchangeably. According to wikipedia, a darknet is a private peer-to-peer network, but it also appears to be the term most currently used by hidden internet service communities to describe their world. For example, darknetstats, r/darknetmarkets, etc.

Dark net markets are digital platforms that use anonymising software (e.g. Tor) and cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) to facilitate trade of goods and services. These marketplaces have also been called cryptomarkets (coined by James Martin) because they would not be possible without the use of cryptography. Dark net markets or cryptomarkets are a subset of the dark net or dark web; the dark net/web is a subset of the deep web; and the deep web is a subset of the entire web. The deep web is all content that is not classified as the surface web, but it appears that the terms surface web and clear web / clear net are used interchangeably to refer to the same thing: web content accessible via search engines. Perhaps at some point the clear / dark distinction was binary, in that the dark web represented everything that the clear web was not.

An interesting point was made in conversation with Rasmus Andersen on the above distinctions. He noted that it is in fact more difficult to access paywalled content in the deep web than it is to access dark net markets, because there are many access points in the surface web that lead there, even without the need to install Tor. For example, tor2web can be used as a gateway into dark net markets without actually using Tor, although this would not be a secure option. Many of the sites that track the development of dark net markets are also hosted in the clear web: deepdotweb and r/darknetmarkets, for example. So, although content from dark net markets is not directly indexed by search engines (at least clear web search engines, cf. dark net market search engine Grams), entry points into dark net markets abound in the clear net. A simple Google search can mean you are not far away from entering a dark net market. But as I’ve outlined previously, it takes more than entering the marketplace to make a successful purchase!

Here are some helpful related links:

Hacker Lexicon: What Is the Dark Web? by Andy Greenberg

Clearing up confusion – deep web vs. dark web by Bright Planet

Thanks to those involved in prior discussions on the Cryptomarket Research e-list. The above is provisional so tell me what you think in the comments.

Returning from leave to begin a new fellowship!

This week I have returned to work from maternity leave to start a new job at the University of NSW, specifically within the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. I am starting my 4-year National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Fellowship. My topic of research continues my interests ‘Drugs, Internet, Society’ but with a specific focus on new/novel/emerging drugs, as these pose unique policy challenges both here and globally.

I’ll be part-time to begin with and I have a number of ongoing projects to complete as well, but I do hope to become more active again with my blogging and other social media outlets. I really value the interactivity and public conversations that these media allow. So, expect some more discussions over the coming months. 🙂

Letter to Nash and Dutton re defunding ADCA

My email to Senator Nash and MP Peter Dutton:

Dear Ms Nash and Mr Dutton

I was shocked to discover that the ADCA has been defunded by your government. I am a research fellow specialising in alcohol and other drug research – my work has recently been recognised by an early career research fellowship through the National Health and Medical Research Council. I have been a member of the ADCA since 2003, when I first began working in this field. I regularly use their services and participate in their events, which enable the broader public to be better informed about drug/alcohol issues. These issues touch the lives of almost everyone in our community. I am astonished that your government does not see the value in such an organisation with a 50 year history, an organisation that is highly valued by everyone in our field.

I would ask you to reconsider your decision. For what is a relatively small amount of funding, this group does a lot of good work, and is supported by paid members like myself, so is not entirely dependent on your funding (therefore bringing greater value for money than a fully funded council). I see this decision as very short-sighted, because by reducing the government commitment to ADCA, you will very likely be increasing the burden of alcohol/drug issues in the community, therefore increasing the costs of managing such problems down the track. Prevention is better than cure, and it is also less costly for the budget. I would hope you would see this logic when consider budgetary matters rather than looking for short-term cuts.

Yours sincerely,



Farewell for a little while

There’s been a lot going on in the world of online drug markets and new synthetic drugs lately. I appreciate people are interested in my commentary on these matters. I wish I could respond to you all, but unfortunately I am unable to do so.

In 4 weeks time I will go on maternity leave, and will be taking quite a few months (perhaps even a year!) away from my job. I need some time in this last month to finish up the loose ends of my project work, and then I need to prepare for the impending arrival of our first child!

If you have a new request for me, please contact the National Drug Research Institute reception on +61892661600 or where our receptionist and media officers can assign other researchers to help you.

As for my blog readers, I’m not sure how long I’ll be away – I might pop my head back in to write some ideas up, but can’t guarantee anything. Stay safe and be well. 🙂



The problem with banning

Edit: You can listen to a version of this post here: Link to 1233 Newcastle clip

Tragically, we have seen another teen (Henry Kwan) die after consuming what he believed to be LSD, but which was actually an NBOMe (e.g. 25I-NBOMe), which is a much newer and more potent psychedelic substance. At the same time the NSW Fair Trading Department has banned a list of products that contain synthetic analogue drugs and has raided stores across that state.

I was asked onto ABC Radio in Newcastle this morning for my view on this issue and this is a summary of what I said:

The problem with banning is that banning is one of the major causes of this problem in the first place.

To take the example of cannabis, we currently prohibit the use of cannabis, although if someone is caught with personal use amounts of cannabis, they will either be fined or diverted for first offences across Australia. Even so, people know that it is illegal and that it is an offence. And many people care deeply about that. They want to be able to consume cannabis and not worry at all about being caught, to be able to do it legally, to know that they can enjoy a weekend spliff just like others enjoy a weekend beer, without having to worry about losing their job because a drug test is positive for past cannabis use.

So when these people are made aware of a new so-called legal weed, the synthetic cannabis products, they are interested. Maybe they can finally enjoy the cannabis like high without having to worry about the legality.

So you can see that prohibition of cannabis largely drives these people’s attraction to synthetic cannabis products.

Over the last couple of years we have seen some of the health harms that have arisen from people switching from natural to synthetic – including withdrawal, dependence, psychosis, seizures. Now, I’m not saying plant based cannabis is harmless, but it has been proven to have medicinal pain relieving qualities. At least we know a lot more about cannabis and its many constituents, we have been doing research for many decades and it has been used by humans for millenia. This is the opposite for the vast number of synthetic cannabinoids which we know very little about. Therefore, I think it is reasonable to conclude that if someone is going to use one product or the other, natural plant-based cannabis is a better choice, a healthier choice. Yet, our policies seem to be pushing people towards the lesser choice, the choice we know less about, and which appears to be associated with more harmful effects – that is, the synthetic cannabis products.

We need to ask: what is drug policy about? Is it about helping people to reduce drug harms, by nudging them towards less harmful options? Or is it about putting our head in the sand and thinking we can eliminate all drug use somehow, while at the same time, nudging people who consume drugs towards more harmful options? Or is it not about harms at all… but rather, about the appearance of doing something in the eyes of the voting public?

I think we need to have a serious discussion about what we want from our drug policies and what we value in Australia when it comes to drug use, something almost all of us do when you consider that alcohol, caffeine and pain medications are also psychoactive drugs.

I would suggest that Australia needs to join the global discussion about alternatives to the prohibition model. That doesn’t mean that we move to legalisation of all drugs – there are a lot of different models of regulation we could consider. But the very first step is to acknowledge that we have a problem and that we need to consider solutions. Until the Australian public and our governments and our other officials in police, justice, health and social sectors publicly acknowledge that the current system is broken, anyone who tries to start this discussion is labelled as radical. These issues are complex and they require strong leadership of a public discussion that opens up our assumptions to full scrutiny.

Buying on Silk Road

In this post, I’m going to write up the process of buying something on Silk Road. The first thing to note is that the item I bought was not an illicit drug, otherwise I’d hardly be detailing the process on a public and identified blog. Rather, my purpose was ethnographic – if I am to study how the SR marketplace works, taking part in aspects of it is a useful learning tool. Reading an account of something, or listening to someone’s story, is one way of learning. Another way is to try it for yourself – and as I usually find, self-experience can result in learnings that you can’t necessarily predict!

Browsing the SR marketplace for items which were legal and which I would otherwise have bought led me to the Apparel section of the site. Although best know for its selection of psychoactive substances, SR also sells a wide range of goods and some services. In the Apparel section, I found jackets, bags, jeans, sunglasses, jewelery. Many of these listings were for faked designer goods, as opposed to stolen goods. I thought to myself that if I were in South East Asia on holiday and bought myself some ‘fake’ designer clothing, I wouldn’t get stopped at the Australian border and strip-searched. Almost all Australians I know will buy these much cheaper faked goods when overseas. So this appeared to be a good option for a ‘legal’ SR purchase.

If only I'd bought them for this price!
An example of FoxyGirl’s offerings

From the would-be buyers perspective, it is important to get a sense of the trustworthiness of the vendor you are considering purchasing from. The item I liked the look of the best was FoxyGirl’s replica [insert designer name here] sunglasses. So I checked out FoxyGirl’s reputation. Searching for her name in the forums led me to her review thread, where I found links to her Tor ‘gallery’ of items for sale, and comments by other SR members who seemed satisfied with their purchases. One comment I found read:

Grabbed some [insert designer name here] from foxy and holy hell! I put em up next to my real ones and honestly, cant really tell they are fake at all. really good replicas!
shipping was super fast and very well packaged might I add! Thanks so much foxygirl! will be grabbing more stuff very very soon!

I then read carefully through FoxyGirl’s terms and conditions and her feedback, which was positive. She seemed like a friendly salesperson, willing to help. But most of the vendor profiles seem to be written in that way. I then messaged FoxyGirl to ask her for some more details about the sunglasses, and really just to suss out her legitimacy. True to her word, she got back to me with further information and in a professional yet friendly style.

At this point I was convinced – I was going to buy these sunglasses. Of course, in order to complete the transaction, I needed to have enough Bitcoin in my SR account.

Back in March, I decided to bite the bullet and buy $300 AUD of Bitcoin. I chose a time when the market was pricing BTC at $147 AUD per coin. I traded with a friend I met at a local #cryptoparty who had a listing on Bitcoin-OTC. In fact once I knew this guy and he taught me how to use encryption, buy BTC from him was as simple. First, I downloaded Bitcoin-QT, the original wallet software (this takes a few days due to the size of the blockchain which must be constantly updated to keep the network in-sync). Then, my friend sent me his bank details (encrypted, of course). I then deposited $300 in his bank account, taking a screenshot of the transaction as evidence. He promptly transferred me the equivalent in Bitcoin minus a small commission for his efforts. I then had 1.9 BTC.

One of the oddities about this context of buying with BTC which I had not anticipated was that since I bought them in March for $147 per coin, they continued to appreciate in value until they were worth over $250 each coin! During this time, I was meaning to buy my sunglasses but each day that passed, the price in BTC was getting lower and lower as the BTC value increased. I found that I didn’t want to purchase because what if tomorrow the price was even lower? This experience of wanting to hoard rather than buy is not something we are used to experiencing when using an inflationary currency, e.g. the AUD or the USD.

Of course I was a victim of my own greed. On April 11, BTC value plunged and suddenly my sunglasses were much more expense! If only I’d bought them when the BTC was valued at $250… Sigh! In fact, what actually happened was that I had decided to buy the sunglasses on April 10, and so I made a transfer from my local wallet to my SR wallet of .51 BTC, which at the time would have bought me two pairs and express postage! This was at 10pm at night and I was tired, and so it happens, it take a few hours for the transfer to occur from your wallet to the SR wallet. So I went to sleep. In the morning the price has plunged.

I waited for a little while, hoping the BTC value would come back up somewhere near the price I bought them for. But this didn’t look likely anytime soon, so I bought myself 1 pair (note, not the 2 I was going to get!) and express postage, for .75 BTC. The process essentially involved typing my name and address and confirming the order. FoxyGirl offers buyers the option of encrypting the address details using her public key for extra protection. As I am not buying an illegal item, I was happy to use my actual name and actual address and not to encrypt. To me, this is the weakest link of the system for the buyer (who is purchasing an illegal item) – they must decide what to do. It seems a lot of people who buy drugs on SR do ship to their real name and real address: I guess there is more chance it will arrive that way as long as Customs or the Post do not detect contraband in the package. But there is a lottery involved here – some packages do get checked and do get detained. In Australia it appears the odds of having a package detected is a bit higher than in other parts of the world.

I’ve had further messages with FoxyGirl to nominate what colour and size I would like, and now she is processing my order. Another custom to be aware of in SR transactions is ‘finalising’. Once the order moves from processing to in transit, as the buyer, I will have the option to ‘finalise’ which indicate the package has arrived and the vendor can receive their money from the SR escrow. As I am a first-time buyer and from Australia, there’s a high chance that I will be asked to finalise early, which means to press that finalise button before the vendor will ship the product. The rules on SR state that no-one should finalise early because then all the risk is transferred from the vendor to the buyer, but many top vendors request FE to protect themselves against buyer fraud. In my case, FoxyGirl had no requirement to FE, so I’ll do it the SR approved way. But in my browsing of drug listings, many top vendors selling MDMA or cannabis or cocaine require FE for Australians or for buyers with no history or negative history.

Now I just have to wait and see when (if?) my package arrives!


Update 29/4/13: my package arrived this morning and the goods all check out. Looks very legit. The slightly concerning part was that I was asked to sign for the goods. I’m sure most people buying from SR wouldn’t be so keen to sign for their package. Other than that, all went well.