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.

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.

More Silk Road

Over the last 7 days, Silk Road has been in the Australian news media again, with an announcement last Friday by the AFP that they had arrested 20 people as part of an ongoing operation targeting drugs sent through the post.

Last week I really enjoyed being the guest on RRR’s Byte Into It, a weekly technology program. And earlier this week I was one of a number of experts involved in Hack’s story on drugs in the mail: they also interviewed representatives from the AFP, Customs and Australia Post, as well as Australians who had received drugs via post.

Listen to Byte Into It (16 May 2012)

Listen to Hack (21 May 2012)

Next week I’ll be presenting at the ISSDP conference (International Society for the Study of Drug Policy) in Canterbury, Kent, UK. I’m looking forward to being immersed in a more international perspective on drug policy issues as well as being able to meet face-to-face so many researchers that I’ve only ever read or emailed!

Podcast with Tim Bingham of INEF

Tim Bingham conducted a Skype interview with me last week about the world of drugs, internet, social media, Silk Road, ‘legal highs’, stigma and drug policy. It was a lot of fun! I’d like to thank Tim for providing me with the opportunity to participate.

You can access the podcast here.

The drug’s in the mail

Last week was a week of firsts for me: first time mentioned in The Age, first time a photo of me was printed in The Age, first time I have spoken on radio (3AW) and first time I’ve appeared on national television (The Project, Network Ten). As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve done a bit of media training but haven’t had much of a chance to put it into practice. Now at least I’ve done these things once, I’ll have a better chance of preparing and understanding what’s required for next time 🙂

Journalists who tackle drug stories often get a bad rap – they are often accused of sensationalist, one-sided reporting. I want to congratulate the journalists I worked with on these stories as I feel they represented my views accurately. While there is always a dose more ‘drama’ in these stories than I am comfortable with, I don’t think these stories were over sensationalised and they were largely accurate in their reporting. So, thanks to the journalists involved. Looking forward to working with you again in future.

Read The Age article: original link, archived link.

Listen to the 3AW radio segment: original link, archived link.

Watch The Project: original link (it’s after the ‘global news’ segment), archived link.

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.

Drug policy in a digitally networked world

I presented on this topic at the Drug Policy Modelling Program symposium held in Sydney on Friday 16 March. I elaborate on two examples of ways in which drug policy is challenged in an internet-saturated context: emerging psychoactive drugs (e.g., synthetic cannabinoids) and online anonymous drug marketplaces (e.g., Silk Road). The video is 20 minutes, best viewed in full screen 🙂

Thanks to DPMP for flying me to Sydney! Looking forward to presenting a version of these ideas again at the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy conference in Canterbury, Kent, UK, in May. An international perspective on this kind of work is critical.

Twitter for drug trend monitoring

Today I participated in the workshop Making sense of Twitter at the Communities and Technologies conference in Brisbane. My contribution was simply the idea that Twitter could be used in drug trend monitoring, as explained below:

Some people are using the internet to seek drug-related information, share their drug use stories with like-minded others, and buy pharmaceutical and novel substances marketed as herbs or ‘legal highs’. Researchers have responded to this trend by conducting monitoring studies, including tracking websites that sell psychoactive substances (e.g., ‘Psychonaut project’, Schifano et al., 2006) and analysing the contents of online discussion among people who use drugs (e.g., ‘Real drugs in a virtual world’ project, Murguía, Tackett-Gibson, & Lessem, 2007). Apart from Lange et al.’s (2010) study of YouTube videos depicting young people using the hallucinogen Salvia, there has been little research into the use of social media to share drug information and to advertise websites that sell psychoactive substances.

Using 140kit, I collected Tweets that contained the word ‘mephedrone’, the name of an amphetamine-type substance that was banned in the UK in 2010 and is banned under the Analogues acts in Australia. 360,755 tweets were posted by 217,739 Twitter accounts in one week during March 2011. Browsing through a small selection of these Tweets indicated that most of them purport to sell mephedrone and include URLs to vendor websites, while smaller proportions could be categorised as news, policy and research about the drug, as well as casual discussion among people who appear to use the drug. I can see the potential for a number of studies using these data from Twitter. Drug trend monitoring could be enhanced by setting up a system to store and count the number of tweets containing drug terms, tracking trends over time. Tweets could be scanned for ‘new’ drug terms for which new searches and monitoring may be instigated. Geolocation may assist in understanding the potential for that drug being used in specific parts of the world. Hashtag analysis may indicate social networks of people who discuss these drugs. Analysis of Twitter could feed into current attempts to monitor drug vendor websites, as the purpose of most Tweets is to encourage sales. Through this collection, I also stumbled across a video-sharing site designed to share videos of ‘funny tripz’ using ‘legal highs’. Monitoring sites like FunnyTripz and YouTube could also assist in drug trend monitoring, especially in tracking the existence and use of new legal highs that are yet to come to the attention of health and legislative departments.

So, what did we learn in the workshop?

Firstly – I learnt about this tool called Pirate Pad, which is like a public whiteboard that anyone can edit – what a fantastic tool for collaboration. For our Pirate Pad for this workshop, see

I will save a version of this piratepad in case the link fails later down the track, but basically all the links are there. Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess at Mapping Online Publics shows us their process of extracting twitter datasets, cleaning and preparing them, and then analysing and visualising them.

We also heard from a selection of researchers with alternate approaches to Twitter analysis, including Cornelius Puschmann‘s research group who introduced the ideas of small vs big data, and emphasised the importance of qualitative analysis to inform quantitative and network analysis of (what are often) huge datasets.

Aneesha Bakharia from QUT also spoke about algorithms for the thematic analysis of twitter data. It appeared to me that her tools identify underlying themes using a combination of quantitative analysis with qualitative inspection of the results and therefore could be used with large scale data.

I now feel armed with a set of freely available tools (licensed Creative Commons, thanks Axel!) to play around with the idea of using Twitter for drug trend monitoring and ultimately to fund a project to make this happen. And there is also a network of potential collaborators to help me do it.

Yay! 🙂


140kit mephedrone tweets –
Funny tripz –


Anything is possible on the Silk Road

Note Feb 2012: A different (much shortened!) version of this blog post has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction.

Much of the research and discussion about drugs and the internet has focused upon either buying drugs online or seeking drug-related information online. News coverage has particularly focused upon the capacity to buy drugs from web vendors (eg, Psychedelic drugs just a click away online, Deadly drug on the net).

Yet, evidence from the last decade indicates that most drug transactions still occur in the traditional way.

Popular illegal drugs are not generally available online: unless the product can be marketed as ‘legal’ or ‘not for human consumption’, the legal risk and practical problems associated with selling heroin, MDMA, amphetamines, and cannabis through an online marketplace are just too big, for both buyers and sellers.

It’s not that the demand doesn’t exist for online drug vendors. I interviewed forum moderators for my thesis who prohibited ‘sourcing’ on their message boards and regularly edited, closed or removed discussions they believed were motivated by attracting potential sellers.

An example would be a forum user posting that ‘isn’t it hard to find ecstasy in Perth at the moment’. If anyone in Perth had ecstasy to sell, they could send a private message to the OP offering their services.

Although this was possible and likely occurred despite swift moderator action to remove those threads, most forum users did not use the internet to buy drugs.

In a paper I will be presenting next week at #comtech2011, forum users discussed their views on talking about drugs in public online forums and their strategies to avoid the risk of incriminating themselves.

One popular strategy was to avoid all discussion of supply or dealing so as not to attract the attention of law enforcement who may be watching the forums. Most believed that law enforcement were after ‘dealers, not users’.

I conducted those interviews 3 years ago in 2008. In 2011, the situation has shifted considerably with the arrival of Silk Road, an anonymous online marketplace where anything* can be bought or sold.

Silk Road is accessible only to people who are using TOR anonymising software. TOR uses encryption to make it impossible for anyone to trace your IP address.

The front page of Silk Road looks a lot like an Amazon or an Ebay. Goods and services for sale are categorised. Sellers receive ratings from buyers and comments about the quality of their products, how fast they ship, and the level of professionalism and discreteness of the transaction. Trust in sellers is built on reputation.

Silk Road traders use the anonymous currency Bitcoin. This decentralised international currency operates through peer-to-peer technologies. It has an exchange and a lively forum of users.

The possibilities of a non-government-controlled anonymous international currency are quite mind-boggling. The obvious possibility is being played out right now on Silk Road: buying and selling illegal products is now possible and may dramatically increase in the near future.

What may stop an exponential increase in the use of anonymous online drug marketplaces is the hurdle of delivery. At the end of the transaction, the physical product still needs to be sent to the buyer.

Sending products between countries allows Customs the opportunity to intercept packages and potentially attempt to arrest the would-be importer. Sending products within the same country may make arrest less likely.

There are also fairly large barriers to entry for most ordinary people who might want to buy drugs online. Installing and using TOR, buying and using Bitcoins in a secure way, and taking the risk of fraud or arrest through package tracing from Customs may deter the majority of would-be users. In a recent example of the volatility of this new system, Bitcoin exchange Mt Gox was hacked, causing the currency to rapidly devalue.

But for the minority who master these concerns and are willing to take the risk, Silk Road and its successors have forever changed how the internet can be used to source drugs.

After all, buying drugs in the real world also involves considerable risk. For some, the online equivalent may prove more secure than trying to arrange a standard deal.

The extent to which law enforcement can bring down a site like this is yet to be seen. Equally, the extent to which ordinary drug users will use this new technology is also unknown. Needless to say, if anonymous online drug markets do end up expanding into mainstream drug markets, they will pose a real challenge to existing drug laws and policies.

All I can say is that I will be following Silk Road’s progress with great interest.

* In this exchange from Silk Road’s founder, he notes that some goods/services are not tolerated due to their capacity to harm others and attract controversy. In this category, he includes pedophilia, hitmen and counterfeit currency.

Note: An edited version of this article has also been published at Injecting Advice, a site for NSP workers and injectors. Thanks Nigel!