Why the Online Drug Trade Isn't All Bad (According to this Expert)

Tuesday November 28, 2017 Written by suzi

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Australia is topping the world when it comes to buying drugs online. We just can’t get enough of them. We’re second only to the Netherlands. And here’s another fact that surprised us: the dark net is powered by a system of customer feedback and reviews, much like any other e-commerce platform. Customers provide star ratings on everything from the quality of the drugs they receive to the efficiency of the service.

Criminologist Dr James Martin tells Smith Journal more about the astonishing stuff his dark net research has revealed. 

How did you go about researching these sites?

The sites themselves are not illegal to access but obviously, it’s illegal to buy the drugs. I started through passive observation, having a look around at the sites. I also work with researchers who use sophisticated computer programs that can suck up the publicly available info on the dark net and give us quantitative information like where the dealers are located, their prices. We also collect customer feedback, and we’ve started doing interviews with dealers about how they think about their work.

Tell me more about the customer feedback element of the dark web…

It’s fascinating, it’s quite funny. You get a star rating, people use comments like what the quality of the drugs were like, the service, that’s quite important. We know that people go to that as an indicator as to whether or not they should purchase.

One of the biggest surprises to me was that the system is actually amazing, and it works really well. One analysis of over 28,000 different drug deals on Silk Road concluded that over 97% of transactions had a 4 or 5-star rating. That was a really compelling stat. It made me realise that it’s possible to have non-violent, self-regulating drug markets.

How did you get the drug dealers to open up to you in those interviews?

We thought it’d be a lot more difficult than it’s turned out to be. You’ve got to establish trust there. Two things made a difference: one, we’ve got some clued-in IT encryption so we could convince people that their identities would be safe – they found our encryption protocols reassuring. Also, my research team and I have published a lot in the area which is all public, so it convinced the dealers that we were who we said, and that we were going to give them a fair hearing.

The dealers we interviewed were concerned about harm reduction. They really wanted to make sure their customers got what they ordered, and that really goes against the stereotypes about who drug dealers are.

Australia’s topping the world when it comes to buying drugs online – and you think that’s a good thing, right?

Drugs in Australia are highly priced from an international perspective. Also, we've had other issues, like poor-quality MDMA. When people buy drugs on the dark net, they typically find that the quality is higher and it’s much cheaper.

Violence is an ever-present threat to people involved in street drug dealing because the trade’s illegal. And because victims of extortion or violence can’t go to the police, that makes drug dealers and users vulnerable to predatory criminal violence. That’s the main reason the illicit drugs trade is dominated by organised crime groups. Online, though, you’re protected by encryption and by using Bitcoin which is hard to trace, so people just report that they feel safer buying online.

By deterring the importation of cheaper foreign drugs online, local law enforcement is effectively insulating Australian drug suppliers from foreign competition, thereby boosting their profits and helping to maintain their illegal businesses.

And the downside of buying on the dark net would be...?

People might be exposed to really problematic goods and services that they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. Silk Road had a prohibition on weapons, but that changed after the original site was shut down in 2013. Their charter used to be along the lines of not selling anything inherently linked to harming others. Stolen credit card info and weapons never used to be available on that original site.

Has the existence of the online drugs trade helped us learn more about drug usage overall?

Yes, we can track the expansion of the online drugs trade and we know a lot more about it than we do the conventional street trade. We also found that after high-profile policing operations, there are permanent increases in dark net trading as more and more people find out about it.

A lot of people read the dominant narratives in the press and tend to have misinformed ideas about drugs. In the UN’s World Drug Report of 2017, they found that in 2015 a quarter of a billion people around the world use drugs and of them, only around 0.6 per cent of the global adult population were engaged in “problematic use” and suffered from drug use disorders, including dependence. So the vast majority of drug users have jobs, lives, and are not involved in elevated forms of criminality – that’s a really important context to include when we’re talking about drug policy.

Dr James Martin is a regular contributor to The Conversation; read some of his articles here.