The internet is starting to rival the backstreet as a place to buy illicit drugs, according to findings from the 2013 Global Drugs Survey, with 22% of users reporting the had bought drugs online.
The online marketplace Silk Road has risen to notoriety in recent years as essentially an eBay for drugs: a service operating where law enforcement can’t trace the computers of sellers or buyers, where transactions use the anonymous and untraceable online currency Bitcoin.
But responses to the Global Drug Survey, an annual academic research poll with more than 7,000 UK respondents, suggest Silk Road is merely the most visible aspect of a much wider phenomenon.
Just under a third of survey respondents had heard of the Silk Road marketplace, while 14% had set up an account on the site and browsed its wares. However, only 3% said they had themselves bought and consumed drugs purchased from the site – though a similar number had taken drugs a friend had bought on the Silk Road.
The wider phenomenon of drug dealing online happens with less rigorous secrecy than the high-tech (but hard-to-use) Silk Road. Instead, it relies on obscure, coded listings hidden among job adverts, private sales, and suspiciously cheap properties to let – “flat for rent – £60 – ask for Charlie”.
Such sales are strictly against the terms and conditions of all major listings and exchange sites, and are done without the complicity of their owners. However, as most lack the resources to pre-check each of the hundreds of thousands of listings they host, many are only flagged if a user marks the listing as suspicious.
The survey also highlights the internet’s rise as a source for drugs: asked when they had first used the internet to buy, half said in the last two years, while fewer than one in eight had used the internet to purchase drugs before 2005.
The 2013 research also asked current and non-current drug users a series of questions relating to decriminalisation of drugs. Respondents were asked how their behaviour would change if possession of small amounts of drugs were either to be made legal, or subject only to a small fine.
In the case of no punishment, 13% of respondents said they would probably increase their drug usage, as did 8% of respondents if the punishment would be a small fine.
However, far larger numbers said they would be more likely to seek health advice or support for their drug use: 31% said they would be more likely to do so if possession carried no penalty, as did 15% if it carried only a fine.
Among people who weren’t current drug users, 20% said they might be more likely to try drugs if possession carried no penalties whatsoever, while 5% said they would definitely do so in such a scenario.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the drugs policy NGO Release, said the responses were corroborated by research conducted in countries which had decriminalised drug possession.
“The majority of respondents say decriminalisation wouldn’t impact their level of drug use,” she said. “That reflects the reality of these scenarios in other countries, according to our research across 21 jurisdictions.
“The research shows that punishing someone’s drug use acts as a form of social stigma and when you take the approach of reducing this stigma, people are more likely to seek help. This implies that the criminal justice approach to drugs police is actually harmful to public health.”
Eastwood also noted that a considerable minority of respondents said decriminalising other recreational drugs would lead them to cut back on their alcohol intake: 27% of survey respondents said they would drink less if possession of drugs carried no penalty.
This, she suggested, could lead to overall positive results, as studies suggest cannabis and MDMA, for example, could carry fewer long-term health risks than regular alcohol usage.
Alcohol topped the list of concerns among respondents who said they were worried about a friend’s drug usage – a question which also serves as a proxy for attitudes towards an individual’s own use. Just under half of respondents said they’d been concerned by a friend’s drug or alcohol use in the last year.
Alcohol was the most common concern, at 19%, followed by cannabis and cocaine, each on 12%.
More than 22,000 people worldwide completed the Global Drugs Survey, which is conducted online. Participants are recruited via media outlets, including the Guardian, across different countries, and so the sample is self-selecting and self-identified, but nonetheless gives an insight into attitudes of recreational users which is otherwise unobtainable at large scale.