Side event: Internet & drugs: What do we actually know about it?

Organised by the Government of the Netherlands.

“What do we know about the relationship between drugs and the Internet? How do we need to act with regards to this new phenomenon? How can we balance our need for control and the beneficial side of the use of the Internet?

Experts will present their view on the monitoring of online drug markets and the quality of what is offered, but also monitoring of users and type of use, new substances, the relation with organised crime and the relation with possible beneficial public health purposes.”

Moderator: HE M Hennis (Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN)

Welcome all and introductions.

Ms Nacira Boulehouat (Deputy Head of Unit, DG Migration and Home Affairs, European Commission)

Thank you chair. I want to inform you of an expert meeting we conducted in Brussels with the EU agencies and international organisations and academia, reflecting on the interaction of the internet and drugs. To analyse the problem we are presented with and how to solve them in the EU States, then explored ways forward on what to do. The main conclusions on this meeting were:

  • Good intervention strategies, that address supply and demand reduction. We need multidisciplinary teams of experts
  • To prioritise funding – the issue needs to be addressed at different levels – the digital level, shipment level, and payment and financial level. These are the 3 stages for intervention.
  • As a commission, our contribution will be to have an overview of the tools used to make interventions – this will be made publicly.
  • There are linkages that need to be made with drugs on the internet, but also within different communities
  • Developing effective online campaigns – we need to look at the internet in terms of prevention for drugs
  • We need targeted interventions
  • We really felt that we need a common understanding of the terminology. There are many concepts but we would like to give support to develop a glossary of terminology in relation to cryptomarkets.
  • It is difficult to engage and get a commitment with Microsoft.
  • The last area we would like to make a contribution – research, gathering evidence, and funding.
  • We will soon be proposing a new action plan for drugs for the EU, including ICT.

Prof Judith Aldridge (University of Manchester, International Society for the Study of Drug Policy)

My aim here today is to talk about how cryptomarkets work in allowing illegal drug trade online.

The first drug cryptomarket opened in Feb 2011 – it was named Silk Road – at first i couldn’t believe it was real, in plain sight of law enforcement.

What are drug cryptomartkets? – they bring together multiple sellers, wide range of products, and are international, like eBay or Amazon. The key difference – they have anonymity mechanisms – first, they’re located on the hidden web (darkweb), and cannot occur with credit cards, but anonymous payment mechanisms such as bitcoin.

Showing of ebay page vs cryptomarket page. Look at the price, the comments that other people have left.

What happens if you pay for a drug and it doesn’t come to you? ‘Escrow’ – the marketplace holds the funds, you receive the drugs, and then you log back on, and clink ‘finalise’ when you are happy with the product. Escrow ensures people are happy with their product. There are also marketplace discussion forums – to deal with scams.

Is anonymity enough to evade detection and arrest? No. Research paper: on the listings people place for sale, with a description of the product, price, shipping and security. We used used information from the marketplace discussion forums. We took the data from the first Silk Road. People were aware: “break your connection to incriminating evidence”,  “never user bank transfers” etc. People did use encryption: “I encourage you, but I don’t enforce it”. However, now the use of encryption is around 90%. People using cryptomarkets didn’t locate law enforcement with their online presence, but associated it further with their offline presence – after the product is delivered through customs and mail services. There is advice shared by vendors for drop offs, to customers. Vendors often use sophisticated shipping – vacuum sealing, alcohol swabbing, etc.

Summary: Even though sales are made in the virtual environment, risks were identified in real environment.

I predict that innovation by law enforcement is needed as intelligence gets faster. No one buying/selling on cryptomarkets thinks that no one is watching – the question is, will this be circumspect in stopping people doing it?

Mr Daan van der Gouwe (Trimbos Institute, National Institute of Mental Health and Addiction, The Netherlands)

One of our services is testing drugs for drug users.

“Purity, adulteration and price of drugs bought online vs offline”

We ask people where they bought their drugs, therefore we are able to compare drugs bought online vs offline. 32 663 samples between January 2013-January 2016, where 928 samples were sure to be bought online. Online category divided into categories – web shop, cryptomarket, unspecified. There was underreporting of online samples. The bulk of our data was dealing with unspecified. The proportion of drugs bought online tripled within the 3 years. It’s growing, but it’s still small.

  • What was actually bought online? Classical drugs (cocaine etc)- maximum 6%; NPS a lot higher.
  • Online – 4FA powder (more pure than offline), MDMA powder (more pure), 2C-B tablets (less pure), ecstasy tablets (more pure).
  • Drug prices were higher online
  • Most substances submitted at DIMS bough offline
  • Results are country specific (the quality is generally not that bad on the street), but online drug markets will increase globally given the many advantages for the drug consumer

Side effects of banning NPS – potential side-effect of controlling substances may be the creation of a more harmful market.

Tricky question – blocking sites vs monitoring – blocking sites has a very small effect – it doesn’t take long for a new site to gain trust of buyers.

Mr Victor Sannes (National Drug Coordinator, Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports, The Netherlands)

Webpage – in the prevention department of municipalities. We also used to have an information line – now its a website with an email address and chat facility. Gives the possibility to get in touch if you’re worried a family member is using drugs.

Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Snapchat are all used in our prevention policies.

We also use apps – everyone has smartphones. We use apps in our prevention policy. ‘Red Alert’ app. How does it work? 18 months ago we found the ‘superman’ pill. We were advised to give a ‘red alert’ to get direct information on these highly dangerous pills. Also ‘Celebrate Safe’ campaign (app). A broad campaign about how to party safely – drug education, safe sex, looking after your hearing – very broad. Where is the party, at what time, at what place? It’s all in the app. We use this app to provide push notifications about dangerous drugs.


UNODC Researcher – we looked into the Global Drug Survey. We didn’t find NPS so high on the darknet? Is it so high on the internet, or just in cryptomarkets

Answer – on the internet in general. Aldridge – but this may change with blanket bans.

Question – any examples in the Netherlands of health promotion on the darknet?

Answer – no, not in the Netherlands, but by our friends at Energy Control (Spain). They have an international mailing service.

Question – In terms of evidence, if things happen in the darkweb, how is it prosecuted?

Answer – that depends – in the dark net there is a record of all the sales, unlike catching someone on the street. It depends if the police seize the backend

Question – Do you have any research on decentralised cryptomarkets?

Answer (Aldridge) – I predicted decentralised would be the future, but there’s not opportunity for adjudicating on these marketplaces.


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