Side Event: Responding to drug-related challenges in the cyberspace: Vulnerabilities and opportunities to engage civil society

Organized by the UNODC Civil Society Unit with the support of Switzerland, and the Alliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice and the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs

Moderator: Billy Batware, UNODC Civil Society Unit

Thank you to co-sponsors of this event. To set the stage – cyberspace can be seen as an enabler, on the other hand, technology could be used as a tool to address drug related challenges. We know technology is being used in darknet sales. 350 million in worth most recently. The expansion of online drug markets been recognised in the MD at the CND. Last years intersessionals – this urgency was also addressed and followed up on. This thematic discussion included a discussion on increasing links between cybercrime and money laundering. We note that civil society is an important partner in addressing these concerns. We hear of strong partnerships throughout the week at CND. Today’s side event will include presentations from civil society, and the aim of the side event is to shine the light on promising practices. Discussion will focus on how civil society work will help address the issues.

Dr Kawal Deep Kour, SADARC

How is civil society being instrumental in mobilising community awareness and strengthening policies in response to drug trafficking online? The internet is an extremely powerful tool – people can get what they need delivered to the door. The scope of harm to the public is greater. Online drug trade has expanded exponentially – cryptocurrency is part of this. Online trading is transforming drug trafficking networks. Crypto markets are the perfect storm. Many of the concerns of crypto markets are well founded. A bank account, minimal level of proficiency online is all that is needed. The crypto markets have facilitated exchanges worth more than $2 billion USD. Fentanyl sold online has directly led to deaths among young people in the US. Surge in online pharmacies, represented as legitimate pharmaceuticals. Around 1% of the population had misused pharmaceuticals in 2018. Combatting this is not something that law enforcement can or should shoulder alone. Right to privacy is a fundamental human right. There is a clear an outspoken need to build up a multidisciplinary approach. Through research work and bringing diverse ideas and opinions, solutions can be found. We need a shared commitment to combat crime. There are dominant challenges in terms of relevance and quality reports. By building bridges is policy making institutions, civil society institutions can help deal with this multidisciplinary threat.

What are civil society orgs in India doing to raise awareness of this? Evidence is hard to come by – it takes two to tango. Civil society orgs in India play a very proactive role in the misuse of pharmaceuticals, and can provide knowledge and expertise. There is hesitancy – the tone and tenor of narcotics legislation in the country is not useful (the zero-tolerance approach).

Jorge Herrara Valderrabano, Instituto RIA

Who is selling/buying online? What steps can be taken to counter these issues?

Thanks all organisers of this event. My presentation is on harm reduction in the Deep Web: findings from the Global Drug Survey. I will speak to the projects on the ground in this area. The GDS has been running since 2012, enquiring about the drugs people use. We run the Mexican section of the survey. It’s important to highlight that this is a non-probability sample, but the findings can identify new drug trends. Most participants are young and used to using drugs. Most common substances are MDMA, LSD, Cannabis, Cocaine, 2CB, Mushrooms, Ketamine and NPS. We note a rise in people using online markets. There are a continued rise in new users, despite scams, market closures and police interventions. The WDR has used results from the GDS, but has unfortunately has not looked into this properly. The proportion of people finding drugs in the darknet declined in 2017-18, but then increased again in 2019-20 – indicating that the decline was short-term only. People who have used the deep web less often

Site owners might be sophisticating the security on their platforms – so, how can we use technology to innovate? Most common sources that people use to access drugs – apps – are increasing. Televend – a platform that uses telegram bots to interface with customers – telegram has resisted requests to share information with law enforcement, which encourages people to use their platform.

Harm reduction in cyber spaces:

  • Community harm reduction (anonymous) users can provide information on shopping experiences
  • Opportunity of interaction with drug users
  • Provide education on the quality, effects and risks of consumption
  • More profitable than investing in repression
  • The users can inform, compare and document themselves
  • Greater purity à greater protection for users

Social programs in cyberspaces

  • Substance analysis programs – Doctor X’s Barcelona Lab
  • Peer education online
  • Accessible information on substances, their risks, and their benefits: ReverdeSer and ATS
  • Virtual accompanying and information services, anonymous and confidential: LSDP
  • Involve civil society: relationship with users, no criminalisation, no stigmatisation, build trust with evidence-based information

Ian Tennant, Global Initiative

The Global Initiative is based in Geneva – we are a member of the NGO Alliance. Issues are quite complex and constantly evolving. What is clear is that it’s vital to engage civil society to implement whole of society responses. This is reflected in the 2016 Outcome Document. In terms of what civil society data looks like – it’s essential to get inputs from people who use drugs. In terms of responses – see book from Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw – communities need to be a partner to ensure safe spaces are built. But, there are challenges that we face – civil society engagement is under threat. The IDPC have published a very useful advocacy note this week.

Illicit drug markets are active on the surface and in the darkweb – and associated with young tech savvy dealers rather than cartels. Sellers advertise on these platforms. At the macro level, the Global Organised Crime Index 2021

One study we did in 2020, “Transformative Technologies”, we found shifting dynamics, not wholesale change. Many drug trafficking groups exploit technologies and apps. On the darknet, the outcomes are seen in the community. Online dealers can require fewer emplyees and lower overheads. Anonymmoity reduces direct contact in the market. Interesting potential benefits though in reducing harm.

There are lots of law enforcement challenges, and opportunities and vulnerabilities. We need holistic and community-based data from people who use drugs as they are the experts. We must mention the Global Initiatives Resilience Fund.

Anna Alvazzi del Frate, NGO Alliance on Criminal Justice

We heard a lot of very important issues presented in these presentations – Ian has covered a lot of important concepts on civil society engagement. Things move very fast – the concept of the darkweb is not even ten years old – and there is a role for the internet that is positive and negative – they go in parallel. This is a very important area that needs to be discussed between civil society, academia and the private sector. To achieve goal 16 of the SDGs – we need to maintain transparency and strong, respected institutions. The civil society role in making states accountable on their commitments – there needs to be a distinction of who the victims of cybercrime are – we can’t make everyone a victim. A lot of illicit trafficking of anything – drug, arms, etc – go hand in hand. Its very important to make sure everyone keeps their eyes open, particularly civil society.

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