DDN February 2021 DDN February 2021 | Page 12


Dark secrets

How have dark web drug sales been affected by the pandemic , and could suppliers be used to get vital harm reduction messages across ? Renato Masetti decided to ask the dealers themselves

As an ‘ old timer ’

in the field , I remember the seismic shift that followed the emergence of ‘ legal highs ’. Policy , however , stayed frozen in shock , while the drugs changed and began their migration to online sales . And what of the suppliers ? Only a handful of research papers have attempted to understand their motivations and practices , so I thought it would be interesting to contact some of them myself to hear the view from the ‘ shop floor ’. This resulted in some fascinating conversations and two big questions . How had COVID-19 affected their business , and would they be willing to help me reduce harm to their consumers ?
Their answers to the first question mirrored what large-scale surveys and reports such as the Global Drug Survey had already told us . Essentially , drug use had developed its own version of the 5:2 diet – with shortages of product being followed by bulk orders encouraged through special deals and offers . As others have pointed out , crypto-markets are weathering the storm rather well and a range of unfamiliar substances were available if your favourite chemical was not – Alpha-PHP anyone ?
The answer to the second
question may come as a surprise . They were happy to engage with me in delivering safety messages on their page or in their packaging , including information on dangerous interactions with other drugs . It became evident that they saw themselves as business people with a genuine passion for what they were selling , and had used and enjoyed a range of substances themselves . Though the acquisition of wealth was a driving force , so were positive experiences with the chemicals they were selling . This is an interesting twist on the popular narrative of the dealer as purely motivated by money , and also reminds us that the distinction between user and dealer is often paper thin .
Clearly , ‘ my ’ sellers may not be representative of the whole sector and as recent research has pointed out , crypto-market suppliers can be seen as being on the frontline of the ‘ gentrification ’ of the drug business . However , these conversations show that some sellers recognise the importance of a healthy , happy customer base .
It is a small exploratory piece of work to assess whether it may be possible for larger studies to be conducted – it merely explores and questions the assumption that suppliers of illicit drugs are not willing to engage in health-related
activity . Over an extended period , I had regular conversations with two sellers and a series of messages ensued . These messages used methods of communication that have previously been used in researching this cohort – email and asynchronous and end-to-end encrypted messaging .
UNDERSTANDING THE MARKET Over time I was able to disclose that I was a health professional who was interested in understanding the market and assessing the potential for harm reduction , rather than a customer . It is important to stress that Suffolk Police had oversight of this work and no laws were broken . Both sellers were eventually tolerant of this approach and accepted the potential benefit of including messages around safer use . They also both offered insights into how they had adapted following the emergence of COVID-19 .
Both individuals were UK based , both sourced their supply directly from China , and both appeared to have other professional careers .
While one seller has now ceased trading ( to become a delivery driver of course !) there are indications that the other seller has become quite a significant presence on crypto markets – he is listed on a number of market places , which requires a level of organisation and administration that would be beyond a casual or opportunistic supplier , and has recently started selling in larger amounts . He stated that he had recently completed a single sale that accrued £ 1,800 profit , and that his annual income was in six figures .
During our discussions , it seemed clear that both saw themselves as vendors of products that were risky but also offered