Global Drug Survey (GDS) finds users moving from dealers to internet, while extent of alcohol use remains ‘very worrying’
More drug users are buying their drugs online – including so-called legal highs as well as illegal drugs such as cannabis and MDMA – because they say the quality is better, there is more choice and it is more convenient, research has found.
The 2014 Global Drug Survey (GDS) – which questioned almost 80,000 drug users from 43 countries, and is the largest research of its kind – indicates that although the majority of drug users still use dealers, a growing number are following 21st-century shopping habits by going online.
Hidden online drug marketplaces such as Silk Road – known as the “Amazon for drugs” before it was shut down in October last year – have sprung up and drug users are using the virtual currency Bitcoin to make transactions. The UK is also at the vanguard of this shift online, with the highest percentage of people who had ever bought drugs over theinternet. Almost a quarter of UK respondents to the survey – which is partnered by Mixmag and the Guardian in the UK and is likely to be answered by people who take drugs regularly – said they had bought drugs over the internet. Just under 60% knew about Silk Road, and of these, 44% had accessed the site. The most likely drug to be bought online was cannabis, followed by MDMA, LSD and ketamine. Of the 22% who had bought drugs online, 44% had first done so in 2012 or 2013, suggesting a new trend, according to Dr Adam Winstock, a consultant addictions psychiatrist in London and director of the survey.
“The fact that 44% of respondents who had bought drugs online said they’d done it for the first time recently says to me there is growing recruitment,” he said. “It is currently a minority way to get drugs, but it really mimics the growth in e-commerce – we buy things online becuase it is convenient, cheap, and there is a better product range.”
Until it was shut down last year, Silk Road was the largest online black market site in the world.
The site was accessed via the anonymous web browser Tor, which bounces internet users’ and websites’ traffic through “relays” run by volunteers around the world, making it extremely hard for anyone to identify the source of the information or the location of the user.
Payments were made in Bitcoin, the world’s first cryptocurrency, a nearly anonymous way of sending money over the internet without involving credit card companies or banks.
In October 2013, the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, a 29-year-old from San Francisco said to be Silk Road’s founder, and the website was seized and shut down. The survey also reveals that the UK, more than any other country, is a nation of hedonists, said Winstock – 73.8% of respondents had taken at least one illegal drug over the last 12 months.Alcohol was the most common drug taken, followed by tobacco and cannabis. Just under 11% had bought “legal highs” sold as bath salts, research chemicals or legal highs.
“The UK just does not do things in moderation. We come out as some of the largest drug takers, taking a broader range of drugs that are reasonably cheap,” he said. Winstock described the extent of alcohol abuse in the UK as “very worrying”. “Many countries are clueless about alcohol, but the UK and Ireland are the most clueless, ” he said. “People just have no idea when they are drinking at very dangerous levels.” According to the survey, 60% of respondents demonstrated a medium, high or dependent level of alcohol problems. Just below 15% said they could not stop drinking once they had started at least monthly , while 17% reported feelings of guilt or regret after drinking at least monthly over the last year. Of the 7% who demonstrated dependency levels, only 39% recognised their drinking was dangerous, while 34.5% thought they drank an average or below-average amount.
. John, whose answers suggested “dependency” or a high level of alcohol problems, said he didn’t feel his drinking had much of an impact on his life. “It’s just part of the culture,” the 40-year-old PR manager said. He described various drinking mishaps, including seeing his ex-boss try to have a fight with a double-decker bus. “You drink with clients and there are events with free alcohol almost every night. Drink, drink, drink – it’s just normal.”After looking at his consumption on the GDSdrinksmeter.com, he said the results were “terrifying”, adding: “Maybe I need to calm down.”
The survey – which was taken by 78,820 people, 7,326 of them from the UK – also revealed that almost a third of drug users aged between 18 and 24 admitted taking a “mystery white powder”. Last year, a fifth of 18- to 25-year-olds admitted doing so.Of the 11% of the whole sample who took mystery drugs in the last 12 months, 80% were already intoxicated. And more people had taken MDMA than had consumed energy drinks, with 45.2% of respondents tkaing the drug compared to admitting taking it compared to 44.7% who said they had drunk caffeinated energy drinks in the last year.
Alcohol remained the most likely drug to damage respondents’ health, but the survey also revealed that people using synthetic cannabis had a much higher likelihood of being admitted to hospital than users of natural cannabis.
Almost one in 100 MDMA users sought emergency medical treatment, with two-thirds of those being admitted to hospital. Winstock said this was “a cause for concern for a drug that so many users consider safe” and called for a more “realistic” drugs debate focused on harm reduction.
The Global Drug Survey has created a Highway Code, which gives advice on how to take each drug safely. “Simply saying drugs are bad does not engage people, you have to tell people who want to take drugs how to reduce their risks – and also have more fun,” Winstock said. “You need a dialogue and that needs to include a conversation about pleasure.”
Andrew (not his real name), a 21-year-old student from London studying sciences at Oxford, buys recreational drugs online:
I’ll smoke some cannabis in the evening once or twice a week and I’ll occasionally do small amounts of ketamine or occasionally MDMA when I go out. I used to do more when I was younger but I tend to have a better time doing less now.
I decided to try buying online because it seemed safer, more reliable and easier than buying on the street. With Silk Road, you are more likely to get the drugs you want, and they are less likely to be contaminated. Making sure you know what you’re taking is very important.
It’s remarkably easy to buy drugs on the web, almost identical to all other online shopping.
You send bitcoin to your Silk Road account, and search listings for whatever you want. Dealers will put up listings for “1g 100% reagent tested MDMA” or “4g Amnesia Haze”, you click on what you’d like, check the reviews and then click buy. You give them your address (which I think due to recent rules has to be encrypted) and it’s sent to you.
I’ve bought cannabis, ketamine, MDMA, LSD, magic mushrooms, valium and modafinil off Silk Road.
Drugs are bought using Bitcoin. Silk Road used to run an escrow system, where it acted as a middleman and held the money until the drugs arrived. The buyer then marked the drugs as ‘delivered’ and the money was released to the dealer. Silk Road was hacked around January and large amounts of money were stolen. Silk Road stopped their escrow system afterwards and were talking about asking users to use a third-party escrow. I haven’t checked recently to see what system they’re currently using.
I’ve only bought small (~1g) amounts of drugs. They usually come in vacuum sealed bags, in an envelope. I’ve only bought from dealers from the UK, and so envelopes are usually sent with first class stamps and take a couple of days to arrive.
Silk Road has a review system where users can rate the quality and amount of the drugs as well as how long they took to arrive and the quality of the “stealth” of the package. This incentivises dealers to be truthful about their product. Quality is generally high and if you buy a gram you’ll receive a gram, which is rare on the street.
It was considerably easier than other drug transactions I have done, for all these reasons. I feel safer taking drugs bought on Silk Road. Delivery takes a couple of days so it’s not a replacement for street dealers for spontaneous buying.
I’ve used the site semi-regularly for about two years. Silk Road 1 was shut down by the FBI in around October 2013 but was reopened about six weeks later and is referred to as Silk Road 2. Silk Road 2 was hacked around January and lots of user’s money was stolen (I lost about £10). Silk Road has said that it has ‘learnt it’s lesson’ and has made the necessary changes to rectify the problem but I haven’t been back on the website.
I hope more people do buy their drugs online in the future. It’s safer for users and there is more potential for transparency than buying on the street. I could see there’d be a market for ‘ethical’ drugs: homegrown cannabis or UK make MDMA which avoid the exploitative nature of the current drug trade. I have friends who’ve stopped taking drugs because of their murky background and I myself won’t take cocaine because of the harm it can cause people along the supply chain.