It is hard to think of a retail business that hasn’t been turned upside down by the internet. Rather than slogging to the shops, consumers nowadays buy their books from Amazon, download their music from iTunes and order their dinner via Deliveroo. With all this available at the touch of a smartphone screen, there is scarcely any need to leave the house. And so increasingly, consumers are going online to buy their drugs, too.
Indelible web-browsing histories and credit-card trails might make the idea of buying illegal products online sound unwise. But two innovations have made it possible to shop discreetly. One is Bitcoin, a digital cryptocurrency that allows consumers to make near-untraceable purchases. The other is the so-called “dark web”, a corner of cyberspace overlooked by ordinary search engines, where users can surf anonymously using modified browsers. Neither is at all difficult to use: within a few minutes even a digital simpleton like me was able to access a dark web site offering a pharmacopeia of illegal substances.
Such marketplaces are modelled on legitimate sites such as Amazon and eBay. Items for sale are accompanied by photographs, descriptions of the goods and an outline of the vendor’s shipping and returns policy. Users can provide feedback on sellers, rating the speed of shipping and the quality of the product. This is a particularly useful feature when buying a potentially dangerous product: hundreds of positive reviews suggests that the merchandise is likely to be what it claims to be. For wary consumers, some online companies will even carry out tests of drugs. Energy Control, a firm based in Spain, tests samples for a fee of €60, sending results back by email.
Drugs are the most popular items for sale on the dark web, but its shady marketplaces sell all sorts of other illegal products. Stolen credit-card numbers are one popular line. Banned weapons, including guns, are also on offer. I came across one seller offering samples of “clean” urine for people trying to cheat workplace drugs-tests. For true realism, the same vendor also offers an accessory called the ScreenyWeeny – “the world’s best fake penis, with Push&Piss technology” – available in five colours, from NordicWhite to LatinoBrown.
What have these new marketplaces done to the drugs industry? The main impact is on customer service. This has traditionally not been a strength of the narcotics business. “He’s never early, he’s always late. First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait,” complained Lou Reed of his heroin dealer in “I’m Waiting for My Man”. Yet online, you never have to wait. Most vendors offer a range of delivery options, including a premium next-day service for those with real cravings. Repeat customers get discounts. Some vendors offer coupons, or special deals to coincide with holidays. And online drug-dealers are far more courteous than their offline counterparts. Using a messaging system built into the site, I contact a dealer of crystal-meth pipes, “Vicious86”, asking if he can engrave one for a friend; he promptly replies sending his apologies that he does not yet offer such a service, but wishing me luck in finding someone who does.
There is an economic logic for the superior customer service that buyers receive online. Unlike ordinary, offline drug markets, online drug-dealing takes place in an open, competitive market. Consumers buying drugs in the offline world are not able easily to compare quality or price. There is no “feedback” or reviewing system. Dealers can hardly advertise their wares openly. So consumers end up buying from the person they usually buy from. Offline drug-dealing is therefore a business that heavily favours incumbents – who, as a result, can afford to keep customers waiting. Online, meanwhile, the drugs business runs in what more closely resembles an ordinary market. Consumers can compare prices, reviews, returns policies and so on, and make a decision on that basis. It is therefore a market in which those dealers offering the best product in the most convenient way and at the lowest price will prevail, however much or little time they have been in the game.
In some ways the springing up of dark web sites is good news. The system of reviewing drugs, and anonymously testing them, ought to make drug-taking safer. Tests have tended to show that drugs bought online are purer than those bought on the streets. And buying via the web rather than in person means there is less risk of violence. Some criminologists believe that the steep drop in murders in New York in the 1990s was caused partly by drug-dealers starting to use mobile phones and pagers, rather than selling their wares on street corners. The fact that there is no longer any need for dealers to control this “territory” means they no longer go to war over it. The internet could continue this trend.
On the other hand, the improved customer service and lower prices offered by online dealers may mean that, other things being equal, more people end up using drugs. That is probably a bad thing for public health. And it is certainly a bad thing for the countries that supply the drugs, which are still provided at source by criminal gangs that use extreme violence. A few online dealers offer what they claim is “fair trade” cocaine. Don’t buy it, in any sense.