Global Drug Survey is an independent research organisation that operates the largest annual survey of drug use in the world. Run by addictions psychiatrist Dr Adam Winstock, Global Drug Survey strongly supports harm reduction and accepts that pleasure drives the majority of drug use, which for most people most of the time is not a source of distress or harm in their lives. GDS does not seek traditional funding grants so it can remain independent from governments and universities. This independence results in the freedom to produce novel harm reduction materials, like the Highway code, which is GDS’s “guide to safer, more enjoyable drug use”.
My name is Dr Monica Barratt: I’m an Australian social scientist interested in the social and public health implications of internet technologies for people who use illicit and emerging psychoactive drugs, and the impacts of legislative responses to drug use and drug problems. I met Adam in 2011 at a conference, and I liked his attitude, especially that he focused his research on the bulk of drug users who were not experiencing problems. While I don’t deny that drugs can be problematic, the excessive focus on problems in research and in media representations certainly needs some correction, based on my professional and personal experiences.
Of course, 2011 was a big year for dark net markets. Like many of your readers, I discovered Silk Road through Gawker in June 2011. I was shocked to begin with that it could even exist, and I quickly realised that Silk Road would pose a serious challenge to drug prohibition, and may even prompt a reconsideration of the usefulness of current drug laws.
Two years ago, we first included questions in Global Drug Survey about Silk Road use, and
earlier this year, our findings were published in the academic journal Addiction (full text here). Of 1060 survey respondents who reported purchasing drugs from the original Silk Road, established illicit drugs were the most popular, like MDMA, cannabis, and LSD. The reasons they reported for using Silk Road were that it offered greater convenience, wider range and better quality. The rating system for vendors was also an important reason for use. Compared with buyers from the UK, Australians were more likely to report that they used Silk Road due to lower prices, matching what we know about the relatively high price of drugs in Australia. We also asked survey respondents who were aware of Silk Road why they hadn’t used it, with most of these respondents saying that they already had adequate drug supply, although half of these were deterred by concerns that they would be caught by law enforcement.
These results demonstrated that drug markets are not unlike markets for other goods in our increasingly digitised world: we could have been asking people why they prefer to buy clothes or music online and received similar responses. The key innovation that facilitated the advent of Silk Road was the coming together of Tor and Bitcoin in a way that facilitated anonymous online exchange of illicit products, as well as the sense of community that developed around Dread Pirate Roberts. After the seizure of Silk Road 1, and the tumultuous events of the last 12 months, we have seen communities dispersed but not ultimately deterred from creating new markets, and attempting to learn from the opsec mistakes of their forebears.
This year, we have a new module of questions in Global Drug Survey for dark net market users. We are asking you to reflect upon how your use of dark net markets has influenced your drug use trajectory – so, did you try any drugs for the first time through the dark net? Has accessing drugs through these markets affected the range of drugs you have consumed? We are also interested in whether dark net market purchase is the main or only way that you access drugs, or whether you combine it with other sources, like face-to-face exchanges or other online or clearnet sources. Another item of interest to many is how long people have to wait for their drugs to arrive in post when using dark net markets, which we will be able to analyse by country and by whether you purchase from vendors domestically or abroad.
We are particularly interested in which challenges and issues people report experiencing as a result of purchasing drugs through dark net markets: for example, issues with drug purity, variability, availability, not receiving the product, virtual currency volatility, threats to personal safety, and health harms. We wish to compare the types and extent of these issues with your nominated next main source: that is, where you would get your drugs if dark net markets were no longer accessible. This information will help us assess the overall effects of the rise of dark net markets on total drug market harms, and the effects when such markets are seized or taken down.
Please consider contributing to this research project here. The survey is anonymous: we do not collect IP addresses and we only save your responses once you have decided to submit the survey at completion. Please take the time to share your experiences anytime up until Dec 20th 2014. We will make the results available in 2015. I will also check this post periodically so feel free to ask questions or comment on our research.