Dark-net markets: the good, the bad and ugly?

Dr Adam R Winstock
Founder Global Drug survey and Consultant Psychiatrist
Dr Monica Barratt PhD
Global Drug Survey and Post-Doctoral Researcher

Darknet markets or cryptomarkets have now been operating for 5 years (since the launch of Silk Road in February 2011). In the deep web, site owners, vendors and buyers are able to remain relatively anonymous as their IP addresses are masked. Purchases are made using the decentralised virtual currency Bitcoin, which can also be used relatively anonymously.

Since its first survey in 2011, Global Drug Survey(GDS) has been exploring the growth and impact of darknet drug markets. From our earliest work looking at the Silk Road to understand the perceived benefits of purchasing drugs online and how adoption of online markets can reflect local drug market policies, GDS understands that the internet and drugs share a special relationship. Most work to date has focused on the range of economical drivers and the size of the markets and has asked how these factors impact upon existing drug dealing networks and modulate drug policy and enforcement approaches. Despite numerous state led efforts to police, close down or otherwise disrupt darknet markets, data from GDS show these markets are not only resilient but appear to be thriving in many countries. Even the existence of scam sites and sudden market closures with loss of funds appear not to have to dented the enthusiasm that shopping away from prying eyes offers people. With range of product, quality, convenience and increased personal safety remaining the main attractions it is difficult to see anything but ongoing growth for darknet sales. (see table 1 below for 3 year GDS trend data for some EU countries as an example).

Table 1: 3 year GDS trend data for darknet drug market involvement across Europe


Recent darknet market use includes purchasing their own and getting someone to purchase on their behalf in the last 12 months. Base: respondents reporting use of illicit/NPS/prescription drugs in the last 12 months. Only countries with N=500+ in all 3 years are included (except Italy which had <500 in 2014 and 2015)


While GDS ( and other groups have suggested online markets can promote community support, information exchange and harm reduction, to date little work has been done on how potentially easier access to better quality / cheaper drugs might change people’s actual use of drugs. Research from across the world indicates that easier access to cheaper alcohol tends to cause more problems for individuals and populations. There is no reason to think drugs would be any different. But we don’t know.

So this year GDS will explore how darknet drug markets influence people’s use of drugs, with a special focus on cocaine. GDS2017 launches on Nov 12th 2016. If you want to add your experience to the biggest survey of drug use in the world, please visit