Could the Internet Make Drug Use Safer? - A Conversation With Dr. Adam Winstock

adam winstock global drug survey

Technology has revolutionized the drugs market and the substances themselves. As new narcotics emerge, governments only fuel the turmoil in their futile attempt to play catch-up.

The vast selection of drugs available today, accessible through the so-called “Deep Web,” would have been utterly unimaginable a decade ago. As this phenomenon grows, we need to ask: what are the pros and the cons of Internet markets and the new substances on them? 

To find out, I spoke to a man with his finger on the pulse of the UK’s narcotics scene, consultant addiction psychiatrist Dr. Adam Winstock. He is the founder and director of The Global Drug Survey (GDS) which annually collects and compares vast amounts of data from drug users to formulate nuanced, pragmatic harm reduction advice.

On The Market

“I think the biggest change is the challenge to the regulation system. The government needs to ask if they can control drug markets in the way they once could, and the simple answer is ‘no, they can’t.’ The Internet is probably going to be a bigger driver of policy change than almost anything else,” Adam begins.

Change is inevitable.

There are some clear advantages to shifting drug markets off the streets that this young online industry is keen to highlight. In February 2007, the first-ever illegal Deep Web market welcomed browsers with these words: “Silk Road is transforming a notoriously violent industry into a safe online marketplace, removing the risk of face-to-face transactions. We [are] humanity’s first truly free, anonymous, unbiased marketplace.”

Adam agrees. “Is it a good thing the Internet removes the dominance of drug cartels? Yes. Is it a good thing that you’re reducing the need for people to come face-to-face with drug dealers and therefore reducing violence? Yeah, that’s a good thing.” So, a web-based market is obviously preferable to a street market where encounters with violent gangs are possible.

Even after prohibition the Internet might still have a role, Adam states. “If you are going to have a regulated market, the Internet might be a good way of doing it. You don’t really want shop fronts, you don’t really want advertising … a regulated dark net might not be such a dreadful thing.” The role of corporate interests in legal drug markets will likely evolve to be even more controversial than it is for alcohol and tobacco, but some will certainly want to keep them off the high street.

Balancing the pros and cons isn’t easy.

“The Internet could become a really bad game changer if suddenly a really dangerous mystery drug arrives, something like MPTP [a drug which induces parkinsonism], and people get hold of it really quickly before warnings can be put out. Equally of course, good globalization of communication means that hopefully using communities can warn people early.”

“Unfortunately, the way the government approaches this issue means their message may lack credibility.”

To put that more bluntly, users have been lied to so much by governments about drugs, they rarely listen to official advice. “One day, something really nasty might come along and you’d want the government to be able to get that message out in a way that people would listen to it.”

There’s a more fundamental, unresolved concern, however. “One question you need to answer is: is the Internet recruiting new people to drug use? Or, is it just leading to displacement of street markets to online? In which case that’s probably no great harm… [And] if people are getting better quality drugs, is that a good thing or a bad thing?”  

“You could argue that better quality drugs lead to safer and lower levels of use -- that’s entirely possible. Of course, you could equally argue that now people are buying 70 percent coke directly from Colombia, they’re going, ‘fucking hell, this is wicked,’ and actually their use goes up. This leads to more dose-related harms, and we know most harms are dose-related.”

So, without effective harm reduction advice and proper regulation there’s good reason to remain cautious about the growth of online markets as they are.

For Adam, “it comes down to the harms related to drugs [being] partly due to the drug, but much more to do with the modifiable parameters of individual and contextual risk. And so, I guess my interest is in whether or not we can harness the Internet to ensure -- regardless of what the source of a drug is and its legal status -- people can learn how to minimize the risks around the drug they choose to consume.” 

“But right now,” he continues, “it’s just too early. There’s too much novelty and everything’s shifting; Silk Road, Silk Road 2.0, Pandora’s Box, Cloud 9, and so on. There are thirteen dark net markets and we’ve seen a quadrupling in the number of online suppliers in the last nine months. This is going through the roof.”

On The Substances

What about the vast selection of new substances available on this new market?

A central starting point, Adam notes, is “recognizing that of all these new, novel substances that can be bought, they don’t seem to hold a huge appeal. If you go shopping on the dark web, you’ll find the three drugs bought most commonly are cannabis, coke and MDMA … because they’re the drugs that people like. That strikes me as kind of demonstrating that the drive for new drugs is a lack of good quality traditional drugs.”

There’s obviously a large online community of enthusiasts for whom the Internet is very much all about new and experimental substances. But, for the majority of users this is not the case, with synthetics often decried as the bastard children of “real” (illegal) drugs.

By far the most successful legal high of all time was Mephedrone. It appeared at a time when poor quality, expensive cocaine and MDMA had become the norm. When used for a short periods, Mephedrone was said to mirror the effect of MDMA, even coke, surprisingly well. For a time, it served as a pure, cheap, and most importantly, legal replacement. 

But Adam reminds me: “You could also argue that the Internet will broaden people’s shopping carts. Say you go online shopping for a bit of MDMA or coke and you come across some random amphetamine that you think is interesting, you might just buy it. That is something we’re going to look at with this year’s GDS; whether or not the Internet is leading to opportunistic shopping. Is it getting like Amazon? That would not necessarily be a good thing.”

We know that people doing brand new, or untested drugs is likely not a good thing since many are poorly understood. Something like cocaine, for example, may be addictive and harmful, but we know the damaging effects its misuse can have.

There is a sizeable community of very cautious online psychonauts who utilize Internet forums to review drugs and share information. But, for many online recreational users looking for a cheap and hopefully legal quick fix, they’re not as knowledgeable or respectful. And the majority of people who take a new drug, Adam tells me, do it when they’re already intoxicated, thus increasing the risk.

On Drug Culture

So, two primary concerns we might have about the rise of Internet markets is (a) they may lead users to take more drugs, and, (b) possibly more types of drugs. 

What has Adam, someone who pores over the data from the world’s largest drug survey for a job, observed?

“The first ecstasy generation was remarkably respectful of MDMA as drug. It was a treasured, thrilling experience. They would take a pill, they wouldn’t drink and they’d make sure they drank lots of water. And that simple, old school harm reduction has been lost to a degree.”

Contrary to the portrait delivered in popular culture, the first “summer of love” was a bourgeois affair. It was for a minority of rich kids with the money and time. After this era, drug use was still considered by many to be “deviant behavior.” It wasn’t particularly widespread. But, after the second “summer of love,” when one in three British youths had tried ecstasy in a little over the three years, drug use become more normalized.

Normalized, but not trivialized. 

“When people would get introduced to ecstasy and the club scene, there was a social network and a socialization around drug use. I think with globalization and new drugs parachuting out of nowhere, people just aren’t experiencing that initiation period,” said Adam.

“Particularly with the explosion of Mephedrone, the rise of Ketamine and other hallucinogens, it has allowed a lot of people to move into poly-drug use in a way that 20 years ago just wasn’t really that common. People have just lost a bit of respect for the drug experience.”

This, I feel, is the greatest potential harm of the Internet revolution relative to drugs. It is so easy, so mind bogglingly vast. With a product as volatile and fun as drugs I worry. I worry recreational users of my generation might be more reckless, more willing to mix substances and dip into the unknown.

Drug use may not be rising, but patterns of drug use may get more dangerous. Not necessarily because people are choosing risk, but because the drug using environment is more uncertain and dangerous. That environment is online.