Online drug trafficking has come a long way since the early days of the “Silk Road”. If smuggling drugs online was totally off the map a few years ago, Internet has now become a strategic venue for criminal activities. On 29 May, the European Council and the Parliament agreed on a series of reforms to improve the legislation on New Psychotropic Substances (NPS), an ‘unprecedented’ and ‘considerable’ threat on public health and safety according to the European Drug Report 2017 with more than 650 new substances identified over the last six years. The new EU Action Plan on Drugs 2017-2020 likewise strives to address the impact of new ICTs on the drug market, following the findings of the mid-term evaluation of the EU Drugs Strategy 2013-2020 and the final evaluation of the EU Action Plan on Drugs 2013-2016. But criminalising NPS is substantially intricate; an intricacy which has allowed transnational organised crime to expand.
New ICTs, speedway for the NPS trade
NPS are very difficult to monitor for various reasons (lack of a generic legal definition, lack of scientific evidence, a vicious action-reaction dynamic between criminal groups and legislative bodies). Perhaps the most challenging aspect of NPS is their capability to cross physical barriers and feed transnational organised crime. According to the 2016 Global Drug Survey, 58% of people reporting buying NPS did so online. No matter how prohibitive a policy on NPS is, it will not hamper NPS abuse if drug dealers get their supply from countries where NPS are not banned. NPS appear very attractive for their competitive prices in countries where pharmaceutical prices are low and law enforcement not effectively responsive, like in China and India. The (relative) anonymity that Internet offers also significantly reduces the risk of being caught via the use of encrypted browsers on the deep web that are hard to track down by law enforcement agencies and via the use of bitcoin, a digital currency which acts as an intermediary between the retailer and the user and which can be traded for any other currency.
The emergence of new criminal actors?
One particular aspect of NPS which should not be neglected is their social capital. The Internet-NPS marriage has attracted a new generation of users and vendors: young, computer-literate, educated, and who consume NPS for cultural appropriation, sometimes as part of sub-cultural genres, a greater danger for young users. The relationship between vendors and users has besides become more horizontal and decentralised, closer to production, with the emergence of single-vendor markets. The success of cryptomarkets (the number of transactions of illicit drugs on the cryptomarkets has tripled since the darknet market “Silk Road” was shut down in 2013) is also due to the fact that online drug trafficking appears less dreadful than street drug markets: transactions take place remotely, have feedback options, are easy to carry out for a computer-literate generation with minimum risk of being scammed. The nature of the drug trade has evolved, anonymity being a priority over the price or the quality of the substances. Yet, it would be erroneous to think that the virtual NPS market has superseded ‘traditional drug trafficking’: Internet acts more as a complement and as a reinforcing tool, which makes it harder for law enforcement agencies to determine the exact links between the surface and dark webs and the actual reach of highly volatile organised criminal networks.
What can be done?
NPS have put into light the limitations of current drug control procedures. The challenge is then to put greater emphasis on the technology-drug trafficking nexus, intensifying the efforts which have been undertook after the June 2016 Expert Meeting organised by the EU Commission. Several challenges have been identified in order to curb drug supply and demand online: the problem of secure encryption and web hosting, the move from surface to deep website and/or the darknet, the emergence of new forms of payment, and the growth in drug advertising and exchanges on social media. The new EU Action Plan has therefore called for greater cooperation in information sharing between customs and forensic laboratories as well as with law enforcement, customs and border officials, internet companies and health experts. Finally, the need to improve mutual legal assistance, in line with the 9 June 2016 Council Conclusions on improving criminal justice in cyberspace, appears as crucial regarding the problem of legal responsibility with the existence of ‘unwilling dealers’ – individuals or groups who participate in the NPS trade without being aware of their role.