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Drugs on the dark web often contain unidentified ingredients

Imagine buying something online, only to discover it’s completely different from what you ordered. That’s exactly what’s happening with online drugs. According to a new study by RMIT University in Australia, over one third of illegal drugs bought on the dark web are contaminated.

This revelation highlights the dangers of buying drugs online and the urgent need for more drug checking services in Australia.

Buying illegal drugs online

Researchers in Australia investigated the online drug market by analyzing 103 samples purchased from anonymous platforms or cryptomarkets. 

These marketplaces, operating on the dark web, offer a seemingly easy and discreet way to obtain various drugs. The platforms have grown in popularity, attracting users from all walks of life including individuals seeking recreational drugs, people struggling with addiction, and even those who are just curiously tempted by online anonymity.

Deceptive drug descriptions

The study revealed that while 65% of the drugs matched their online descriptions, this seemingly positive finding can be misleading. It might suggest a level of trustworthiness among some vendors, but a deeper look uncovers a concerning reality.

Drug adulteration 

Overall, 14% of the samples contained additional substances not mentioned online. This practice of adding unknown substances, called adulteration, can lead to dangerous and even lethal drug interactions, as consumers unknowingly ingest a mix of unknown chemicals. 

Drug substitution 

Even more concerning was the finding that 21% of the drugs did not contain the advertised substances at all. This complete substitution poses serious health risks, as consumers have no idea what they’re actually ingesting.

“Cryptomarkets allow anonymous buyers to review purchases, which theoretically means vendors who sell inferior products are more likely to receive bad reviews, thereby rewarding vendors selling superior products,” said Dr Monica Barratt.  

“But despite this perception of accountability and quality, our findings show prohibited drugs purchased from cryptomarkets are still not safe from adulteration and substitution.”

Highest adulteration in cocaine

Cocaine users faced a particularly high risk of receiving adulterated products. Unlike drugs such as MDMA, methamphetamine, and heroin, which were less often contaminated, cocaine samples frequently contained other substances, diluting their purity and increasing the danger.

Novel psychoactive substances 

Novel psychoactive substances (NPS), also known as designer drugs or legal highs, are a group of new drugs designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs like cannabis, cocaine, and LSD. They are sometimes synthetic versions of existing drugs, aiming to either avoid existing drug laws or provide stronger or different effects.

The recent study found various types of NPS in the tested drugs. These new drugs can be significantly stronger than the ones they imitate, potentially leading to heightened heart rate, blood pressure, and, in extreme cases, fatal overdose.

Using social media apps

A survey from 2023 shows fewer people are buying drugs on the dark web, preferring messaging and social media apps instead. These apps are easier to use but lack the security and buyer protection found on darknet markets.

Australian authorities focus on shutting down darknet markets to deter drug sales. However, this approach might not be effective because sellers quickly move to other markets, minimizing the impact of individual takedowns. 

“These days, vendors have accounts across many markets, in case one goes down, their clients can find them on other markets. This mitigates against the disruption of a takedown,” noted Dr. Barratt.

Drugs on the dark web

As people find new ways to get illegal drugs, it’s crucial to set up more services that check the contents of these drugs. Currently, there is only one such service called CanTEST in Australia, with two other states planning to launch similar programs.

Illegal drug marketplaces seem safe and anonymous, but they can be dangerous. There are hidden risks that buyers might not realize. Also, while anonymity protects buyers, it also protects bad sellers, making it impossible to hold anyone responsible if something goes wrong.

The study highlights that people often underestimate the risks associated with drugs on the dark web. Stronger safety measures are needed – both online and in the real world – to protect people from the hidden dangers of these markets.

The study is published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.


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