A bit of a paper I’m working on – How illicit online drug market cues up intoxication potency and produces a risk reflective, rational subjectivity among opiate users

Markets embed a specific kind of illicit drug culture

I wanted to think through how the specific configuration of digital illicit markets shape subjectivity.

The purpose  is to outline how a specific type of online drug focused marketplace produces drug dealer and user subjectivities. Typically, illicit drug distribution can be characterised as taking place between three different distribution modes. In one corner is social supply with principles of mutuality, reciprocity and a flat network distributing arrangement (Coomber and Turnbull, 2007). In another is distribution through market exchange which prioritises the cash nexus, profit/value incentives and relationships mediated by consumption (Felstead, 2018). Finally there is a third mode, that of ideologically driven, altruistic supply that emphasise the drug and use as in a political, ideological or spiritual relationship (Tupper, 2008). That broad brush typology disguises many nuances and subtleties in practice (Hammersvik et al., 2012). The distribution modes may involve varying degrees of exploitation and obligation, they may promote practices of care or generate harm, they may expand drug distribution or keep it within a tightly bound social and cultural context (Belackova and Vaccaro, 2013; Coomber and Moyle, 2014). Different distribution modes and self presentation may occupy the same technical infrastructure and market space (Bakken, 2020; Demant et al., 2018).

The generalisation of markets as a mode for illicit distribution and organisation has had wide ranging effects on how drug users obtain and consume drugs. As has happened more broadly in capitalist societies we have seen an expansion in the conscious use of market forms for identity formation, self-creation and expression (Dijck et al., 2018). Market principles value certain qualities in both products and users: professionalism, the capacity to make objective judgements, to act as self directed, accountable agents, and invite drug users to express themselves as instrumental, reflexively hedonistic consumers (Turner, 2018). Digital technologies are both disruptive and confirmatory. They transform opportunities for illicit drug exchange, the formation of cultural collectivties of drug users and the capacity for self creation. They also confirm and reproduce some existing hierarchies, especially those between self identified recreational and dependent users. They create new spaces for trade and discussion, define new attributes, and foreground the experimental and the competitive (Martin et al., 2019). That has implications for we understand normalisation as happening through markets. The drug distribution mode affects the parameters of normalisation for example with social supply contributing to normalising particular use patterns (Coomber et al., 2015).  We can welcome self organising digital markets as promoting and embedding norms of destigmatisation and harm reduction but also be aware of where its foregrounding of a market focused engagement with drug distribution can lead us. It may concentrate market power, promotes bulk purchase, create supply chain risks and ultimately increase dealer power.

Cryptomarkets are one such and form the focus of this chapter, are hidden, anonymous marketplaces which mostly deal in illicit drugs along with some other illicit goods and services. They are hosted on the Tor (‘The Onion Router’)  darknet. Tor is developed and operated by a network supported by The Tor Project foundation. It emphasises the benefits of privacy and security.  The system uses encryption and signal routing to hide participants’ digital identities. The markets are hosted by administrators who connect their servers to the Tor system. This is called ‘onion hosting’. Along with the use of a distributed cryptocurrency, typically bitcoin, it allows transactions to take place in relative anonymity. Drugs are bought and sold, and delivered to the buyer using couriers, the postal system, or dead drops. Mostly they handle the ‘last mile’ of the drug trafficking system with sellers, buyers and market hosters mostly based in more affluent countries, and within that representing a more connected and affluent fraction of users (Dittus et al., 2017). Users are a specific demographic – not necessarily more affluent but adept at this kind of market. Cryptomarkets function as a drug distribution ecosystem and forums for drug users and sellers to meet virtually and examine the drugs being sold, the reliability of sellers and the desirability of particular drug effects. They also provides sites of contestation of the illegality and stigmatising of illicit drugs (Barratt et al., 2016; Hübschle, 2017).

I am focusing on market modes of distribution and the effect they have as it provides an opportunity to examine how the process of drug distribution shapes intoxication subjectivities and the drug as a specific type of object with tangible characteristics.  Market based drug distribution embeds some basic principles about drugs as objects: that they are commodities, they are interchangeable. It also frames drug users as specific types of subjects: they are consumers, they are focused on product qualities and reward customer service by dealers. It emphasises competition between drug dealers and between consumers. Just to pause here: not every market really does that in practice, and as we will see, apparently open and consumer led markets can in fact concentrate power among a small number of providers who can set the terms of trade. In this way the illicit drug markets function much like capitalism everywhere. An apparently open, free and voluntary relationship really depends on the consumer adapting themselves to the terms of trade offered. It narrows the drug users’ self perception to that of a drug consumer focused on calculated, planned hedonism, meaning an expectation of pleasure along with with a risk reflexive subjectivity (Bilgrei, 2019). That is a powerful ideological effect of a market society and culture. The focus of this chapter will be a specific element of that, how drug buyers in cryptomarkets construct, assess and reward potency as a tangible quality of the drugs they are buying and using.

In capitalist societies markets are often presented as naturally occurring creations, places where people with something to sell and and others with a need to fulfil meet in mutual exchange. This is a powerful view in understanding some qualities of illicit markets, and moving away from pathologizing the actions of drug dealers and users within them. Markets are places of competitive exchange and the come into being to address problems of stability, predictability and reliable valuation (Beckert and Wehinger, 2012). Markets are also inventions, social constructs which institutionalise, design in and reward specific ways of being. Players in illegal markets face various problems. They have to succeed in making their activities work together despite being disparate, remote, fleetingly interacting. It is a problem of ordering interaction in ways that will lead to the expected outcome. Market actors want to exchange but they want to do it at a price that suits them. That can be tricky to agree, hence formal pricing mechanisms are handy. Every participant is risking something, and this is more the case in illicit markets. Therefore participants use proxies to reduce that risk – platform loyalty, brand loyalty, vendor loyalty, and markers of quality and reliability which of course may not be that reliable. It is an oddly precarious thing. Markets can only solve these problems if they are culturally, socially and institutionally supported (Beckert, 2009). Drug markets are institutionalsed whether in the street (Coomber and Maher, 2006), social media (Moyle et al., 2019) or the darknet (Aldridge and Décary-Hétu, 2016).

Digital illicit markets and cryptocurrencies promise greater transparency, democracy and accountability but this is not necessarily borne out in reality (Bratspies, 2018; van der Gouwe et al., 2017). To the extent to which these qualities do come about they are due to the efforts of participants and sometimes involve circumventing or resisting the centralising, profit driven logic of the markets themselves. I argue that the cryptomarkets discipline users towards a specific set of stances, and they adopt a tendency to reify, quantify, and engage in cost benefit analysis and rational use discourse about their drug consumption.


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Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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