Drug markets and pre-made futures

Some further thoughts on the long term future of illicit drug markets.

10-15 years ago most people buying drugs would do it from a known contact, arranged by telephone, handing over cash in person. Now a deal typically is arranged by social media, sometimes through the open web or darknet, dropped by delivery and paid for electronically, including by cryptocurrency. The drugs being bought would often be the big 6, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, amphetamines and cannabis, with known supply routes and methods. Now the classic illegal drugs mix with pharmaceuticals, enhancement and lifestyle drugs, and a vast array of novel psychoactives. As much as new drugs, we have existing drugs being used in new ways, with varying degrees of social legitimacy. For a perspective on the future we can ask how drugs combine chemistry and culture, and how risks and benefits are distributed in Scottish society.

We can look back to some pre-made futures. Here is Star Trek’s Data serving Scotty some synthehol, an artificial alcohol providing pleasure without suffering. A gentle future without human nature in it. Like Data himself. In contrast the 2005 Foresight/Office of Science and Technology Project Drugs Futures 2025 (Nutt, Robbins and Stimson, 2007) recognised that  ‘for thousands of years individuals have used some form of mind-altering chemicals, ranging from comparatively harmless substances, like coffee, to others with substantial scope for harm and abuse’. DF 2025 suggested trends continuing: More sympathy towards people with drug dependence, more understanding of the risks deriving from improved brain science, and improved prediction of problems due to better genetic data and understanding of drug-body-mind interactions. The prediction of magic bullet treatment was confident:  ‘By 2025, vaccinations for a growing number of common drugs of addiction, such as cocaine, heroin, nicotine, amphetamines and cannabis, will almost certainly be available to prevent initiation of, or to treat, drug misuse.’ Also predicted was non-pharmacological neural manipulation e.g. transcranial magnetic stimulation. The scientific predictions didn’t work too well but the organisational, cultural and economic ones are more in evidence. Human nature being obdurate.

In that spirit we can be guided by looking at ethics, care, and human hybridity.

The authors suggest a number of more interesting cultural developments: Extended ‘youth’ leading to more extended drug use life course. Indeed we see much more consumption across the life course and experimentation throughout. We see business executives using LSD. The drug market tends to keep prices down. New drug types have emerged such as smart drug use, use of drugs for cognition enhancement and improvement.  Behavioural addictions are more recognised. Digital life is noted as a vector for behavioural addictions. ‘the Internet and mobile phones may lead to an increase in gambling and to new behavioural addictions, for example, to Internet chat rooms.’ These developments have change the setting of drug use and the kind of normalisation at work. They are less normalised for leisure, and more normalised for work/self. A very good call was the intersection of crime and foreign policy which we see in the alignment of major ransomware/crimeware outfits and Russian foreign policy.

Beyond trends we invite new ethical questions, such as using drugs for enhanced work performance, new kinds of social coercion and competition involved.

What was not present is the digital as an independent factor in drug production, distribution and use. This is the wild card. On a closer look it obeys many of the same rules as before – governed by culture, economics, social shame/desire.

To understand the future of digital drug use we can also recognised past digital myths. In the 1990s the ‘cyber’ was reckoned to be decentralised, voluntary and free flowing. It was separated from geography, nation-states and from pre-digital governance. This describes a moment in time. The digital world is not smooth, light, autonomous, network space. It is disjointed, centralised, heavy. The digital has qualities of permanence, scarcity, and memory over virtuality, abundance, anonymity. It exploits and polarises. It mixes the criminal and the political. Networks used by organised criminals also provide valuable space for dissidents, refugees and others. Conceptually there is no such thing as ‘the digital’ understood as a single, globalised, flat open virtual space. In part it is a digital extension of other institutions such as the mass media, states, corporations, education systems and others,  So how do we develop/adapt investigatory methods to work across that? What configurations of health, harm, and the illicit are borne out of it?

Let us look at an unexpected confluence which nobody predicted but emerged from the ferment of digital innovation. The darknet and cryptocurrency came together to allow for online anonymous markets in illicit goods and services. Drugs could be browsed, bought and paid for, contactless, remotely and in relative anonymity.. Why trust a dealer when you can read reviews and demand next day delivery? Like the early internet, the darknet devolved from a politicised anarchy to something more dominated by big players, with service integration and automation. It developed national, linguistic cultures as in the Russian centred ‘Hydra’ site, which provides secret shopper sampling of drugs sold, and also violent enforcement of contracted gig economy style employees. As well as being functional it also shows a morality of exchange. Networks of people advising each other and learning from them – not wholly individualistic and transactional but also meaningful.

Policing action tended to demonstrate the resilience of darknet operations rather than their vulnerability. Operation Onymous in 2014 had near term effects but that and later operations were often met with innovation and reformation of the markets on other platforms.The NCA and other agencies use other forms of disruption not easily represented here, and whose effectiveness is not always measurable in the same way. Law enforcement interventions allow participants to calibrate their expectations of security and risk. Interventions scrub weaker and more vulnerable players, hence change can be noted prior to intervention. Tactical displacement means drug markets move on-phone and indoors.

We are best seeing this as a reactive moral economy. Crimes you opt into – dodging council tax, TV license, overblown insurance claims, faking school eligibility, as opposed to survival crimes.

Mass crime is a kind of protest/reaction and withdrawal of consent after a threshold is reached. Karsted and Farrall point to 4 anomic cycles. 1 – market society’s emphasis on risk/choice blurs the line between licit and illicit risk. 2. Buyer beware lessens mutual obligation between business and consumer 3. Blurring between fair, shady and outright criminal 4. Growing rules/regulation based society means paradoxically they become meaningless and people/businesses violate the spirit while adhering to the letter. A rote compliance replaces organic solidarity. ‘Legal cynicism’.

Developing the idea that drugs are a system. Drugs are a great internet commodity as much like Jeff Bezos’ decision to start Amazon by selling books, they are relatively easy to warehouse and distribute.  Noticed how criminal groups move from e.g. drugs to cigarette smuggling to malware. There’s not a ‘criminal mode’ they are committed to.  Moving from commodities to services in the illicit drug economy What is a service? I mean it as supply beyond trade, ie there’s a function which is shared. So not necessarily ‘customer service’ though that exists. 

Two claims: reality: services around drug production, distribution, knowledge framework, data infrastructure, substitution/functional effect Directed, functional, not things in themselves. Empirical: And drugs themselves as being services and shaped by a self-referential service culture.  Characteristics of a maturing service market: Expertise can be rented rather than acquired. Decreasing cultural capital and skill demands – lower ‘cost of entry’.  Not human centric, modular, remote contact. Automated e.g. trust systems not local cultural capital, branded pharmaceuticals. Open sourced drug production formulae. Multiple user identities and biographies – not a ‘cocaine user’ ‘ritalin user’ etc

Systems operate across territories – a drone delivery- drug ordering and feedback system is an integrated system involving a service organisation and a digital front end. Infrastructure effects feed off developments in the economy. Distributed industrial production can be retasked to illicit product, as in see counterfeit cigarettes, illicit Xanax production using second hand pill machines, and 3-D printed weapons. Harms can be driven by supply chain needs such as fentanyl displacing heroin/opioids. As in the Country Lines instance, these methods provide vectors for exploitative control. It also opens the way to algorithmic control over operatives.


Karstedt S and Farrall S (2006) The Moral Economy of Everyday Crime Markets, Consumers and Citizens. British Journal of Criminology 46: 1011–1036. DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azl082.

Nutt, David, Trevor W. Robbins, and Gerry Stimson. 2007. ‘Chapter 1 – Drugs Futures 2025’. Pp. 1–5 in Drugs and the Future, edited by D. Nutt, T. W. Robbins, G. V. Stimson, M. Ince, and A. Jackson. Burlington: Academic Press.


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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