Opioids and fentanyl in the digital supply chain: a material analysis of drug market habitus

Opioids and fentanyl in the digital supply chain: a material analysis of drug market habitus

This is the draft of a paper I am presenting at the International Forum on Drug Policy, hosted by the International Center for Drug Policy Studies at Shanghai University. The theme of the forum is  ‘The Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opioids Crises: New Challenges and New Responses’.

Introduction: the present and future of illicit opioids in digital markets

Drug supply and drug culture has evolved rapidly. 10–15 years ago most people buying illicit drugs would do it from a known contact, arranged by telephone, and paid by 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. It need not involve any interaction at all, and the buying and selling parties can be unknown to each other. The drugs being bought would often be the big 6, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, amphetamines and cannabis. Now the classic illegal drugs mix with opioids, pharmaceuticals, enhancement and lifestyle drugs, and a vast array of novel psychoactive drugs which come in many different forms for consumption (Lim et al., 2020). The emergence of digital drug selling also changes the fundamental nature of the market. In the face to face drug selling work there two markets – one public, open and risky, the other private, closed and somewhat more predictable. Digital methods allow markets to be in theory both private and open (Bakken et al., 2018).

Therefore the emergence of digital drug selling platforms and methods alters the logic and underlying rationalities of drug markets. The paper takes that as its theme, and hypothesises that these developments shape both what is sold and alter the cultural framing of drugs as meaningful commodities. To do that it examines the emergence of synthetic opioids in darknet drug markets and the ways in which they reshape supply chain relationships and drug users’ subjectivity. It uses the case of opioid buyers in darknet cryptomarket to examine the relationship between market processes and drug culture.

Taking a material culture perspective the paper discusses what aspects of opioids are sought after and how the drugs themselves are calibrated to reflect market conditions and users’ experiences and expectations. It discusses users’ presentation as hyper-modern, risk reflexive consumers. Increasingly we are seeing self-efficacy being used as the measure of a substance’s potency, a new development which points towards a novel understanding of the relationship between self and intoxication. Features of the digital marketplace design plug into this subjectivity, promoting a rational consumer ethic through its feedback features. The paper examines how fentanyl emerges as a product within the digital supply chain and how users treat it as both a threat and sometimes useful part of their psychoactive repertoire. It ends with some critical thoughts on how the ‘rational market’ design makes some features of the commodity chain transparent while obscuring others, and some suggestions about the future direction of the digital drug markets. This has implications for policing, public health and harm reduction.

What are cryptomarkets

Illicit drug supply has become more globally integrated and technology driven in multiple ways. One of the most striking is the development of digitally located specialised drug markets, or cryptomarkets (Martin, 2014). Cryptomarkets are anonymous platforms that allow buyers and sellers to exchange goods using decentralised payment systems. The first viable cryptomarket was the Silk Road, launched in 2011. Silk Road introduced two qualities that were previously mutually exclusive in drug markets: it was open – in the sense that anyone could enter, given a basic level of technical knowledge, and it was private, in the sense that people could participate without detection (Aldridge and Décary-Hétu, 2016). It was the prototype for new paradigm of illicit drug exchange that was then copied and reproduced elsewhere (Aldridge and Décary-Hétu, 2014; Bakken, 2020; Demant et al., 2019). Silk Road was eventually closed down by law enforcement. That operation did not reduce interest in the cryptomarkets. It was the start of a continuing process of innovation and disruption as market administrators tried to stay ahead of their rivals and law enforcement (Afilipoaie and Shortis, 2018). Various social, legal and economic disruptions tended to show the resilience the overall market ecosystem even as they exposed technical or organisational failings in some of them (Décary-Hétu and Giommoni, 2017). Over time however the market has been reconfigured away from large, centralised cryptomarkets to smaller ‘shopfronts’ (Martin et al., 2019). Though sometimes depersonalised they are evolving and also provide the basis of dealer to buyer direct dealing (Childs, Coomber, Bull, et al., 2020).

Cryptomarkets are a small but influential proportion of the overall drug trade. Respondents to the Global Drug Survey obtaining at least some of their drugs from darknet sites in the previous 12 months rose from 4.7% in 2014 to 15% in 2020 (Winstock, 2021). The demographic balance tends towards the ‘psychonaut’ user profile (Cunliffe et al., 2019). Alongside that there are many self-identified dependent and addicted users who find the predictability, professionalism and stability of supply a significant benefit (Bancroft, 2019).

Cryptomarkets are hosted on the Tor darknet. A darknet is any system that isolates and obfuscates internet traffic through a combination of hardware and software. Facebook has some features of a darknet. It does separate itself from the web and obfuscates users from each other depending on a combination of user-controlled and system controlled settings. Ultimately users are entirely exposed to the system so there is no hope of privacy.  ‘The’ darknet is the Tor darknet which is a different proposition. Along with other darknets like i2p and Freenet, it creates an anonymising layer over internet traffic using a combination of encryption and signal routing. Users operate with a degree of anonymity that is not possible with normal internet and web use, which has been compared to living in the Big Brother house in terms of privacy. Tor and the other darknets are part of a class of privacy promoting systems and products that include remailers, cryptocurrencies and VPNs. They differ in the degree of control and knowledge users have over the systems. Tor offers another ability which is that of private or hidden hosting. Services can be offered from anonymous servers. That ability opens up a whole host of uses, from criminal markets to encrypted chat and private discussion. It offers new qualities for commodity exchange and social interaction which is of interest to sociologists, criminologists, economists and privacy focused activists.

Cryptomarkets are a valuable data source for researchers. Researchers have developed digital trace methods to follow changes in supply and understanding price/buying dynamics (Décary-Hétu and Aldridge, 2013). These innovations allow for early confirmation of market changes such as the emergence of fentanyl and other novel synthetic opioids (Bunting et al., 2021; Lamy et al., 2020, 2021) and new drug delivery systems such as e-cigarettes and vaping (Lim et al., 2020). These changes can indicate wider developments in the illicit drug market overall.

Cryptomarkets are often presented as a fully formed, self contained system. However they are best understood as one particularly well integrated part of a larger, flexible digital market ecosystem. That system is composed of social media apps, encrypted messaging systems, decentralised discussion servers and other communication forms (Moyle et al., 2019; Saidashev and Meylakhs, 2021). Drug sellers and buyers move around within this landscape depending on the changing supply availability and their specific requirements.

Illicit digital hybridity, market habitus and the global supply chain

Drug selling takes place in the penumbra of digital life and the digital economy. There is also a growing acknowledgment of the disruptive potential of technologies – notably the digital – to transform illicit drug markets and future use patterns (Barratt et al., 2022). That has implications for what is sold, how, where and by whom. For a long time, researchers, policymakers and law enforcement have referred to ‘the drug market’ as a generic term for aggregated global drug production, trafficking and distribution systems. This approach is useful as it allows us to understand how disparate individuals and places are connected without an organised or cartel arrangement at work. It cannot be left at that though as markets create and normalise effects that are specific to them. They change the ‘market habitus’, the dispositions dealers and buyers have towards the drug exchange process, their expectations of value and quality, and their fears of exploitation and predation (Aldridge, 1998).

In a straightforward sense we should not be surprised at the infiltration of technology and drug markets. All markets involve technologies, and in another sense, are technologies. An accounting spreadsheet is a technology. Even if these technologies are not tangible, they exist and have effects: adding and subtracting mentally is a technology, amortising debt is a technology. Technologies channel, reproduce and extend human capacities. In another sense, markets conduct specific technological functions, epistemological and ontological. Illicit markets are somewhat distinct in that they are the products of other platforms (Breger Bush, 2020).

Digital drug markets are techno-social hybrids. They are novel combinations of existing technologies that create a new interactional dynamic and which expands the reach and availability of illicit drugs. They are force multipliers in the illicit drug field. Any finished – though seldom ‘complete’ – technological interface or device is a combination of other systems, however the uniqueness of drug market hybrids is their frequent non-intentional evolution. Over time, the purpose built darknet cryptomarkets have adapted into new forms combining on and offline activity, often in response to changed consumer demand, market reorganisation and competition or law enforcement successes (Childs, Coomber, Bull, et al., 2020). They might retain the same interface and technological infrastructure while being fundamentally different sites of social encounter and organisation. Illicit digital hybridity then is a process that reaches across ontological boundaries, between on and offline, face to face and remote, virtual and material.

Markets are very effective hybridising systems that connect, automate, flatten and rationalise; and also reorganise, reshape their participants’ habitus, create hierarchies, and reputations (Appel, 2016; Beckert, 2017). Classical economics seeks to treat the market as an abstract, unifying, disembedding whole, while sociology looks at how it is encountered as a material, cultural entity. Both perspectives capture a reality of how markets operate and the impact they have. In this paper I take material culture perspective which examines how technologies are taken up and used in different market cultures. I treat digital drug markets as places with their own localised cultures which promote varying market habituses.

There are also different markets overlaying each other which drug users and sellers encounter in different senses. There is the abstract market as a set of operating concepts, promoting types of rationality and self-directed action (Childs, Coomber and Bull, 2020; Hall et al., 2013). There is the material market as the connected set of different exchanges which may not be directly in touch with each other. Finally there is the material implementation of specific market contexts, whether a street market, or a darknet cryptomarket. Mirroring developments in capitalist societies, I recently observed the emergence of what might be called conscious markets, where drug sellers and buyers have a distinct understanding of themselves as operating within and according to market principles. In these spaces they see themselves as and expected to behave as service providers and consumers. That has implications for drug normalisation, access, pricing, quality, product diversity and availability (Barratt, Coney, Aldridge, Larisssa J. Maier, et al., 2017; Barratt et al., 2014).

Drug markets then work as both sorting and identification systems and as epistemological devices. They define what drug quality means, assign value to labour and risk (Bancroft, 2019). They assemble knowledge from different sources and also destroy or fragment some kinds of knowledge. From example, those that conduct drug testing and in so doing make only those qualities of the drug ‘speakable’. They define some use types and users as rational consumption, and others as deviant ‘rubbish’ consumers (Bancroft et al., 2020).

Market participation is also about positioning. For example, many sellers use strategic pricing, as became clear during the COVID pandemic (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2020). Some kept prices stable in order to maintain their client base or market position. Price therefore is entity which does not necessarily signify the harmony of supply and demand, but also includes other needs like the status and trajectory of the buyer and seller. Pricing can be used methodologically as both a signal telling on the general health of the drug market, and a positioning move made by drug sellers.

As well as normalising a market habitus, digital drug selling shapes how drugs are normalised. The growing availability of a range of drugs through online sources at the same source promotes a psychoactive repertoire (Barratt, Coney, Aldridge, Larissa J Maier, et al., 2017; Measham and Moore, 2009). That is where users incorporate a range of substances for specific context based effects. These elements come together in relation to opioid and fentanyl distribution and consumption.

This paper makes several critical propositions:

  1. The integration of the digital economy with the illicit drug market has led to more rapid innovation in drug types
  2. That process has shifted power in the supply chain, with dealers having more opportunity to introduce new substances which may be more powerful and more harmful, such as fentanyl and its derivatives, and benzodiazepines
  3. We can measure the consequences in terms of incidences of overdose and drug related death
  4. The consequence is that current harm reduction advice and practice may need to acknowledge and work with that, in particular recognising greater uncertainty in terms of dose and response
  5. Furthermore, buying and consumption can be more individualised and informed by medical cultures rather than subcultural drug use cultures

Literature review: Opioids and fentanyl as an NPS category

The EMCCDA and others (Duke, 2019; European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2019) have highlighted the rise of novel psychoactive substances (NPS) and one dimension of this upsurge in new drugs, previously little known drugs, and drugs previously largely restricted to medicinal use, is the rise of artificial opioids, fentanyl and its derivatives and benzodiazepines (‘benzos’). These drugs are frequently highly potent, and though sometimes are claimed and marketed as mimicking the effects of established drugs are often not analogous to them. Many are initially unknown in drug using cultures and must be adapted to shared cultural norms and understandings. That process puts them on a trajectory which can begin with initial interest and novelty, and later recognising the drug’s harms and side effects, redefining it as a dangerous drug of abuse (Bilgrei, 2016).

NPSs are defined as a public health threat in various ways, as a regulatory problem (Duke, 2019), and a contaminant in existing drug use cultures (Measham, 2020).  We should not automatically accept that it does it exist as a coherent category (Potter and Chatwin, 2017) and in fact consist of several distinct types which combine into different effects. There are performance and image enhancing drugs, recreational NPSs, and opioids and their derivatives. I separate these out as ‘power categories’ because they involve different demographics of users, different forms and pharmacokinetics of the drugs, and different modes of distribution and consumption contexts. Opioids and fentanyl are similarly new and not new. What is novel is the way they exist as a new power category, which locks down the multivarious ways opium functions into a narrow set of effects (Breger Bush, 2020). Ultimately the impact of opioids and fentanyl is to separate this new category from its supposed origin, the opium poppy. Though opioids mimic some of the analgesic qualities of opium, and operate on the same brain receptors, they have become a distinct ontological category marked by concerns about potency and addiction. Historically we can see the category come into being with the emergence of pain medicine during the 1970s. This was a concerted shift in the focus of medicine and of medical science which came to treat pain as an object which could be worked on and managed as part of medical practice (Bonica, 1991). New journals were founded, new directions for medical science and education were proposed, and new ideas of what pain was were proposed. A whole system of pain management emerged as medical practice and system of governance (Sherman, 2017).

Part of that history was the rise of pharmacological solutions, promoted fiercely by drug companies like Purdue (Quinones, 2016). Oxycontin came to be a default solution to pain – both physical and psychic – and the trigger for a new wave of addiction and drug related death that swept through North America (Hansen and Skinner, 2012). The drug came to be a part of white working class life and trauma, and once again changed its status as a political object. It was bound up with a number of existential threats – economic, social, and racial – which fundamentally altered the meaning and trajectory of white working class life in North America. As with other drug related panics this new regime misses out or diminishes the experiences of users who do not fit this discourse, who belong to other ethnic groups and/or are suburban or urban based (King, 2014).

In a literal sense they are a power category, as in, one which is especially potent in the mind and body of the user, and one which emphasises potency in discourse and use (Kennedy and Coelho, 2020). Potency has a double meaning: both positively powerful and because of that risky and dangerous. The ability of a drug to inscribe its history on the users’ body is a signal of its long term potency (Dennis, 2019). I argue that as opioids have come into the illicit drug market they have brought this meaning with them, and have shifted focus from users’ intoxicant experience with the drug to an emphasis on the drug as powerful and challenging. The drugs’ potency introduces new challenges: it becomes unstable, and is hard to titrate into a predictable dose (Broadhurst et al., 2020). The language around it reflects that: it is estimated to be orders of magnitude stronger that heroin or morphine, and has a high fatality risk.

Method

The aim of this study was to conduct a visual ethnographic cultural analysis of how fentanyl and opioids are represented in digital drug markets. Research for this paper used searches on current darknet drug markets using the Ahmia tool https://ahmia.fi/ maintained by Juha Nurmi. Ahmia indexes cryptomarkets and provides a common interface for searching them. Common search terms were used covering opioids and known derivatives. Listings were downloaded and analysed according to thematic codes covering their visual and textual content.

Findings

The predominant opioids for sale on the darknet are oxycodone (aka OxyContin), heroin, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine and opium. Fentanyl is sometimes sold in the ‘other’ category and sometimes bracketed out into its own. Fentanyl is sold on the darknet in a range of forms: as pills, patches and powder. A typical listing is illustrated below, from Venus Marketplace.

Fentanyl was framed in different ways throughout the markets. It was presented as a contaminant in some listings for heroin. One said ‘Our heroin is uncut and comes directly to you. There is no fentanyl, or any other active cut’ (from Black Market). Another was at pains to say their ketamine was ‘TESTED AND FENTANYL-FREE. WE ENCOURAGE ALL OUR BUYERS TO TEST THEIR PRODUCT FOR THEIR OWN SAFETY’ (Helsinki Market, Ketamine).  They also offered fentanyl testing strips free with a purchase.

Fentanyl in these listings is presented as a potential contaminant, a risky and unwanted substance. In some opioid listings it was presented as a dark other, a hyper dangerous drug which the opioid being sold was a softer, gentler version of. An oxycodone listing said of the product for sale:

These Oxycodone are a well known type of pill and are considered as the most wanted oxycodone pill on the market. They are made with an opiate which is alternative to fentanyl as fentanyl is considered dangerous and can be harmful for the user. (The Hidden Market, 10x m30 oxycodone mallinckrodt pharmaceuticals)

Fentanyl sellers presented an alternative narrative, one that focused on fentanyl as a powerful drug. A counter narrative presentation by sellers was one centered around pain treatment and that presented fentanyl as superior to other opioids

Fentanyl is an extremely potent synthetic opioid prescribed for the treatment of acute and chronic pain, usually in patients already tolerant to high doses of less powerful opioids such as morphine or oxycodone. Fentanyl is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 20 – 50 times more potent than heroin. (Deepshop, listing ‘Buy Fentanyl Powder Online)

Top of Form

Fentanyl listings validated the product through reference to its physical form. Sales offering it in powder form noted the relative rarity of this type and referred to it as ‘laboratory type’. Derivates such as acetyl fentanyl were often listed as ‘Research Chemicals’ when sold. As part of this pharmaceutical representation side effects were listed, which was unusual in comparison to more established drugs such as cocaine.

As a μ-opioid receptor agonist, acetyl fentanyl may serve as a direct substitute for heroin or other opioids. Side effects of fentanyl analogues are similar to those of fentanyl itself, which include pruritus, nausea and potentially severe respiratory depression. (CJ Market, Buy Fentanyl Powder Online Buy Acetyl Fentanyl Powder Online. Cheap and Trusted Supplier with Top Stealth USA, UK Canada, Australia and worldwide)

Sellers offering fentanyl itself were also not entirely positive about the drug. They often acknowledged the risk of overdose and death, describing it as a powerful painkiller with restricted use.

Opioids were presented in terms of their material characteristics. Most were sold in pill form and the sellers were at pains to say that the pills would behave as expected. They tried to demonstrate that they were professionally produced and would not break apart while being used. Sellers were aware that their customers would often want to transform their product into a more consumable form, one pill sellers saying that their customers liked to snort or inject the product. Customers’ responses focused on the potency and compared the product to others:

Pills are very weak, no tolerance barely felt a huge amount off of 1x pill. Similar to roughly 20mg of Morphine or so? This was taken orally how I would expect to take Oxycodone. Needed to take 3 for any decent effect, only problem with this, the high only lasts about 2 hours and then your tolerance is too high to take more so it becomes a waste. (feedback on The Hidden Market)

Opioids such as OxyContin were sold according to some of their pharmacological characteristics such as extended release versions. Overall then we can see how an illicit drug is both a pharmaceutical existing within a medical culture, and an illicit drug existing within a drug use subculture.

Discussion

It was apparent throughout the study how much substances were represented in terms of purity and potency. Potency could appear as something desired, and risky at the same time. In other research I have noted how potency becomes a distinct aspect of the opioid experience (Bancroft, 2020). It is striking how in these listings the drugs are recognised as dangerous for this reason. Potency has a complex position in the accounts of drug users. An unexpectedly potent effect can be reassuring, or thrilling. It tells them they are still able to feel pleasure, to experience risk and that their drug use is not wholly defined by addiction.

Sellers focused a great deal on the drugs’ distinct material characteristics, and these clearly separated them out from other drugs for sale such as cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. Listings for those drugs focused on the drug effect, on the intoxicant effect it would have on the user. Opioid listings focused more on what the drug was. In a sense the drug became its own powerful ‘actor’ over which the seller presented themselves as having limited control.

The markets and the vendors presented tools to make the drug buying and consumption process transparent. More complex markets display ratings to support a rational approach to drug consumption. Testing was promoted to create an objective sense of what the drug was as a substance, and to show that what was being sold was uncontaminated. The ability of users to manage their use effectively was both supported and limited by this. The relative transparency about the products’ pharmaceutical qualities exposed the limits of users’ and vendors’ abilities to manage and limit pharmaceutical risks. To some extent this could be a fiction. Adulteration could be introduced further up the supply chain so it became impossible to avoid consuming unwanted adulterants. Although the markets were designed to get around supply chain risks they often highlighted and reproduced them. Problems arose when the supply chain was seen to introduce invasive substances (Mars et al., 2019) which fentanyl was often presented as.

Pain was unexpectedly central to the narrative. The power fentanyl had over pain was reiterated as evidence of the drug’s serious purpose and its strength. Much of this rhetoric was recycled from statements by pharmaceutical companies themselves. Many darknet market listings focused on pain medications, and this was a growing theme with several markets dedicated largely to pain relief.

Some of the shift in the drug market towards benzos, opioids and fentanyl is driven by changing demographics, by the emergency of integrated supply chain operations, and the political economy of the illicit drug market. Drug businesses operating in this way integrate different principles from those of sellers of established drugs. They demonstrate aptitudes in chemical-industrial processes, rather than for example, subcultural cultural nous, or involvement in drug subcultures. A contrast is sellers of psychedelics on the darknet, who show themselves as embedded in the principles of psychedelic culture, including a measure of altruism and a concern for harm reduction. Harms can be driven by supply chain needs such as fentanyl displacing heroin/opioids (Lamy et al., 2020). This has implications for policing, public health and harm reduction. Sellers of opioids and fentanyl recognise the drug as inherently dangerous, and therefore resistant to the common harm reduction advice to ‘start low and go slow’.

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. 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. That extends even to drug cultures which are not seen to priories instrumental hedonism, such as those surround opioids. One worrisome effect of this is atomisation: consumption takes place outwith any kind of supportive network.

A further effect of markets is commodification and commoditisation. Drug markets are not immune from that, and one factor in the rise of opioids and benzos is that they are immediately commoditisable.  The implications of commodification extend beyond what is sold to the nature of drug businesses themselves. Early trends we can observe are the replacement of the core/distributor model of drug business operation with integrated lab to user operations.

Conclusion

In capitalist societies markets are often presented as naturally occurring creations, places where people with something to sell and buy, and meet others with a need to fulfil meet in mutual exchange. Digital drug markets can promote and embed norms of destigmatisation and harm reduction but there are risks in where foregrounding of a market focused engagement with drug distribution can lead us. It may concentrate market power, promote bulk purchase, create supply chain risks and ultimately increase seller power. The rise of opioids can be seen as part of that process.

 

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