Drugs on the darknet: Assessing the global health risks of a rapidly expanding market

Date Commenced:
January 2017
Expected Date of Completion:
Drug Type:
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Project Members
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Visiting Fellow
Ph 02 8936 1079
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Ms Amanda Roxburgh
Conjoint Associate Lecturer
Project Main Description

This project is an international collaboration to assess the nature and extent of health outcomes from drug cryptomarkets, globally and specifically for Australians.


Buying illegal drugs through the internet captured the public imagination after the emergence of Silk Road in 2011. Silk Road, and its successors that followed (after Silk Road was shut down by the FBI in 2013), provide a means to purchase illicit drugs online and have them delivered via parcel post. These online markets are known as ‘cryptomarkets’ because they are rely upon encryption technologies: anonymising networks (Tor) and virtual currencies (Bitcoin). Relatively high rates of participation in cryptomarkets have been reported in Australia: in a study of the cryptomarket Agora, Australia had the highest rate of drug retailers per capita. Consistent with high rates of cryptomarket use, successive reports from the Australian Crime Commission illustrate exponential growth in the detection of illicit drugs in the parcel post destined for Australians. There is also evidence that internationally, cryptomarkets are expanding: they generated sales upwards of $180M USD in 2015, doubling their 2013 sales volume. Cryptomarkets represent an innovation in drug supply and have “profound implications” for global drug markets according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, but their influence on the overall harms associated with illicit drug use is unknown. This project seeks to redress this significant gap, and inform policy makers about the nature and extent of health outcomes from drug cryptomarkets, globally and specifically for Australians.


For the first time, we apply MacCoun and Reuter’s framework of net harm to assess the health outcomes of cryptomarkets using anonymous self-report data (surveys and interviews), archival monitoring and forensic profiling.

Design and Method

Mixed methods design with 5 data components:

1.    Survey of cryptomarket users

2.    Monitoring of forum discussion on cryptomarkets

3.    Monitoring of cryptomarket listings

4.    Qualitative interviews with cryptomarket users

5.    Forensic profiling of drugs purchased through cryptomarkets by the AFP

At the latter stages of the project, an integration exercise will be led by Prof Ritter to model the health outcomes of cryptomarkets.


The project began January 2017. A research assistant has been recruited at DPMP (Michala Kowalski). Data collection has begun for the monitoring components, led by Decary-Hetu in Montreal.


Findings are expected in 2018-2019.


Findings are expected in 2018-2019.


Now is the right time to conduct this program of research, while policy responses to cryptomarkets are yet to be fully formulated, and so that policy can be evidence-based, and Australia can lead global efforts to respond to drug cryptomarkets.

Project Collaborators: External

Dr James Martin
Macquarie University

Prof Ross Coomber
Griffith University

A/Prof Aili Malm
California State University Long Beach

Dr David Decary-Hetu
University of Montreal

Prof Judith Aldridge
University of Manchester

Dr Jason Ferris
University of Queensland

Project Research Area
Drug Type
Project Status
Date Commenced
January 2017

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