Monthly Archives: May 2017

Trust in the Crypto-Drug Markets

By Juan Fernandez Ochoa
Team Assistant – IDPC

Despite perceived novelty, drugs have been online from the Internet’s very beginnings.  Anecdotal as it may be, it is widely understood that the very first transaction on ARPANET involved a small amount of cannabis. Ever since, cyberspace has provided fertile ground for all sorts of drug-related exchanges.

The appeal of the Internet for people who use drugs is evident. Faced with criminalisation, misinformation and stigma “offline”, the world-wide web can offer people who use drugs a space to interact in [relative] anonymity and safety. Online forums, such as Erowid, have provided a platform for people to share experiences and advice related to their drug use; fostering a sense of community that remains difficult to replicate “in real life”.

Silk Road, however, was a game changer. Launched in February 2011, the site was the first “archetypical” crypto-drug marketi. This “eBay for drugs” combined sophisticated encryption, communications and trust technologies to offer a broad range of [mostly illicit] products and services to users around the world. Cannabis, LSD, MDMA and other controlled substances were now just a click away… plus shipping & handling.

As it is often the case with drug-related developments in a context of prohibition, the initial response from public authorities ranged from cluelessness, to politically expedient outrage, to repression. Less than three years into the Silk Road experiment, and before the site’s impact on the market could be fully understood, the FBI shut it down. Its convicted mastermind, Ross Ulbricht, now serves a life sentence without parole in a federal prison in New York.

Mirroring the reality of “physical” markets, dismantling the Silk Road, and subsequent similar operations, have achieved anything but the intended effects. The original site might no longer exist, but dozens more have been created in its stead, with overall sales and reach continuing to grow at a gradual but unwavering pace.

Despite the available evidence, the role of public authorities in this evolving ecosystem continues to go unchecked. The UNGASS Outcome Document urges Member States to “strengthen law enforcement, criminal justice and legal responses, as well as international cooperation, to prevent and counter drug-related criminal activities using the Internet” (Art. 5 p). As if expecting different results from doing the same thing over and over again.

In stark contrast with a mainstream law enforcement discourse that perceives these online markets essentially as “a safe haven for criminals”, the burgeoning field of research on crypto-drug markets reveals a more nuanced landscape. An interdisciplinary research project on trust in these markets by the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO)ii, for instance, can shed light on the short-sightedness of fundamentally repressive law enforcement interventions targeting crypto-drug markets.

Borrowing tools from linguistics, ethnography and computer science, the investigators have sifted through thousands of megabytes of messages from the now-defunct Silk Road[s] 1 and 2iii. The careful analysis of “collocates”iv has made it possible to produce a statistically meaningful snapshot of some of the prevailing discourses in these communications.

One strand of the project, led by Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, revealed that trust among users was largely mediated by the exchange of personal experiences and other forms of knowledge, as well as the provision of advice on how to reduce potential harmful effects of drug use. User-based harm reduction strategies have been previously identified in crypto-drug markets and offline communitiesv. However, by focusing on the issue of trust, the authors centre and highlight the social bonds underpinning this “indigenous harm reduction”. Public authorities should consider the opportuneness of law enforcement responses that might entail weakening these community strategiesvi, favouring interventions that support the life and health of people who use drugs insteadvii.

A second project strand, headed by Martin Horton-Eddison, provides further evidence on the unintended, although not unexpected, consequences of “hard” law enforcement interventions. Using the same methodology and sources, the study suggests the takedown of Silk Road by the FBI acted as a starting gun for technological innovation in crypto-drug markets – resulting in even more difficulties for law enforcement to target the dark net. Specifically, this research captures the emergence of collective concerns about the “escrow” system.

Escrow has been an essential trait of crypto-drug markets, mitigating some of the multiple risks associated to online transactions. A number of these risks are related to the non-abidance by one of the parties to the terms of the sale/purchase. In the absence of formal institutions to act as arbiters, crypto-drug markets stepped in to fill the gap, offering a service that holds the funds until the other parties (in this case the buyer and seller) both agree to release them. When Silk Road 1 was seized, the FBI expropriated $3.6million from the system. Immediately after Silk Road 2 came to exist, users began to discuss ways to offset these potential losses. Intensified by major “exit scams”, these anxieties in the community seem to have led to the development of better alternatives, such as decentralised and multi-signature escrow systems. Law enforcement action, in short, made crypto-drug markets more resilient and possibly sustainable.

The insights from these studies strongly mirror certain realities of offline drug markets. The global drug control regime has a conspicuous track record of futile interventions that are not motivated, and in fact come at the expense of the wellbeing of people who use drugs. Crypto-drug markets, which are often framed as a threat in international policy debates, might actually offer an opportunity to provide remedial action. Public authorities should rethink their engagement with these spaces, capitalising on the self-regulatory and harm reduction practices deployed by these communities to positively influence, support and empower people who use drugs on- and offline.

This blog post draws on material presented at the Roundtable on Cyber-Trust in Crypto-Drug Markets: Implications for Policy and Policing (London, 21 February 2017), organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), with support from the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and the Challenging Human Environments and Research Impact for a Sustainable and Healthy Digital Economy (CHERISH-DE) fund.

Notes

i Crypto-drug markets can be defined as “digital platforms that facilitate P2P trade of goods and services with the added features of recommendations systems and a reliance on cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. They utilize anonymizing Internet-routing technologies [….] to conceal the physical-[world] identity and location of users and create and open network for such interactions”.

ii Swansea University.

iii February 2011 – October 2013 and Nov. 2013 – November 2014, respectively.

iv Words that co-occur with statistical significance, denoting “features of the data that are both salient and peculiar”. Di Cristofaro, M. & Horton-Eddison, M. (2017) Corpus Linguistics on the Silk Road(s): The Escrow Example, GDPO Situation Analysis.

v See, for instance: Bancroft, A., & Reid, P. S. (2016). Concepts of illicit drug quality among darknet market users: Purity, embodied experience, craft and chemical knowledge. International Journal of Drug Policy, 35, 42–49; and Friedman, S. R., de Jong, W., Rossi, D., Touzé, G., Rockwell, R., Des Jarlais, D. C., & Elovich, R. (2007). Harm reduction theory: Users’ culture, micro-social indigenous harm reduction, and the self-organization and outside organizing of users’ groups. International Journal of Drug Policy, 18(2), 107–117.

vi For more on law enforcement and harm reduction, see, for instance: Monaghan, G., Bewley-Taylor, D., 2013. Modernising Drug Law Enforcement – Report 1 Police Support for Harm Reduction Policies and Practices Towards People Who Inject Drugs. International Drug Policy Consortium, London

vii See, for instance: Caudevilla, F. The Emergence of Deep Web Marketplaces: A Health Perspective. The Internet and Drugs Market (European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction). Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg; 2016.

Preparing for 2019: Drug Policy Objectives and Indicators, System-wide Coherence and the Sustainable Development Agenda

Preparing for 2019: Drug Policy Objectives and Indicators, System-wide Coherence and the Sustainable Development Agenda

Side event held at the 60th Commission on Narcotic Drugs offers insights into how drug policy indicators could aid in achieving the sustainable development agenda.

Nazlee Maghsoudi, Knowledge Translation Manager at the ICSDP

Click here to visit the CND Blog’s live reporting from this side event.

With the UNGASS on the World Drug Problem now a year behind us, member states are looking towards the next international drug policy milestone, a High Level Ministerial Meeting in 2019. Simultaneously, member states are over a year into efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of global targets to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity by 2030. Given increasing recognition that the impacts of global drug policy are intrinsically linked to a number of SDGs, the Government of Switzerland, Health Poverty Action (HPA), International Drug Policy Consortium, Centro De Estudios Legales Y Sociales (CELS), Social Science Research Council, Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) came together at the 60th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to explore how drug policy indicators could aid member states in more effectively achieving the sustainable development agenda.

Natasha Horsfield, Policy & Advocacy Officer from HPA, outlined crucial ways in which drugs and drug policy interact with several of the SDGs, and suggested that metrics for measuring how drug policies are contributing to the SDGs should be prioritized in preparations for 2019. Speaking about goal 1 on poverty, goal 2 on food security, and goal 5 on gender equality, Ms. Horsfield explained that marginalization and inequality are important elements in the drug trade, with poverty and food insecurity a frequent factor in involvement in illicit drug markets, and women particularly becoming involved as drug couriers because of their gendered social and economic vulnerabilities. Gender inequality is reflected in the disproportionate and alarming increase in the incarceration of women for minor drugs offences. Given these and other intersections between drug policy and the SDGs, the clear, measurable, and internationally agreed framework of targets and indicators contained within the sustainable development agenda could be adapted to measure drug policy outcomes. For example, new indicators could be adopted at national level under goal 5 to measure women and girls involved in the drug trade or incarcerated for drug crimes. Ms. Horsfield also stressed that the High Level Ministerial Meeting in 2019 presents an opportune moment to align the timeline for the next drug policy framework with the 2030 deadline for implementing the SDGs.

Elaborating on Ms. Horsfield’s remarks, Luciana Pol, Senior Fellow in Security Policy & Human Rights from CELS, pointed to improvements that could be made to drug policy indicators to support the achievement of SDG 5 on gender equality. Ms. Pol noted that the Special Rapporteur on violence against women has identified anti-drug policies specifically as a leading cause of the rising rates of incarceration of women globally, and data demonstrates that a portion of women incarcerated for drug offences are coerced into trafficking and others engage as a result of lacking viable economic opportunities. Ms. Pol described concrete ways to improve the quality of data on how drug policies impact women. First, prison data should have a gender perspective by including, for example, information on the amount of pregnant women, of children incarcerated with their mothers, and access to health services for these groups. Second, since laws in many countries don’t distinguish between different types of drug offences, small and large scale trafficking are categorized together. Differentiating between the conduct for which they are incarcerated and the roles women play will improve our understanding of incarcerated populations. Ms. Pol reminded the audience that improving our understanding of how drug policies impact women is not only essential to ensuring the achievement of SDG 5, but is also a central component of last year’s CND resolution 59/5. Ms. Pol therefore called on member states to take these and other concrete steps to mainstream a gender perspective in their collection of data relevant to drugs and drug policy, and urged UN agencies to guide member states in this process of broadening and expanding their drug policy metrics.
As a contributor on law enforcement indicators to the World Drug Report, Christian Schneider, Strategic Analyst at the Federal Office of Police in Bern, Switzerland, shared his firsthand knowledge that the incomplete nature of data on drug markets can prohibit efforts to derive meaningful policy recommendations. In addition to communicating uncertainties, Mr. Schneider proposed that gaps in the data could be addressed by adopting a more comprehensive set of indicators. Sharing technical recommendations for implementing Mr. Schneider’s suggestion, Dave Bewley-Taylor, Director of GDPO, focused on how a review of the Annual Report Questionnaires (ARQs) could support the achievement of the SDGs by aligning drug policy metrics with the sustainable development agenda. According to Prof. Bewley-Taylor, despite the limitations of self-reporting, the ARQs are a useful mechanism through which member states report on their efforts to address the world drug problem. As the nature of the world drug problem has evolved, however, there have been increasing gaps in the data collected by the ARQs. This recently came into sharp focus, as the UNGASS Outcome Document included an operational recommendation to use relevant human development indicators in alignment with the SDGs to increase understanding and improve impact assessments. Within this context, Prof. Bewley-Taylor stressed that there is a clear need to review the structure and questions of the ARQs to bring them into alignment with the SDGs by incorporating indicators related to human rights, public health, and human security. Such a review could be conducted through an interagency expert group established by the Statistical Commission, which has already begun considering these issues.

Discussions on drug policy indicators and their relationship to the sustainable development agenda are undoubtedly of utmost importance at the CND, and in other forums, such as the meeting of the high-level political forum on sustainable development in July 2017. Yet, much more than discussion is needed. As Ms. Horsfield said, advancing past this critical juncture will require political will from member states beyond simply reaffirming their commitment to SDGs, but towards deemphasizing drug control efforts that undermine the SDGs and funding those that contribute positively to their achievement. Aligning drug policy metrics with the SDGs is an important step in this direction.

 

Click here to visit the CND Blog’s live reporting from this side event.

Why is coca production on the rise in Colombia?


After countless reforms and billions of investment eradicating coca cultivation is still a great challenge for Colombia.

Ross Eventon, GDPO

Early March, 2017: The United States government and the United Nations announce large increases in the amount of coca being cultivated in Colombia.

The head of the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs flies to Colombia and meets the President. The increase is due to the end of aerial fumigation operations, he says, but he also assures the press that he would not be asking the government to restart that policy….
Continue reading full open access article here: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/04/coca-production-rise-colombia-170419130227958.html