No magic pocket: Buying and selling on drug cryptomarkets in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and social restrictions

Monica J Barratt, Judith Aldridge

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What might be the effects of COVID-19 and the strategies implemented to contain its spread on the illegal drug trade? These strategies include ‘lockdowns’ in which people have been confined to their homes, alongside recommendations for people to remain at a specified distance from others when they venture out for essential activities, known as ‘social distancing’. Will a perception of increased risk of getting caught arising from official attention to dwindling numbers of citizens in public locations function to reduce the willingness of people to engage in the everyday activities entailed in buying and selling illegal drugs? And if so, do drug cryptomarkets—in which buyers and sellers need not transact face-to-face, and where drugs are typically delivered through postal systems—enable the illicit drug trade to continue under lockdown? Drug sales on cryptomarkets, estimated at EUR 750,000 per day from European vendors (Christin & Thomas, 2019), represent only a small fraction by volume of total global drug trade. And yet because they operate under some different conditions to drug sales involving in-person transactions, cryptomarkets present us with a special case for consideration. Faced with possible shortages in local offline drug markets, do cryptomarkets enable buyers to source drugs from sellers located across the globe that may be unavailable to them from local sellers, and conveniently delivered to them by post, without fear of transgressing lockdown restrictions? We offer here a framework for anticipating how changes in drug supply and demand arising from global restrictions on the movement of citizens may change how, and the extent to which, drugs are bought and sold on cryptomarket platforms. To begin, we review the possible impacts of COVID-19 and associated social and mobility restrictions on global drug markets more broadly: for supply followed by demand. Then, we address our central question of how drug cryptomarkets may provide opportunities to bypass state-mandated restrictions on movement designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, first considering supply then demand. In conclusion we argue that these capacities will be limited by the ways in which cryptomarkets remain firmly anchored in wider drug markets, and the wider effects of changing supply and demand. We acknowledge the speculative nature of our commentary: our goal here is to prompt new research questions rather than to make predictions.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages3
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2020


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