New Study Shows Drug War Sends Users to Dark Web

A new British study shows that rescheduling hydrocodone, a powerful opiate painkiller, just forced users onto the darknet to get their fix.



A new study published in the British journal BMJ says restricting the supply of illegal drugs forces users into black markets, where the drugs get more dangerous and more addictive.

The authors of the study looked at the effect of the DEA's rescheduling of hydrocodone in 2014 from a schedule III drug to a more tightly controlled schedule II drug on the sales of illicit prescription opioids on the darknet. They examined the data from 31 of the largest cryptomarkets in the world on prescription opioid sales from October 2013 to July 2016.

In this period, "the percentage of total drug sales represented by prescription opioids in the US doubled from 6.7% to 13.7%," and fentanyl, an analgesic that is far deadlier than heroin, went from being the least purchased drug in July 2014 to becoming the second most purchased drug three years later. The paper also found that there were no significant changes in the sales of non-opioid drugs.

It's no surprise that opioid sales went up on the darknet, given that pain patients and addicts have to get their fix somehow and the internet has made illicit products much more accessible. The fact that exclusively opioid sales went up is indicative of the rescheduling's effect on drug sales.

The results are also demonstrative of the iron law of prohibition—"the harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs," as Richard Cowan, an American drug legalization activist famously put it. Drug dealers, seeking to efficiently transport their product through waves of law enforcement, will have to increase the concentration of their drugs. This leads to opioids like heroin being cut with such chemicals as fentanyl, often without users being aware of the additives. Individuals who cannot obtain their pain medicines legally will end up going to the black market, where the sales are murkier, and the drugs more dangerous. In other words, precisely what is shown in the BMJ study.

What does this mean for policymakers looking to address the opioid crisis? It means that the supply-side approach, in which governments try to restrict access to drugs, is not working. Legislators must seriously reconsider the consequences of the war on opioids. Restricting pain medications will only force addicts into alternative markets where fentanyl is common, leading to overdoses, while leaving law-abiding pain patients with their chronic pain. The data also indicates that cutting opioid prescriptions does nothing to reduce opioid deaths, and in fact is associated with a rise in opioid-related deaths.

If anything, this study is indicative that the war on drugs must be rolled back. Relaxing regulations on the manufacture and sale of opioids will pull people out of the dark recesses of the internet and reduce the distribution of the more dangerous opioids on the market.

NEXT: California Democrats Want to Bring Back Net Neutrality

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. How dare you separate crying Opiods from their parents

  2. Still dont get why I should care if heroin addicts get “bad” drugs.

    1. How about if phone users got bad phones that could kill them?
      Bit of a moral issue here?

      1. Dangerous products are best dealt with by liability laws and civil courts.

        Also, there is a degree of personal responsibility involved.

        Selling parachute material is a business. Selling tissue paper labelled as parachute material is something else.

    2. We should not be passing laws that actively make it more dangerous for them. That’s the moral quandary.

      But you understand that, and just believe that if they don’t live the way you like then who cares what the government inflicts upon them.

      1. Yeah but in the eyes of a conservatarian, those illegal heroin addicts broke the laws so they deserve to die.

        1. And everything the Nazis did was completely legal.

        2. Fuck the laws – you do heroin, you deserve to reap the consequences (often, and logically, death).
          And if a heroin addict is going to rob and assault people to get the means to get heroin, then that heroin addict does deserve to die.

        3. Deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it.

          1. But of a two minute hate helps you deal with this stupidity, well then, ok.

            1. if not of

      2. if they don’t live the way you like then who cares what the government inflicts upon them.

        Which unfortunately seems to describe ~99% of the human race. And I’m probably low balling it.

        1. C.A.; that’s not really true; keep the faith, and keep on rocking in the free world..#:-)

      3. But you understand that, and just believe that if they don’t live the way you like then who cares what the government inflicts upon them.
        As a libertarian, even I have my limits. There are people in this world and lurking this comment section that actually believe big tits are better than a pair of small breasts and flat chests; even worse they might believe that giant asses are “sexy” too. These scum deserve nothing less than our utmost scorn and disgust.

        1. Small tits and asses are indicative of genetic disorders.

          1. First, small tits and flat chests are not only fucking cute, but they help indicate that the woman in question is truly best. This has been proven time and time again.
            Second, I said nothing about small asses, just big asses. A small chest and moderate butt is the highest form of physical femininity.
            Third, you’re a bigger faggot than the collective of infinite mes

        2. YT; con paz, con paz

        3. YT; you still eating corpses?

          1. Why do you think he is repulsed by the idea of sexual attraction to large breasts?

      4. BUCS, best case scenario, clean heroin has a good chance to kill you.

        If they legalized heroin — they’d still die from it regularly.

        But you understand that, and just believe that if they don’t live the way you like then who cares what the government inflicts upon them.

        No. I’m an advocate in people who do really stupid shit dealing with said consequences. I don’t OWE them heroin. I do not care if it is legal and “WHAT ABOUT THE ADDICTS!” isn’t going to do much to pull on my heart strings.

        1. BUCS, best case scenario, clean heroin has a good chance to kill you.

          If they legalized heroin — they’d still die from it regularly.

          Chances of survival are much better. Long term opium consumption has relatively low side-effects and being able to get regular, known amounts goes a long way towards alleviating many ODs. Your idea that things won’t be perfect so why bother to change at all is infantile.

          No. I’m an advocate in people who do really stupid shit dealing with said consequences. I don’t OWE them heroin.

          But you are advocating for a complex police state that drains billions of dollars to attempt to stop them. You don’t owe them heroin, and that’s a non-sequitor anyway from this conversation. But we do owe them the right to do things without a massive police state trying to do what’s best for them.

        2. damikesc|6.19.18 @ 4:49PM|#
          “If they legalized heroin — they’d still die from it regularly.”

          Are you familiar with the difference between an assertion and an argument?
          The latter has evidence; your post is an assertion and is worthy of the label “bullshit”.

    3. I don’t suppose you necessarily should care. But some people know and care about people who are addicted to drugs. Or have a general sense of compassion for humanity.

      1. Good for them. Have your waste of an addict friend die alone and not use resources to take care of them.

        Mind you, I don’t mind drug legalization. But this “oh, poor dear” bullshit stories are tiresome.

        Fucking moron junkie makes a fucking moronic decision and dies. C’est la vie.

        1. The human body is not adapted to the speeds that even a bicycle can take you to. Pray you don’t one day need pain medication that you cannot get. From horrible diseases, like AS, to all of the “accidents” and falls we all have had, pray one day you will not need pain relief. If you are considering pain medicine, don’t. Try any and all ways to deal with the pain MILLIONS of Americans are, and will experience. If a God given plant, used for millenia, by hundreds of millions is your only option for a less painful and more fulfilling life, know what you are getting into. We talk about addiction from opioids as if it is a street problem; sure, ok; and then, now, what about the tens of millions of the rest of us being made to suffer because the heroin dealers are happy? How many would rather die painfully, with no quality of life, than go to the street? Where, (as of “the opioid crisis”, legal pain medication, opioids, have become difficult to get, and hundreds of thousands cannot get an efficacious dosage; and the heroin dealers are happy), can someone facing that choice go?

          1. That’s a different argument.
            If the article is stating that people dealing with immense pain are forced to find pain meds online, that’s one thing.
            If the article is saying (as the headline indicates) that heroin addicts are forced to find their drug of choice online, who cares?
            Opiods are necessary for many people, and their plight has moved me.
            Opiods are the drug of choice for other people – and their plight moves me not an inch.
            For the record, I did not read the article.

    4. d; and pray you never have to experience the pain of a disease, or from that bicycle wreck you had when you were eight, and could benefit from legal pain medication that you will not be able to get. You would also be amazed at the number of people who are on, now ever so hard to get, legal pain meds, from captains of industry to top military. (The “Nam did a number, no?). Heroin addicts don’t care; why should you, indeed? Peace

  3. In other news, a new study concludes that water is wet.

    1. CA ‘legalized’ weed, and saddled it with the number of regulations you would expect from the CA regime.
      Now we are getting ‘concern stories’ that the black market still exists!

      1. Think of all that poor, un-taxed weed.

        1. Taxes just harsh the buzz

  4. A new study published in the British journal BMJ says restricting the supply of illegal drugs forces users into black markets, where the drugs get more dangerous and more addictive.

    Anybody with half a brain could have told you that restricting something just pushes people to the black market.

    Cognitive dissonance on government imposed restrictions seems to abound though:
    Republicans seem to get that restricting access to guns leads to only criminals having guns.
    Democrats seem to get that restricting access to labor only leads to more illegal immigration.
    Both sides seem to deny that restricting access to drugs drives people to the black market.

    1. Too bad Gary Johnson never seemed to get that mandating cake baking leads to people who may vote for you rolling their eyes and shaking their heads

      1. If only government could have restricted access to Bill Weld. That’s a black market that would never get off the ground.

        1. There is literally no market for Bill Weld. There’s supply, but absolutely no demand beyond the writers at Reason

          1. There were also the voters of Massachusetts.

      2. That’s why McAfee should’ve been chosen.

  5. forces users into black markets

    You’d think that schooling interns on the definition of force was a key part of the Reason internship orientation.

    1. What’s your definition? Gun to the head? Goons holding your hands and feet and carrying you, holding your mouth open and stuffing it with food or poison?

      Oh I see, you don’t have a definition! You just feelz it!

      No one forced you to be so stupid.

      1. Nobody forces them to do so anyway. I don’t see guns to their head saying “Junkie-boy, I want you to launch your tor browser and buy some mad illegal drugz for the lolz”

        That they are FORCED to go to the “dark web” to get heroin is a silly yet hilarious concept.

        1. d; pray you never have the choice to make between a life of horror in pain, or the dark web. Live long and prosper

          1. Yes, that is the dichotomy. There is no other choice. Nothing makes an argument better like such a stark dichotomy, no?

            1. d; knowledge and a clear understanding makes for better, no?

    2. When people with guns are stopping voluntary transactions in a drug on penalty of prison for both sides of the transaction, that sure looks like force that results in people wanting to make those transactions on the black market to me. Maybe your libertarianism education was deficient?

  6. They had to do a study to figure this out?

    1. Why does this surprise you? There have been multiple studies on the effect of raising the minimum wage on employment when logic would tell you the answer. Studies show that studies are only good for providing jobs to people who were stupid enough to get a PHD

      1. Perhaps I should tagged that as “/sarc.”

      2. I have another great idea: we set a maximum wage. The fact that there are people making more than what I ever hope to achieve don’t deserve more than me. Thus by capping the amount of money someone can make we can truly usher our great society into an era of true equality.
        Fuck, I should write a book.

  7. Another slightly OT: This morning NPR had a couple of back to back segments bemoaning Trump’s policy about taking children away from immigrant parents. It couldn’t have been less than 6 times that it was stated, “Trump could end this practice, right now, with a phone call.” They *immediately* followed it up with a story about a heroine addict who became pregnant, had her baby taken by DCFS, and the ensuing story of love and redemption as this mother clawed her way back from addiction to functional parent figure. The cognitive dissonance was dizzying.

    1. taking children away from illegal immigrant parents that is.

      1. Some people understand the distinction between law and legislation, between self-ownership and collective coercion. Others pay lip service through the word “libertarian”, and then only when it suits their virtue signaling snark.

        1. snark

          Me? As near as I can tell NPR is too thoroughly elitist, condescending, and self-effacing to besmirch its name by using snark. Unless “We don’t tell you what to think, just what to think about.” and all the rest of it is snark and I’m operating under the false impression that they believe (in) their own bullshit.

          1. Whoosh

            1. Whoosh

              NO! Whoosh to YOU!

              I didn’t and don’t condone either practice as policy but shout ‘law vs. legislation’ at me some more. I’m sure you’ll convince someone of something.

        2. Some people understand the distinction between law and legislation
          Damn straight.

          1. +100 Cafe Hayek

    2. There is exodus from the drug war, and so far, no one gets it. Still chasing the scream.

  8. New Study Shows Drug War Sends Users to Dark Web

    -2 Silk Roads.

    1. Oops; mea culpa; I only had to keep reading, always a good idea, no?..#:-)

    2. The dark web, and the border; immigration exodus. Much of Central America, and Mexico have become kill houses of rapine, and slaughter, torture, and choice-head for the border, or die because drug thugs with guns wants your daughter, or girlfiriend, aunt, or mother; or your sons to join them.

  9. The dark net is woefully underwhelming. When I first learned of its existence, it was being hyped up as the place to be for degenerates, criminals, and the Buffalo Bills of the world. (Though I suppose that’s still going on.) But it’s not nearly that interesting or compelling in reality.

    1. It’s just guys… doing stuff.

    2. Agreed. Nothing but silk road, and abandoned forums where someone asks if anyone needs someone killed for a 100 dollars.

  10. The Utilitarian approaches to the drug war are going to get you nowhere Mr. Sridhar.

    The study plainly states that there was “an oversupply” of opioid analgesics prior to the re-scheduling. I’m not sure that anything else the study authors offer is indicative that the war on drugs must be rolled back given that they also assert “The over-supply of opioid analgesics has contributed to the quadrupling of deaths from overdose in the United states since 1999.”

    Further the results of the study do not support your assertion that this was “pain patients and addicts” resorting to the ‘dark web.’ There is simply no way to know who had to go to the web to get their drugs. Common sense would dictate that the majority of them were people who could not come up with an otherwise ‘approved’ reason to obtain them. There is absolutely no indication withing this study that people in pain could not legally obtain what they needed.

    The war on drugs needs to end, but using the enemies ammunition is not going to do that.

    1. Pain patients “CANNOT LEGALLY OBTAIN WHAT THEY NEED..”, without great difficulty, and you don’t need a study to understand that but, and you do need to catch up on the news. I could repeat what is actually happening but, and suffice to say doctors are terrified threatened, and dosage is controlled by well MEANing people. There are no more “pill mills”, an ugly and criminal business, and all, each and every prescription is now nationally monitored by the national PDMP computer, a system just recently put into place; some states had it, now it is national. Hence, the DEA has complete control over all prescriptions of any kind obtained through legal means. And the government “recommends” dosage (and woe to any who do not follow “the guidelines”), and they are draconian. Draco; wasn’t he a vampire of some sort? Not to get off subject here. Common sense says set your alarm clock, brother…con paz

  11. Nikhil; nice article; nice conclusion. For a more complete read on the drug war and “the opioid crisis”, you would love “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari. Sales of Fentanyl went up because fentanyl patches are a preferred delivery system. The DEA went on their recent jihad, God bless ’em, about three years ago. Problem docs, (and some who were not guilty of anything more than being compassionate and not wanting to see people in pain), and “pill mills” are now gone. The federal government has just recently hooked up the PDMP nationally, and can watch all prescriptions, and all doctors and pharmacies. All of them. There are no more “pill mills” or “over prescribing” doctors. None. Nice article; the real story, and the real history of opioids is fascinating, from the poppy seeds found in Switzerland in a Neanderthal site six thousand years old, to Afghanistan; from the opium wars (opium did not enslave the Chinese; the British did) to black tar. You’re on track, keep rolling.

  12. Nikhil Sridar; “Fentanyl is far deadlier than heroin..” Whoa; time out. Understand of what you speak, before you speak it, no? That’s exactly like saying whiskey is far more deadly than beer. Set your alarm clock, clear your head, and get back to us; you’re on track, you just need to find some good reading. Fentanyl is more potent than heroin; and carfentanyl is more potent than fentanyl; etc. ad nauseum. The reason fentanyl sales went up, is because in their search for non-injectable pain relief, patches were turned to by the medical profession, about a few years ago. If there’s such an opioid crisis, try this on for math and science: HAI deaths; (Hospital Acquired Infection-go to the hospital for one thing, and die from HAI) are at least one hundred thousand per year, psychiatric med involvement in deaths are over two hundred thousand per year in the U.S. alone; tobacco kills four hundred and eighty thousand a year; alcohol deaths are reported to be one hundred and twenty thousand a year (doctors doubt this is a valid number; they say much higher, but, hey, alcohol is the drug of choice in this country). Any light coming? And with the suppression of legal opioid pain medication, only the heroin dealers are smiling.

  13. Here’s the answer. Legalize all drugs; have them sold at cost thru pharmacies or gov’t dispensaries. Using the previous year’s statistics, add a surcharge on each dose to cover the care and medical expenses incurred by each type of drug. Maybe a penny per dose of cannabis, probably fifty cents or so per dose of the hard drugs.

    The violent cartels would be wiped out of the drug business, as they won’t sell for cost. Way fewer overdoses, because strength and purity would be regulated. No more junkie burglaries because the real manufacturing cost of these drugs is only a nickel or a dime per dose. Use will not skyrocket because studies show that addiction rates remained relatively the same over the past 150 years, even though legal punishments for use have varied wildly. Portugal’s experience verifies this.

  14. By the way, the “opioid crisis”, as in the massive increase in ODs from opioids, is easily explained without any reference to doctors and prescriptions at all.

    What happened is that Chinese pharmaceutical factories started churning out synthetic fentanyl (and the even-stronger fentanyl analogues that get lumped in by the media), and selling them overseas by mail-order. It’s much easier and safer for a drug dealer to acquire a small package of very potent opioids via mail order form a legitimate Chinese business than it is to buy bulkier black-market supplies of heroin from black-market manufacturers, or crush and refine OxyContin pills after that crackdown went ahead, or the like. Accordingly, they started ordering the fentanyl. However, as it’s much harder to safely dilute the higher-potency drugs to a reliable street strength, the batches of street “heroin” they retailed wound up with increased variation in potency.

    Thus the supply-side change predictably resulted in a spike in ODs, as street “heroin” became more unpredictable. Whether there was any increase in demand (users) is hard to tell, since you can’t simply plot ODs given the demand change, and without a legal market it’s hard to chart the number of users who don’t show up in emergency rooms.

    The blatantly obvious fix would be legalization, with the resulting retail-availability “heroin” of predictable strength and purity.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.