Dark web drug purchases in Australia contain unexpected substances

Apr 2, 2024

According to the results of a recent study published by researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), 35% of tested drug samples purchased on the dark web contained unexpected adulterants or were not as advertised. Specifically, the study involved testing 103 illicit drug samples and was published in the scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Review. In addition, the samples were sourced from the former dark web forum Test4Pay in collaboration with the Australian National University, UNSW Sydney, and the Canadian testing facility Get Your Drugs Tested.      

The results of the study showed 65% of samples contained only the advertised substance, 14% of tested samples contained a mixture of the advertised substance with other psychoactive or potentially harmful chemicals. Finally, 21% of the samples did not contain any of the advertised substances.

Further analysis showed that samples purchased as MDMA, methamphetamines, and heroin were consistently found to only contain the advertised substance. 

However, substances sold as ketamine, 2C-B, and alprazolam were most likely to be completely substituted with other substances or new synthetic drugs, which increased the risk of unwanted side effects, potential overdose, or death.

It was also determined that of the 19 cocaine samples tested, only four samples contained pure cocaine, while 13 contained other substances, and two samples did not contain any cocaine at all.  

“Cryptomarkets allow anonymous buyers to review purchases, which theoretically means vendors who sell inferior products are more likely to receive bad reviews, thereby rewarding vendors selling superior products,” said lead researcher and RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Dr Monica Barratt, in her interview with RMIT University News.

“But despite this perception of accountability and quality, our findings show prohibited drugs purchased from cryptomarkets are still not safe from adulteration and substitution.”

The results of the 2023 National Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System survey carried out by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) revealed that there was a slight decline in the number of individuals purchasing drugs on the dark web, with more people turning to messaging and social media apps to source drugs. Furthermore, another study released in 2021 showed that individuals who found unexpected substances in their drugs were more likely to discard them and adjust their use.

“Drug checking services never tell consumers that their drugs are ‘safe’ as no drug use can be 100% safe. What the service can do is explain the known risks of specific drugs, in a credible and non judgemental way, enabling people who use drugs to adjust their behaviour to reduce risk,” said Barratt. “If we can prevent overdoses from happening in the first place, then we can not only reduce harm for consumers and avoid the pain felt by bereaved family members, but also ease the pressures on our emergency health system.”