New Psycoactive Substances Advanced Research

In collaboration with
dipartimento politiche antidroga

UOL - Medicina Legale

Laboratorio Tossicologia Forense


Drugs and Internet

Description of the phenomenon

Internet is used by 58.7% of Italians, while in Europe it is used by 71.5% citizens1. A survey of the European Commission found that the Internet is one of the most popular sources of information on drug use, in general, and on the illicit ones among 15-24 years old people2. In addition to providing information, the Internet has also become a market for the sale of drugs (legal and illegal). The role played by the Internet as one of the main markets, especially for new synthetic drugs, has become of serious concern, because of its information capacity and web distribution3,4.

The phenomenon related to the sale of Illegal substances via the web has leapt to the attention of the American judicial authorities for the first time towards the end of the ‘90s 5,6. Currently, international organizations appointed to control on Drugs (UNODC, INCB, EMCDDA) are monitoring the dynamics of the illegal market of substances on the Internet, which offer illegal drugs, designer drugs, legal highs and counterfeit pharmaceutical products or contain psychotropic substances not authorized 7,8,9.

According to the monitoring of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the websites marketing drugs identified in January 2010 were 170, in January 2011 were 314, in July 2011 they doubled reaching 6318. In January 2012, they reached 690, quadrupling their numbers in the course of only two years10. The main countries in which there is the highest concentration of these online sites are the United States (31.2%) and the UK (19.1%)8. To date, the INCB has registered 12,000 reports of seizures of controlled drugs at the international level, ordered on the Internet and sent by mail11.

Benefits of the Internet

Internet is a tool that offers many advantages and is well suited to online marketing of drugs. In fact, it provides access to a potentially infinite set of customers around the world, it does not require special investments from suppliers who can manage their tasks quickly and easily, guarantees anonymity, is always open 24 hours and provides the opportunity for consumers to buy products from different locations (home, work, school, etc.)12. The Internet also provides information about psychoactive substances, although they are often inaccurate, unreliable and misleading13. The purchased products are shipped directly to the customer’s home, in packages that guarantee the anonymity of not only the content but also the sender. There are also anonymous communication systems for the Internet that protect the privacy of those who surf and make it impossible for an outside observer to reconstruct in reverse the connections 14.

Internet disadvantages

In general, the purchase of drugs or psychoactive substances on the Internet exposes buyers to a high health risk, since there is virtually a guarantee on the safety of purchased15 products. Indeed, in addition to the harmfulness of the same psychoactive substances, often the composition of ingredients referred to the same product changes. Davies and colleagues examined the biochemical composition of a number of 'legal highs' substances samples available via the Internet in the United Kingdom, noting that the amount of active ingredient varies considerably from batch to batch16. A similar study, conducted by Baron and colleagues, found that on 7 products of the type 'legal highs' purchased via the Internet, 6 did not contain the declared active ingredients and 5 contained an illegal substance under control, benzilpiperazina17. It follows that the purchase of products on the web, which should contain only legal substances, does not constitute a guarantee about what you buy and what is contained in the same18 product.