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Increase in UK sales of prescription psychiatric drugs via the darknet


Sales of prescription psychiatric drugs such as Xanax and diazepam via darknet online drug markets are on the increase in the UK, according to new research from the IoPPN and the University of Kent.

The researchers say their findings validate concerns that non-medical prescription drug use (NMPDU) is becoming increasingly common in the UK and that policy makers need to act to address this issue. 

The study examined the scale of NMPDU via sales made on the darknet of three key drug types: sedatives, stimulants and opioid dependency products. The researchers analysed drug sales in 31 cryptomarkets in the USA, UK, Australia and European nations such as Germany and Sweden between September 2013 and July 2016.

In the UK the proportion of sales of sedatives such as alprazolam (popularly known by its trade name Xanax) and diazepam had increased by just under a percentage point (0.9%) each year over the study period to around 12% of the total of all drugs sold via the darknet in the UK by 2016, behind drug groups such as cannabis, MDMA-type products and cocaine. The researchers said this should alarm policy makers and demonstrates an increasing interest in these products. 

Furthermore, the UK accounted for close to a third (31.1%) of all sedatives sold on the darknet in the data analysed. The USA had the largest share at 41.4%. The report also notes that sales of Xanax are catching up with the more traditionally used UK sedative diazepam – growing from 10% to a quarter of sedative sales monitored over the study period.

The researchers say the findings have a number of policy implications, not least by confirming that non-prescribed sedative demand is an increasing issue in the UK relative to other drugs.

Dr Thomas Pollak from the IoPPN, who co-authored the paper, said: ‘The abuse of prescription psychiatric drugs, in particular sedatives and stimulants, is already a huge public health challenge. Traditional sources for these drugs have included friends and relatives who have been prescribed them for medical reasons, dodgy ‘online pharmacies’ and even street dealers. This study suggests that procurement via the darknet is an increasingly important route. Healthcare professionals who work with addictions need to be aware of these trends and should routinely ask their patients whether they buy both recreational and prescription drugs over the darknet.’

Dr Jack Cunliffe from the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at Kent said: ‘The data shows that there is significant increase in the demand for nonmedical use of prescription drugs in the UK compared to other drugs in many advanced Western nations via the darknet. Governments must recognise this and look to create policies that react to these trends, especially if they wish to avoid a prescription drugs crisis similar to that which is occurring in the USA. Given that Xanax is not available in the UK on the NHS, the rising sales might have something to do with its notoriety in the USA, where its use is frequently glamorised in popular culture.’


‘Nonmedical prescription psychiatric drug use and the darknet: a cryptomarket analysis’ by Cunliffe et al, International Journal of Drug Policy, DOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.01.016 


For further media information please contact: Robin Bisson, Senior Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, / +44 20 7848 5377 / +44 7718 697176.