Deal or no-deal? Using administrative data to explore buyer motivation in online drug purchases and its association with community risk factors in Scotland

Fernando Pantoja, Susan McVie, Ana Morales-Gómez*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The expansion of online drugs markets has widened opportunities to purchase drugs, for both personal use and wider distribution, thus creating new potential public health risks. However, there is little research on the motivation of online drug purchasers or the level of risk that such transactions pose to different communities. Greater insights into the intended use of drug parcels arriving by post, and how this varies across communities could help law enforcement and health services develop more effective policies and better allocate resources to reduce drug-related harms.

We use Scottish administrative data about illegal drug parcels seized by the UK Border Force to create a new classification of ‘buyer motivation’ (based on type of drug, estimated number of doses purchased, and patterns of drug consumption). We identify three potential types of buyer motivation: personal consumption, heavy use or social dealing, and wholesale dealing; and examine the extent to which each type is associated with a range of drug-related community risk factors, thereby identifying potential variation in levels of public health risk.

Communities to which drug parcels were destined differed significantly from the Scottish average across a range of factors; however, this varied by buyer motivation. Parcels thought to be purchased for heavy use or social dealing appeared to pose a greater risk within communities characterised by general deprivation, but especially health-related deprivation, with a high youth population but low unemployment rates; whereas those purchased for wholesale dealing appear most likely to pose a risk in communities with higher crime and unemployment rates.

Administrative data about intercepted drug parcels could be helpful in classifying the motivation of online drug purchasers and monitoring patterns of variation in potential public health risks at a community level. This could support law enforcement and public health agencies to develop more targeted drug-harm reduction strategies.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103647
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Early online date12 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - May 2022


  • online drug markets
  • drug purchase motivation
  • administrative data
  • community harm
  • public health and law enforcement


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