‘Nice people doing shady things’: Drugs and the morality of exchange in the darknet cryptomarkets

Kimberley Masson, Angus Bancroft

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An ethnographic analysis of drug-centred cryptomarket community and exchange, this article explores the embedded values around drug distribution and consumption within this setting. Drawing on our interviews with cryptomarket users, we analyze the ways in which users claim the cryptomarket as a space of morality, empathy, trust, reciprocity, knowledge transfer, harm reduction and self-limitation. The anthropological concept of the morality of exchange is central to our theoretical approach.

Between December 2014 and July 2017, nine interviews were undertaken with users of drug cryptomarkets. These were conducted in person, using Skype video calling, and using the encrypted ‘self-erasing’ chat app Wickr. The researchers also used overt non-participant observation (NPO) within the cryptomarket forum. This two-pronged approach - interviews and spending time within the community via NPO - enabled a thick description style of ethnographic analysis.

Our research reveals online drug markets less as perfect markets (working to rules of supply and demand) and more as constructive communities of interest that perform and negotiate drug use and supply. We found that participation within these interest communities had practical impact such as changing the type of drug that users consume and the ways in which they participate in street drug supply. Significantly, these values and actions mediate the interface between online action and ‘meatspace’ (the offline world) and reinforce that the motivations and processes of internet activity are just as ‘real’ as offline action.

We redefine the illicit drug focused cryptomarket as a place of exchange, mediation and reciprocity. Real-time knowledge transfer with the aim of harm reduction is one example of the impact of cryptomarket interaction. We caution that this is not a space of kinship and affinity: it is not without its scams, hackers and threats. It is, however, much more than a ‘drug marketplace’ and to understand how users themselves conceptualise this space is fruitful for any understanding of cryptomarkets. Cryptomarket exchange is a form of social action that is not restricted to its economic value for participants.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)78-84
Number of pages7
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Early online date2 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2018


  • drugs
  • cryptomarkets
  • criminology
  • darknet
  • digital sociology
  • ethnography


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