Drug markets, consumption and policy

We have a long history of research on drug use. All the way back to the work of former Professor Howard Parker, who helped establish the normalisation thesis.

With cross-cutting expertise on quantitative methods and digital technologies and crime, we are using a range of research methodologies to make sense of both quantitative and qualitative data concerning drug consumption.

Our researchers are contributing to wider policy debates about drug markets, regulation and the criminalisation of drug users.

Today, a number of our colleagues continue to develop research with a particular focus on:

  • Drug markets, including online market platforms;
  • drug use in later age;
  • problem drug use in prison;
  • drug treatment;
  • international drug policy and development;
  • other policy alternatives to criminal justice sanctions.

Research projects

Understanding the dynamics and consequences of NPS use in a rapidly changing drug market

Understanding the dynamics and consequences of NPS use in a rapidly changing online drug market (SCANNER)

  • A European Commission funded research Drug Policy

Judith Aldridge is working on the SCANNER team, examining new psychoactive substances identified in Europe.

These types of drugs are chemically and toxicologically similar to classic illicit drugs but evade legislation by structural alterations.

For example, isotonitazene is a potent NPS opioid and first member of the benzimidazole class of compounds to be available online.

There is however little information available regarding these substances, for example, the consumption and user patterns. At the moment the analysis is also difficult, because of the lack of reference material.

Looking into manners to help dealing with challenges posed by NPS phenomena and identify new harm reduction opportunities is also an important goal of the project.

The SCANNER-project sets up different deliverables to achieve these objectives.  

Technological shift, drug market change and supply actors

Professor Julia Buxton, British Academy Global Professorship  

Funder: UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (through the National Productivity Investment Fund).

In 2020 Professor Julia Buxton joins The University of Manchester under the British Academy Global Professorship SchemeThe third cohort of award-holders under the Global Professorships programme will lead research across a broad range of disciplines from the humanities and social sciences. 

Supported by the UK Government’s National Productivity Investment Fund, the Global Professorships programme is a flagship initiative within the Academy’s international research portfolio, offering awards of up to £750,000 to scholars from around the world. 

Julia’s project explores the chemical innovation and digital technologies transforming the UK, regional and international markets for psychoactive substances.

This project investigates the drivers of change and how these influence current and future structures, access and trends in illicit drug markets, with a particular focus on supply-side actors.

The project analyses the appropriateness and impacts of the dominant drug policy approach (criminalisation) and through comparative case study work, explores if and how decriminalisation and legal regulation experiments are improving the effectiveness and evidence base of drug control strategies.

The research provides practitioners, academics and policymakers with knowledge of market trends and policy options informed by the ‘lived experience’ of individuals interacting in drug markets. This is supported by a suite of online interdisciplinary professional development courses that disseminate key insights into new developments. 

Drugs on the darknet: Assessing the global health risks of a rapidly expanding market

UoM Project Collaborator Professor Judith Aldridge.

Buying illegal drugs through the internet captured the public imagination after the emergence of Silk Road in 2011. Silk Road, and its successors that followed (after Silk Road was shut down by the FBI in 2013), provide a means to purchase illicit drugs online and have them delivered via parcel post. These online markets are known as ‘cryptomarkets’ because they rely upon encryption technologies: anonymising networks (Tor) and virtual currencies (Bitcoin).

Relatively high rates of participation in cryptomarkets have been reported in Australia: in a study of the cryptomarket Agora, Australia had the highest rate of drug retailers per capita. Consistent with high rates of cryptomarket use, successive reports from the Australian Crime Commission illustrate exponential growth in the detection of illicit drugs in the parcel post destined for Australians. There is also evidence that internationally, cryptomarkets are expanding: they generated sales upwards of $180M USD in 2015, doubling their 2013 sales volume.

Cryptomarkets represent an innovation in drug supply and have “profound implications” for global drug markets according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, but their influence on the overall harms associated with illicit drug use is unknown. Running between 2017 and 2019, this project aimed to redress this significant gap, and inform policy makers about the nature and extent of health outcomes from drug cryptomarkets, globally and specifically for Australians. 

Find out more

Assessing drug policy preferences among people who use drugs: The Global Drug Survey

Principal Investigators: Judith Aldridge, Julia Buxton 
01/04/21 – 31/03/23 
Global Drug Survey (GDS) runs the world’s biggest drug survey. GDS is an independent research company based in London producing reports for global media, public health and corporate organisations. GDS use its data and expertise to create digital health applications delivering screening and brief interventions for drugs and alcohol. 

GDS also create free online harm reduction resources and anonymous, confidential self-assessment tools. In addition this they also produce a range of drug education materials for health and legal professionals, the entertainment industry and the general public.

Find out more 

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News and highlights

Professor of Criminology appointed to Advisory Council for Misuse of Drugs  Prof Judith Aldridge is one of three new appointments to the Advisory Council for Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) announced on 3rd August 2020, she will serve a three-year term.  

In the Saturday Times (March 2020) Prof Judith Aldridge joined more than 20 co-signatories of a letter calling on the government to do more to support the 320,000 drug users in the UK. The letter points out that many of them suffer underlying conditions, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19.