Using market segmentation techniques, suppliers and vendors target specific user groups with so-called ‘legal highs’, ‘research chemicals’ and ‘dietary supplements’. This includes the use of sophisticated modern mainstream marketing and branding techniques (Figure 7.4).
Food, medicine and consumer protection laws may be circumvented by labelling products as ‘not for human consumption’, ‘for research only’ or as ‘novelty items’, with enforcement action leading to rapid adaptive responses by the market (see Case study 14). In some cases, substances are marketed as ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ extracts in order to deceive regulators and consumers as to the true nature of the product, and exploit the common belief that natural products are better. In other cases, it is made very explicit that the content of the product is a ‘powerful’ synthetic drug. The marketing approach taken depends on the specific product and the intended audience. This includes packaging that is symbolic of controlled drugs or the use street names or names that allude to controlled drugs — such as ‘doves’, which is a street name for a type of ecstasy tablets — or the effects that the products will have.
The branding on new psychoactive substances
Other mainstream marketing techniques that are used include giving free samples or early access to new products to loyal customers or in exchange for reviews on user websites. Although it is not clear what extent such techniques increase sales, these are all commonly used marketing techniques that appear to work for other types of consumer goods. In this respect it is interesting to note that some vendors reportedly use ‘sock puppets’ — tricksters who pose as genuine customers — to entice and encourage consumers.
These finished products then compete with controlled drugs but with the added advantage of being sold openly in shops — known as head shops or smart shops — as well as in fast food outlets, adult shops, fuelling stations and on the web: ‘legal’ replacements for cannabis, amphetamine, MDMA, cocaine and heroin can be found on the physical and virtual shelves of shops across Europe (Figure 7.5).
Deschloroetizolam sold as a research chemical
Photo © Karolinska Institute, Sweden
Recognising that access to new substances needs to be convenient for consumers, distributors and retailers have developed a range of sales channels. The two most important are specialised bricks-and-mortar shops and web shops on the surface web.
It appears that vendors on the surface web may also be an important source of new substances for consumers — particularly for so-called ‘legal highs’, research chemicals and food supplements. Some bricks-and-mortar shops also have web-based front ends that extend their customer base; other retailers only have web presences. In 2013, the EMCDDA identified 651 shops on the surface web that were selling legal highs, research chemicals and food supplements to European consumers. Recent targeted snapshots and test purchasing show that new substances continue to enjoy high availability on the surface web, and this includes a large range of psychoactive medicines.
Over the last few years, bricks-and-mortar shops have been important sources of new substances to chronic, marginalised users in some areas. These include stimulants such as ethylphenidate, which mimics the effects of the stimulant medicine methylphenidate and has been linked with a range of harms, including an outbreak of soft-tissue infections (ACMD, 2015b; Public Health England, 2015).
Retailers accept a range of payment methods, including credit and debit cards, and cash payments. Payment in cash extends the customer base for ‘legal high’ products to young or marginalised people who may not have access to other modes of payment.
The authorities in Hungary were surprised when they noticed that a website selling new substances that had been shut down had re-opened even though the previous operator was in prison. On investigation they found that another group had cloned the original site as it had a well-established client base. Actively avoiding controlled substances, the group sold EUR 35 000–40 000 of products per week; when one substance was banned, they quickly sold off the remaining stock and ordered new uncontrolled analogues from China. Members of the group were arrested after their products were linked to the hospitalisation of more than 20 people over a short period.
Despite the pseudo-legal status of the business, those involved in this enterprise showed some of the classic features of a traditional OCGs. The group had a hierarchical structure, with the boss using street dealers and web distribution methods with lower-level operatives receiving the substances and producing the products. They attempted to avoid law enforcement by communicating using Viber and SMS messaging and moving their internet servers to another country. They used false details on orders. They also used well-recognised methods for laundering their profits, such as establishing fake companies in other countries and using offshore bank accounts. Although it did not use violence, the group showed a lack of regard for the safety of the users, being blasé about the serious acute health effects of its products.