'The Business of Drugs': How the dark web facilitates illicit drug trade across borders

There are now around 50 online marketplaces on the 'dark web' that trade illegal drugs, novel psychoactive substances, prescription drugs and other — often illegal — goods and services


                            'The Business of Drugs': How the dark web facilitates illicit drug trade across borders
(Getty Images)

In the latest Netflix docuseries, 'The Business of Drugs', former CIA agent Amaryllis Fox explores the economics behind the illicit drug trades around the world. One of the things that have made selling and buying drugs between the customers and middlemen easier is the internet, specifically the dark web. According to research, illicit drugs have been brought and sold on the Internet since it was established.

Cryptomarkets host multiple sellers or "vendors", provide participants with anonymity via their location on the hidden web and the use of cryptocurrencies for payment and aggregate and display customer feedback ratings and comments. There are now around 50 online marketplaces on the "dark web" that trade illegal drugs, novel psychoactive substances (NPS), prescription drugs, and other — often illegal — goods and services.

These so-called cryptomarkets are accessible with a normal internet connection but require special anonymizing software to access. According to the RAND Corporation, the illicit drugs sold on the cryptomarkets were predominantly cannabis (37% of total revenues), stimulants (cocaine, amphetamines) (29%) and ecstasy-type drugs (19%). These figures are very similar to estimates about drugs sold offline, apart from ecstasy-type drugs (just three percent of the total European retail drug market) and heroin (28% of the total European drug market but just six percent of the total drugs sold on cryptomarkets). Silk Road was the first drug “cryptomarket”. Many similar marketplaces followed after the FBI took it down in 2013.

According to research, cryptomarket customers believe drugs bought on the dark web are of better quality and more likely to be "pure." The international organization, Energy Control, confirmed this when laboratory testing found that drugs sold online are less likely to be cut and were higher in purity. However, cryptomarkets do not always sell pure and unadulterated products.

There are a few reasons why suppliers and customers prefer to go on the dark web to do their illicit business. Not only is it safer to buy or sell drugs on the internet, but it is also more profitable. Dark web vendors do not have to limit their trading to face-to-face interactions and can instead sell drugs to a potentially worldwide customer base. Further, encryption technologies allow vendors to communicate with customers and receive payments anonymously. The drugs are delivered in the post, so the vendor and the customer never have to meet in person.

While cryptomarkets for illicit drug trade has grown in the past, increasing reliance on technology use could limit its reach. For instance, one challenge could occur through compromises to the technologies on which cryptomarkets rely (such as Tor and Bitcoin). Moreover, marketplace regulatory mechanisms could be compromised through the eroding of trust through undercover law-enforcement infiltration and exit scams.

If law enforcement capabilities drastically improved to analyze bitcoin transactions and pin them to individuals in real-time with a good accuracy ratio, then it is likely that another coin would be adopted, such as Darkcoin which provides more security features. Additionally, drug buyers may perceive greater risks purchasing through cryptomarkets than through conventional drug deals. 'The Business of Drugs' is now streaming on Netflix.

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