The Dark Web Has Made Sales of Recreational Drugs Safer

This article first appeared on Reason.com

Dark-web drug transactions increased 50 percent between 2013—the year the FBI shut down the Silk Road—and January 2016, according to a new report from the United Nations.

The Silk Road may be dead, but the dark web drug economy is very much alive.

"While drug trafficking over the darknet remains small, there has been an increase in drug transactions of some 50 per cent annually between September 2013 and January 2016 according to one study," the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes in its annual report on global illicit-drug trends. "Typical buyers are recreational users of cannabis, 'ecstasy,' cocaine, hallucinogens and [novel psychoactive substances]."

GettyImages-684080166 Pills, tablets, caplets and capsules of medicine, on May 7, 2017, Lille, France. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty

The increase in dark web transactions post-Silk Road has been documented before. "After Silk Road was taken down by the FBI in October 2013," the RAND Corporation reported last year, "it was only a matter of weeks before copycats filled the void." As of 2016, the research group had counted 50 "so-called cryptomarkets and vendor shops" where anonymous buyers and sellers could conduct transactions using Bitcoin and PGP encryption. (Several sites are now also accepting the cryptocurrency Ethereum.)

Boston College sociologist Isak Ladegaard, meanwhile, noted a massive increase in sales directly following the arrest of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht in late 2013. In a recent interview with Wired, Ladegaard theorized that media coverage of the case essentially served as earned marketing for the dark web.

More observations from the UN's report:

  • While Global drug trafficking cases increased only slightly from 2013 to 2015, the Global Drug Survey of 2017 found the amount of product moving through the dark web has increased dramatically. Roughly 8 percent of global drug users acquired an illicit substance through the dark web in 2017, up from 4.7 percent in 2014. Perhaps due to the passage of the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, the UK has seen the biggest increase in crypto sales: In 2016, 18.3 percent of British users acquired drugs on the dark web, while 25.3 percent of users have in 2017. These numbers are probably off, but the trend is likely real. (Crypto buying is down slightly in the U.S.)

  • "Vendors in countries in Asia seemed to be more involved in the wholesale business, while retail sales were dominated by vendors in North America and Europe." As I noted in my piece on steroids, Asia is a dominant supplier of raw chemicals used in making America's illicit drugs. (Americans tend to think of Mexico as our biggest supplier, but it's really just an intermediary.)

  • Silk Road was, in hindsight, a relatively small operation. "Overall, the value of transactions in the eight markets that dominated the darknet in January 2016 was 2.6 times greater than that of transactions on the Silk Road market in September 2013, which dominated the darknet at that time." This is also not surprising. If Silk Road taught the drug community anything, it's not to put all of your Bitcoin supply in one dark wallet.

  • Heroin is not a popular dark web drug: "When compared with the overall distribution of drugs in the United States and European Union markets, methamphetamine and heroin appear to be underrepresented on the darknet, while 'ecstasy' and 'psychedelics' (hallucinogens) are overrepresented in sales over the darknet."

Cross-marketing between the open web and the dark web isn't mentioned in the U.N. report, but that may have been noted elsewhere. Several open web steroid forums, for instance, feature user handles shared by dark web vendors. Users will post in the open forums about new products—but not actually sell them there—because it's easier to market to a wide audience on the open web.

I haven't seen anything quite so brazen in forums for other drugs, but posters in other places suggest to neophytes that setting up a crypto-market account, buying Bitcoin through conventional channels, and then tumbling that currency into a dark web account is a wiser (if more laborious) choice than trying to score mystery pills at a rave.

I suspect the dark web is at least partially responsible for the increased availability of unadulterated MDMA. We know there's a correlation thanks to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. But the U.N. report has little to say about the purity of dark web drugs versus street drugs.

Ecstasy Data, which facilitates testing of MDMA and LSD, has reported a large increase in samples of "pure" MDMA over the last decade. Between 2004 and 2011, less than a quarter of the samples tested by the group contained unadulterated MDMA.

But purity has steadily increased since 2012, with nearly half of the samples tested this year and last coming back as uncontaminated by other stimulants or dissociatives. That's probably a function of dark web market and more awareness on the part of users and the advancement of harm reduction strategies.

The big takeaway from the U.N. report is that the drug war continues to be a massive failure, and even though the dark web has made drug buying safer —and even drug use safer—it is still inferior to a regulated market with clear product data.

Mike Riggs is a reporter at Reason.