Page last updated Dec. 18, 2020 by Doug McVay, Editor.

1. Dark Net Drug Markets or Cryptomarkets

"The internet has facilitated the sale of licit and illicit drugs for more than 15 years,10 11 12 13 but when the first cryptomarket, Silk Road 1, came online in 2011, illicit drugs began to be traded in large quantities. The annual turnover of drug sales conducted through cryptomarkets is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars,14 with most transactions involving recreational drugs (eg, cannabis, “ecstasy”). Before 2014, prescription drugs represented slightly less than 10% of all cryptomarket sales.14 15 People who buy through cryptomarkets are believed to be predominantly male, young (<25 years), educated, employed, and white.16 17 18 19 20 21

"Since 2011, cryptomarkets have been analysed through the digital traces they leave online,22 using automated software “crawlers” that collect publicly available data hosted on websites. The wealth of data available to researchers employing digital trace analysis includes the aliases and purported country level locations of drug vendors and the countries to which they are willing to make shipments. From each product listing posted by vendors on the marketplace, the drug type, price, and quantity can be determined, alongside customer feedback. Using these data, researchers have been able to track the growth of drug trading through the darknet,14 15 determining overall size, composition, and geographical distribution.20 23 24 25 Feedback posted by customers are used by researchers as a proxy for estimating numbers of transactions and revenues generated by drug vendors."

Martin J, Cunliffe J, Décary-Hétu D, Aldridge J. Effect of restricting the legal supply of prescription opioids on buying through online illicit marketplaces: interrupted time series analysis. The BMJ. 2018;361:k2270. doi:10.1136/bmj.k2270.……

2. Law Enforcement Largely Ineffective Against Illegal Dark Net Markets

"In July 2017, police forces from several countries worked together to take down the largest drug-trading platform on the darknet, the part of the “deep web” containing information that is only accessible using special web browsers. Before it was closed, AlphaBay had featured more than 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and chemicals. It had had over 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors during its existence. The authorities also succeeded in taking down the trading platform Hansa, described as the third largest criminal marketplace on the dark web.

"It is not yet clear what effect the closures will have. According to an online survey in January 2018, 15 per cent of those who had used darknet sites for purchasing drugs said that they had used such markets less frequently since the closures, and 9 per cent said they had completely stopped. However, more than half did not consider themselves to have been affected by the closures.

"Although the scale of drug trafficking on the darknet remains limited, it has shown signs of rapid growth. Authorities in Europe estimated that drug sales on the darknet from 22 November 2011 to 16 February 2015 amounted to roughly $44 million per year. However, a later study estimated that, in early 2016, drug sales on the darknet were between $14 million and $25 million per month, equivalent to between $170 million and $300 million per year."

World Drug Report 2018. United Nations publication, Sales No. E.18.XI.9.…

3. Tightened Restrictions on Legal Prescription Hydrocodone Led to Increase in Illegal Sales

"Objective: To examine the effect on the trade in opioids through online illicit markets (“cryptomarkets”) of the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s ruling in 2014 to reschedule hydrocodone combination products.

"Design: Interrupted time series analysis.

"Setting: 31 of the world’s largest cryptomarkets operating from October 2013 to July 2016.

"Main outcome measures: The proportion of total transactions, advertised and active listings for prescription opioids, prescription sedatives, prescription steroids, prescription stimulants, and illicit opioids, and the composition of the prescription opioid market between the US and elsewhere.

"Results: The sale of prescription opioids through US cryptomarkets increased after the schedule change, with no statistically significant changes in sales of prescription sedatives, prescription steroids, prescription stimulants, or illicit opioids. In July 2016 sales of opioids through US cryptomarkets represented 13.7% of all drug sales (95% confidence interval 11.5% to 16.0%) compared with a modelled estimate of 6.7% of all sales (3.7% to 9.6%) had the new schedule not been introduced. This corresponds to a 4 percentage point yearly increase in the amount of trade that prescription opioids represent in the US market, set against no corresponding changes for comparable products or for prescription opioids sold outside the US. This change was first observed for sales, and later observed for product availability. There was also a change in the composition of the prescription opioid market: fentanyl was the least purchased product during July to September 2014, then the second most frequently purchased by July 2016.

"Conclusions: The scheduling change in hydrocodone combination products coincided with a statistically significant, sustained increase in illicit trading of opioids through online US cryptomarkets. These changes were not observed for other drug groups or in other countries. A subsequent move was observed towards the purchase of more potent forms of prescription opioids, particularly oxycodone and fentanyl."

Martin James, Cunliffe Jack, Décary-Hétu David, Aldridge Judith. Effect of restricting the legal supply of prescription opioids on buying through online illicit marketplaces: interrupted time series analysis. British Medical Journal. 2018; 361:k2270.…

4. Harm Reduction and the Dark Web

"Darknet-based drug marketplaces are frequently used by PWUD. 'Empire Market' [13], 'Hydra' (in Russia) [14] and other darknet markets operate similarly to regular online marketplaces: they give vendors and buyers a platform to conduct their online transactions on. However, darknet-based drug marketplaces are more difficult to access as they require special software which encrypts computer IP addresses (e.g., Tor Browser). Transactions are anonymized and performed with cryptocurrencies (e.g., Bitcoin); hence, darknet markets are also called ‘cryptomarkets’. In addition to making purchases on the cryptomarkets, users can also exchange information on the availability of particular drugs, experiences from using them, their effects and potential harms via integrated online forums [15–17].

"The use of drug marketplaces and drug-related online forums to facilitate harm reduction has started to gain the attention of researchers. A number of studies have shown that such online platforms could bring new opportunities to provision of harm reduction services [18–20]. Social media platforms have also shown potential to bring greater access to harm reduction services among PWUD [People Who Use Drugs] [21]. Harm reduction interventions via online platforms are often referred to as ‘web outreach’, ‘online outreach’ or ‘netreach’ work [22, 23].

"Web outreach work implies that harm reduction workers contact PWUD through online platforms and provide them with harm reduction information and counseling upon individual requests of users or distribute harm reduction information publicly via online forums. Such work helps to encourage risk reduction behaviors among hard-to-reach populations of PWUD, who do not attend brick-and-mortar harm reduction facilities [22, 23]. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced social distancing measures and shortages of medicines and harm reduction supplies, which makes it more difficult to provide in-person harm reduction services [24, 25]. Web outreach helps organizations continue to provide harm reduction services during the pandemic."

Davitadze, A., Meylakhs, P., Lakhov, A. et al. Harm reduction via online platforms for people who use drugs in Russia: a qualitative analysis of web outreach work. Harm Reduct J 17, 98 (2020).