A Tangled Web: drug purchasing on the darknet

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Darknet drug purchasing image
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The ‘darknet’ online marketplace has experienced significant turbulence lately, affecting the availability of different drugs. Be ready for the impact, says Kevin Flemen.

Kevin Flemen from the drugs education and training initiative, KFx – www.kfx.org.uk
Kevin Flemen runs the drugs education and training initiative, KFx – www.kfx.org.uk

A series of international policing operations has made a significant dent in darknet drugs market places. While it’s inevitable that new models and markets will emerge, in the short term these changes will have a significant impact on the UK drug supply. Drug services should be aware of this now so that they can respond promptly to the shifts in availability.

Darknet drugs markets have been around for a few years now. The most famous early example, Silk Road, was shut down in 2013 and its successor, Silk Road 2.0, closed a year later. Predictably, more darknet drugs markets emerged to fill the void, including Agora (shut in 2015) and Alphabay.

Alphabay was shut down through an FBI operation in 2017 – but importantly, this was part of ‘Operation Bayonet’, a two-pronged attack. Many people trading on Alphabay migrated to another market, Hansa, which had already been infiltrated by Dutch Police. This allowed international law enforcement to identify both buyers and sellers, resulting both in prosecutions and wariness about the safety of other markets.

While these other darknet sites were either voluntarily closing or being shut down by enforcement, one, Dream Market, continued to function and grow. Originally established in 2013, it had risen to being the largest darknet drug market place. In March 2019 it had some 120,00 market listings, more than ten times its nearest competitor. It was easy to use, had a large number of vendors apparently located within the EU, a lot of vendors with long selling histories, and was as ‘trusted’ as any darknet marketplace can be.

Then in March 2019, Dream Market suspended trading. After logging in, customers were told that the market would close in April 2019, and a new operation with a new partner would be launched.

Dream Market had been subject to intense denial-of-service attacks, making it harder to trade on the platform. But the abrupt suspension of trading came out of the blue. There was an opportunity for people to extract any bitcoins lodged with Dream Market, dispelling myths that it was an ‘exit scam’ where the site ran off with the money. But the orderly suspension of Dream Market couldn’t disabuse people of fears that the site had been infiltrated, or that any successor site wouldn’t be another ‘sting’ like Operation Bayonet.

As before, people flocked to the next functional market, Wall Street Market. This was then probably part of an exit scam, and new subscribers lost money. Wall Street Market was then shut down.

In order to find the next reliable darknet drugs market, the easiest directory to use was DeepDotWeb which linked to the main markets, offered reviews and provided updates on their status. In May 2019 this website was seized by the FBI and the people behind it arrested for allegedly receiving kickbacks for sales generated via the drug markets to which they linked.

Alphabay Shutdown
The largest two darkweb drug markets have been shut down. It was the drugs equivalent of Amazon and eBay being taken out within weeks of each other – then Yellow Pages being closed down too.

So, since March this year the largest two darkweb drug markets have been shut down, and the directory site that pointed people to these sites and any future ones was also shut down. It was the drugs equivalent of Amazon and eBay being taken out within weeks of each other – then Yellow Pages being closed down too.

It’s almost inevitable that new markets will emerge and grow. There’s a new directory service running, and emergent markets trying to fill the gap. But it will take a while for any newer site to build up the confidence that Dream Market enjoyed with vendors and buyers. Such trust isn’t born overnight. The key issue in the meantime is, how does all this impact on the UK drugs scene?

Some drugs markets such as the UK homegrown cannabis market or the more ‘traditionally’ smuggled drugs such as heroin and cocaine will probably experience less disruption from these darknet closures. Indeed, closing down the online competition effectively ‘gifts’ a large market to the existing street suppliers – a position that the ‘county lines’ gangs are well placed to exploit. It’s a bonanza for traditional drug gangs and emergent dealer networks.

SO WHERE IS DISRUPTION MORE LIKELY TO BE EXPERIENCED?

The hidden population buying pharmaceuticals and other substances for medical or quasi-medical use.

As UK prescribers have started to clamp down on benzo, opiate and pregabalin prescribing, a cohort of people have been sourcing these off the darknet. There are also people buying THC for medicinal reasons and people microdosing on mushrooms, LSD or ketamine. We have no idea how large this market was.

With the demise of Dream Market, anyone reliant on this market place and possibly physically addicted to the substances they were purchasing will need to access treatment. They may not be able to wean themselves off their own stash – their supply just vanished. This will be a key concern for those who have been sourcing Xanax (alprazolam) off the darknet. I suspect a degree of scarcity as stocks already in the UK dwindle.

Recreational club and party drugs on the darknet

Dream Market had made it easier to buy a range of club drugs, from obscure psychedelics to MDMA, with a better chance of getting some product that was reviewed by other purchasers. With the summer festival season upon us, a host of recreational users will be obliged to go back to suppliers in clubs and festivals, with all the elevated risk that this entails. Granted, there was always a level of uncertainty with any pill, as the escalating potency of pills on the market shows. But even the modicum of safety provided by the darknet sites has now been removed.

Synthetic cannabinoids.

My suspicion is that it will be harder for the smaller city-level dealers who have been buying in SCRAs (synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists) – for onward sale to prisons and the homeless population – to source products. Granted, some will buy directly from manufacturers in Asia. But low-level suppliers were buying from importers and redistributing to prisons and the street, and it is at this level I think availability will go down. While less ‘spice’ is no bad thing, the obvious drug of choice, especially for the street homeless SCRA users, is heroin. Anecdotal feedback from training says that this has already started to happen in some areas.

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Any changes will take a while to trickle through to the street drugs market as existing stocks of drugs are used up. If laws of supply and demand hold true, cost may well go up, and quality may also suffer. The relative ‘power’ of buyers, provided by the choice the darknet markets offered, is replaced by the risks of the normal street drugs market.

It is impossible to be certain what will happen over the next six months, but we can be sure that you can’t remove two huge pillars of the darknet drugs market without some impact on end users. It will certainly be an interesting few months.

More drug facts, resources and briefings at www.kfx.org.uk

Read more DDN articles by Kevin Flemen here

 

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