In the darker recesses of the internet, at unlisted web addresses the vast majority of the population doesn’t even know exist, a bustling trade in illicit goods thrives. Here people can order almost anything to be delivered to their homes – forged identity papers, stolen credit card numbers and even drugs.
These websites use advanced encryption software, hence the name cryptomarkets, to protect the anonymity of buyers and sellers. Customers make payment using cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, a digital currency unconnected to a central bank and untraceable.
Silk Road was the first and most infamous of these websites. Created in 2011 by Ross Ulbricht, The New York Times writes that Silk Road “emerged as a black market version of eBay, where criminals could do business with more than 100,000 customers.”
The 27-year-old Ulbricht had been living with his parents in Austin, Texas, but later moved to San Francisco, which is where the F.B.I. finally caught up with him in 2013 and closed his virtual marketplace. Ulbricht made an estimated $80 million in commissions on Silk Road. Federal agents have only managed to seize around $3 million of it because the money is in bitcoins.
Illegal drug cryptomarkets have only multiplied since Silk Road’s demise. Business Insider reports, “Today, there are more than 20 cryptomarkets selling illicit drugs, or more than 55 if single-vendor markets are included.”
The proliferation of so called “darknet” services has raised serious concern among authorities and led the International Journal of Drug Policy to release a special issue focusing solely on cryptomarkets.
What are the Most Common Drugs for Sale on Cryptomarkets?
- Pharmaceuticals, such as opiate painkillers, benzodiazepines or performance enhancing drugs
These markets appear to serve the casual drug user or “partier” more than people dependent on or feeding an addiction to drugs. The average customers – 80 percent – are young men in their early to mid 20s. Some experts have suggested that there are benefits to cryptomarkets. For instance, it removes the sale of illegal drugs from street corners where there is a greater likelihood for crime or a violent interaction. With cryptomarkets, sellers generally mail their products.
James Martin, a criminology professor at Australia’s Macquarie University and author of “Drugs on the Dark Net,” told Vice News that cryptomarkets, in essence, are gentrifying the illegal drug market.
“The technology changes the dynamics,” says Martin. “If you’re a normal drug dealer…your main enemy probably isn’t the police, it’s other drug dealers and rival criminal groups who know they can rob you, they can kill you and you’re not going to be protected by society. Whereas in the online space, it’s not like that at all so you can quite easily say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna offer refunds, we’re gonna talk about socially progressive and ethically sourced drugs.'”
Lab tests on samples have shown that some of the drugs, such as cocaine, coming out of cryptomarkets are purer and not as likely to be cut with another substance. That does not translate into safer, though. Warnings were issued last year about cryptomarkets selling heroin laced with fentanyl, which makes an all ready dangerous drug even more lethal.
Law Enforcement of Online Drugs
For law enforcement, the digital marketplace for illegal drugs is an impossible problem. In many cases, these relatively small drug purchases are coming from some overseas location.
The financial transaction used in the purchase is untraceable, and there’s no real evidence that the alleged customer is actually the person that ordered the drugs if they don’t simply confess to it.
Finally, if one website gets shutdown, there are any number of others sprouting up that have no shortage of customers. The market for child pornography, human trafficking and murder for hire no doubt occurring on cryptomarkets raises even more concerns about how to put these operators out of business.
Whether or not cryptomarkets are a more sensible or moral approach to selling and buying illegal drugs, they do prove the impossibility of keeping narcotics out of the hands of anyone who really wants them.
Raising awareness about addiction and increasing access to specialized treatment for people who need it the most is far more effective than an attempt to corral a stampede of determined “partiers.”
As for Ross Ulbricht, the first crypto-entrepreneur, he’s serving life in federal prison for conspiracy to traffic in narcotics, money laundering and computer hacking. Prosecutors removed the charge of procuring murder from his indictment, though evidence related to the charge led to the severity of his sentence.