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By Ass. Prof. Dr. Ilija Zivotic PhD, IPO Founder and Honorary President

According to the World Drug Report 2021, drug markets on the dark web emerged only a decade or so ago, but the main ones are now worth at least $315 million in annual sales. Although this is a tiny fraction of overall drug sales, the trend is upward, with a fourfold increase in annual sales between the beginning of the 2010s (2011 to mid-2017) and more recent years (mid-2017 to 2020). The expansion of online drug markets to social media and popular e-commerce platforms further suggests that their accessibility is widening. While cannabis dominates darknet sales, marketing on the “clear web” often involves new psychoactive substances and substances used in the manufacture of synthetic drugs, including precursor chemicals. Vendors play a catand-mouse game with law enforcement by marketing their products as “research chemicals” or advertising “custom synthesis”. While that is a legitimate practice in the pharmaceutical industry, it may be misused by traffickers to distribute controlled substances. Rapid technological innovation, combined with the agility and adaptability of those using new platforms to sell drugs and other substances, may usher in a globalized market where more drugs become available in more locations, especially since traffickers can quickly adapt their distribution networks. This in turn will trigger accelerated changes in patterns of drug use.

Increased digital interconnectivity has brought about innovations in how global drug supply chains operate. In particular, the evolution of digital communication platforms has added a new dimension to drug distribution. Purchasing drugs online arguably brings a number of advantages to traffickers and users as compared with purchases made in person, on the street. Online platforms connect buyers with sellers and can cut out intermediaries, which saves costs and shortens supply chains. Following an online purchase, drugs are delivered to a mailbox or another location in a “dead drop”, reducing potentially risky interactions with drug traffickers. Moreover, the use of mail courier services and international trade networks may make detection and interdiction less likely owing to the sheer scale and volume of global trade. The marketing and sale of controlled drugs and new psychoactive substances on the Internet can take place at different levels: on the open Internet, also known as the clear web, sometimes using encrypted communications tools; on certain social media applications; and on darknets, which form part of the deep web.

Drug trafficking over the clear web

The online marketing and sale of some synthetic drugs, rather than being restricted to the dark corners of the Internet (i.e., the dark web), also occurs on the open Internet, or clear web, where such drugs are readily discoverable for purchase on easily accessible platforms. While the online sale of traditional drugs, such as heroin, amphetamine-type stimulants, cannabis and cocaine remains confined to anonymized platforms on the deep web, the clear web is used for selling products, in particular synthetic drugs, that feed into the market for those traditional drugs. According to the World Drug Report 2021, a number of vendors, who operate alone or through well-established online commercial platforms, are now openly selling substances that feed the synthetic drug market, including precursors, pre -precursors, new psychoactive substances and other controlled substances. Those vendors continually change their offer in order to adapt to national and international control systems and government interventions so that they remain legal and can operate in open view. They have the potential to drive changes in synthetic drug markets with new or adapted substances for the manufacturing of synthetic drugs or for the cutting of drugs. They can also play a role in the market for new psychoactive substances. In addition to using e-commerce websites and chemical marketplaces, many vendors of synthetic drugs and related chemicals on the clear web operate independent websites where they list substances for sale. They use social media to help build and cultivate a client base and ultimately direct potential buyers to either their own site or that of an affiliated chemical company to complete transactions. Payment options typically include the use of commercial money transmission services and more traditional means of making financial transactions, such as wire transf ers. However, payment in cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, is the most popular option. For shipping, commercial mail courier services are commonly listed as preferred methods of distribution.

Drug trafficking over the dark web

The findings of the World Drug Report 2021 indicate that the characteristics, opportunities and challenges of drug trafficking over the dark web on the darknets have changed little over the years. Indeed, the anonymity offered by specific software (such as the onion router (Tor)), the wide selection of drugs on offer, the dark web’s global reach and the use of cryptocurrencies have remained largely the same. The Tor network is the largest darknet and contains the most sites. In mid-2020, there were approximately 200,000 onion services worldwide. The number of marketplaces in the Tor network increased from 1 in 2011 to 118 in 2019. Products available includedrugs, firearms and ammunition, and hacking tools and services. According to the World Drug Report 2021, darknet marketplaces are characterized by high turnover and volatility. In recent years, major law enforcement operations have led to the dismantling of a number of darknet platforms, and some darknet marketplaces have been the subject of exit scams, whereby their owners remove the funds accumulated in their customer escrow accounts and vanish. The darknet market ecosystem is both dynamic and resilient, even though it is possible that, without law enforcement intervention, the markets would have grown even faster over the past dec ade. More than 100 darknet market platforms have emerged over the past decade, but many of them, including the largest, last for only a short period. An analysis of 103 darknet markets over the period 2010–2017 revealed that they were active for, on average, just over eight months. On average, all darknet marketplaces taken together showed an overall increase in drug sales, with the annual minimum doubling and the average estimated total increasing almost fourfold between the early years of the dark web (2011 to mid-2017) and more recent years (mid-2017 to 2020). Nonetheless, overall sales on those major darknet markets appear to have remained modest when compared with overall illicit drug sales.

Cannabis accounts for the largest share of drug transactions made on the 19 major darknet markets analysed over the period 2011–2020, and its share has been increasing.

After cannabis, the substances accounting for the largest shares are synthetic stimulants (mostly amphetamine, dexamphetamine, Ritalin (methylphenidate), Adderall (i.e., tablets containing amphetamine), Modafinil (a substitute for amphetamine), methamphetamine and various cathinones, such as mephedrone, 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), methylone or α-pyrrolidinovalerophenone (α-PVP)), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, commonly known as “ecstasy”) and cocaine.

Opioids sold on the dark web include oxycodone, hydromorphone, hydrocodone, codeine, buprenorphine, methadone, tramadol, tapentadol, fentanyl and heroin.55 3. Drug trafficking using the Internet may have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic 49. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected global supply chains of drugs. According to the World Drug Report 2021, in many countries, there has been an increase in seizures by mail and an increased use of technology to facilitate drug trafficking at the retail level, for example, using the Internet or darknet markets or encrypted cell phone communication tools.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed shopping behaviour by accelerating the shift towards e-commerce and online shopping, and it is likely to have lasting effects. There are indications that this trend has affected not only licit goods but also illicit purchases of controlled drugs. Increased digital interconnectivity has brought about innovations in how global drug supply chains operate, with technology and the Internet increasingly serving as an avenue for the advertisement and sale of a variety of substances that are supplied on illicit drug markets, whether they are controlled drugs, new psychoactive substances or drug precursors. While some of those substances are sold on the clear web, others have found their way to the deep web, onto darknet markets. The high volatility of darknet market sites makes them challenging to monitor. Some analyses suggest that, on the dark web, purchases of small quantities of cannabis have increased, while purchases of large quantities have decreased during the pandemic. Other studies suggest there have been no changes or even declining drug sales over the dark web. There seems to be more consensus about an emerging increase in the delivery of drugs by mail, suggesting that the pandemic may have accelerated an ongoing trend towards more remote or contactless modes of buying drugs. Drug sales on darknet markets constitute only a small fraction of total drug sales by volume, but they are still relevant for understanding the effects of restrictions on drug supply, in particular because they provide an opportunity to understand trends in real time. Those markets have provided indications of drug prices and supply and demand during the pandemic and may also point to future changes.

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