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The Futility of Fighting Dark Web Drug Markets

The use of dark web drug markets is growing exponentially. While law enforcement has consistently failed to reduce online sales, non-profit initiatives are working to reduce the potential harms of drugs purchased through the dark web.

Recent data indicates that online drug markets are swiftly gaining international popularity. This is particularly evident in the results of the Global Drug Survey 2016 (GDS), which surveyed over 100,000 respondents – primarily those who use illegal drugs – from over 50 countries around the world. Around one in 10 participants reported having purchased drugs through the dark web at least once, while five per cent of respondents claimed they “did not consume drugs prior to accessing them through” the dark web.

Data from the Economist indicates that the turnover of international drug sales through the dark web has increased by over 800 per cent in the past four years; from around $16million in 2012 to between $150m and $180m in 2015.

The dark web is an online network that can only be accessed with encrypted software, such as Tor. In order to purchase illicit items, dark web users utilise Bitcoin, a decentralised virtual currency that provides anonymity; thus rendering the trade extremely difficult for law enforcement to track. The Economist reports that dark web drug retailers vacuum-seal the packaging of their consignments, dip them in bleach to destroy DNA evidence, and send the deliveries from unmonitored post offices. An estimated 90 per cent of dark web drug shipments successfully reach their buyer.

Law enforcement officials around the world have attempted to shutdown dark web drug markets since the first such site, Silk Road, was launched in 2011. The encrypted nature of these websites makes the process considerably difficult, and often futile, for police. Silk Road was shut down in 2013 when its founder was arrested, but less than a month later, it was replaced by Silk Road 2.0. Silk Road 2.0 was then shut down in late 2014 – yet mere hours after this, Silk Road 3.0 was established, and continues to operate to this day. The GDS describes the enduring prevalence of such sites as “the biggest challenge to drug laws and their enforcement in a century“.

The image appearing on the original Silk Road after it was shut down

Similar to real-world drug policing, online law enforcement are occasionally able to shutdown drug vendors, but are unable to prevent new vendors from immediately seizing the business vacuum. Online harm reduction services are now stepping in to do what police have been unable to: improve the safety of people who buy from dark web drug markets.

In 2014, Energy Control – a Spanish non-profit organisation – began offering an international drug testing service for dark web users. The service analyses and detects the contents of submitted substances in exchange for Bitcoin donations. Mireia Ventura, Energy Control’s drug checking co-ordinator, described the strategy as providing "risk reduction […] inside of the dark web”.

Energy Control has found drug purity levels to be considerably higher online; the average purity level for cocaine on the dark web was around 71 percent, compared to an average of 48 per cent among cocaine sold on Spanish streets. This discrepancy highlights the importance of drug testing facilities, as people may consume drugs from the dark web while assuming a low street-level purity.

This health-oriented trend is spreading online. Dr. Fernando Caudevilla, a Spanish physician known as DoctorX on the dark web, offers professional advice about drugs and health on Silk Road 3.0 forums. While A-Clinic Foundation, a Finnish group, are compiling a public and searchable “database of substances circulating online”.

Law enforcement is failing to tackle dark web drug markets, sales are continuing to surge, and substance purity remains high. Online harm reduction services are, therefore, crucial. As this new manifestation of drug prohibition grows, as will the need for innovative harm reduction programmes that improve the safety of people who buy drugs from it.

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