Heroin use became widespread in Russia in the late 1990s, amid the opening of international borders and social upheaval and deprivation. Unsafe injection practices led to hepatitis C and HIV epidemics that have never gone away. With the internet in its infancy, drugs were usually sold face-to-face. As a former drug user, I well remember my friends’ eagerness to find a regular dealer so that they could ask for a discount—or to help friends get drugs in exchange for part of the dose.
It was after 2010 that the popularity of dark-web drug marketplaces began to grow in Russia. Supplying people with illegal drugs was increasingly done remotely—but not by mail, as in North America and Western Europe, because the mostly state-run Russian mail is checked thoroughly. Instead, it is typically done by means of zakladki or “dead-drops.” Stashes of substances are hidden for customers to pick up—placed on magnets in the entrances of apartment buildings, for example, or buried in flower beds or in forests.
Until 2015, the RAMP marketplace held the leading position. Then Hydra appeared. After a short period of coexistence, RAMP was closed and Hydra began to dominate.
Today Hydra is one of the main sources of illicit substances not only in Russia, but also in the other post-Soviet countries. Some countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have their own marketplaces, however. Messaging platforms like Telegram, VIPole and WhatsApp have also become very popular. In short, the sale and purchase of drugs in the former USSR has become almost wholly digitalized.
The DrugStat Telegram channel has become a hub for study and analysis of these markets, and plans to launch its DrugStat.org website soon. I was able to interview the main person conducting this work, who retains his anonymity for understandable reasons.
As a harm reductionist working in St. Petersburg, I understand that people’s ability to access information about what they’re using is a form of empowerment. So I was curious to find out what trends my source sees in the Russian dark web, which substances are currently most popular, and the extent to which he considers himself in danger for collecting such data. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Aleksey Lakhov: Which trends do you see on the Russian dark web?
DrugStat researcher: It is obvious that more and more people start using the darknet for buying drugs in Russia every year. We can tell that by simply analyzing feedback, or comments left after each sale on Hydra.
In early 2016, Hydra was a small marketplace oriented on the sale of “bath salts” and “spice.” But after the fall of RAMP in the summer of 2017, in just a couple of months [reflected in the first rise on the DrugStat graph below], Hydra began to monopolize the market. From January 2018 to January 2020, the popularity of this marketplace in Russia has risen almost tenfold.
“With the rise of Hydra, synthetic cathinones such as mephedrone and alpha-PVP became extremely popular in Russia.”
From the fall of RAMP until the middle of 2019, nearly every month there was a steady growth of the Hydra market. In October 2019, at the peak of this growth—just before the region was hit with a crisis in its hashish market and struggled with COVID-19—more than 16,000 comments after purchasing drugs were left on Hydra every day. Those comments represent only half of all deals!
As an example of the increasing popularity of cathinones, let’s look at Moscow. In 2018, the first year of the monopoly of Hydra, total sales of marijuana [resin and herbal] were almost 1.5 times larger than the sales of mephedrone and alpha-PVP. First was hashish; second, weed; third, mephedrone, while alpha was in sixth place. [But] in 2019, cumulative sales of marijuana were just 1.02 higher than sales of cathinones. Mephedrone was already in first place, alpha-PVP in fourth. During the first half of 2020, sales of “bath salts” became 1.16 times higher than sales of marijuana. This became possible because of the crisis on the hashish market [reflected in the autumna 2019 fall on the graph].
So, the main two trends on the Russian dark web are the increasing popularity of the dark web itself and the increasing popularity of synthetic cathinones, mephedrone particularly.
Could you further summarize some of your most interesting findings, in terms of which drugs are being bought and in what quantities?
The state of the drug situation in Russia is reflected by the state of Hydra. If, for example, one main drug suddenly disappears from every location on Hydra, it means that the whole market of this drug struggles in the country.
In October 2019, I found out that hashish suddenly disappeared from Hydra. Sellers didn’t have it anymore, prices were incredibly high. To get to the reason for that crisis, I explored data obtained from Hydra and talked to some insiders on the market.
It turned out that the crisis was caused by a poor harvest in Morocco—the key hashish exporter to Europe and Russia—and several seizures in Gibraltar. That, along with a simultaneous reshaping of influence zones on the Russian border, has led to a huge hashish deficit. That has also affected the drug routes, leading to an increase of hashish from Afghanistan and “ice-o-lator” [hashish made through a special production process, with a higher THC level] from the Netherlands. At the end of 2019, I wrote an article on this topic. Later this information was confirmed in the EMCDDA [European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction] and Europol report.
“In April-May, there was nearly no weed on Hydra. Dealers who still had access dramatically increased prices. Prices are still high and won’t get back to the previous state.”
The most interesting thing in that story is the consequences of the crisis. In the second quarter of 2019, when the hashish market was stable and strong, 65 percent of cumulative marijuana sales in Russian cities with populations of more than 1 million were of hashish, while buds had only 35 percent. The crisis hit at the tail-end of 2019, and in the first quarter of 2020 hashish lost 23 percent of the cannabis market. Hashish then had only 42 percent of the market share, while buds became the main cannabis product with 58 percent.
The buds market wasn’t ready for that huge demand spike so, in the end, it faced a shortage too. At the same time, the whole market started feeling the consequences of COVID-19, so in April-May, there was nearly no weed on Hydra in Russia. Dealers who still had access to cannabis dramatically increased prices. Prices are still high and won’t get back to the previous state. Sellers learned that drug users in Russia will buy their stuff even at the new prices, so they decided not to lose that new revenue.
Speaking of COVID-19, I have written a huge report at the request of a transnational drug organization about changes in internet drug sales in the former USSR. The most interesting finding is the influence of self-isolation on sales.
Turned out that introducing quarantine measures such as the closure of schools and universities, the mass transfer to remote work, and business closures don’t lower sales of dead-drops—they increase them. People don’t need to go to work, school, university, so they can spend more time using drugs. That was the situation during the first quarantine days in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Moldova.
However, if a country later introduces a self-isolation regime, sales of dead-drops fall sharply. People can’t go out and take their dead-drops, dead-droppers can’t create their stashes, there are a lot of police officers on the street. All these for a time cause an extreme fall of the market.
“Mephedrone is more of a teen or young people’s drug. Alpha-PVP is more popular in the poor regions of the country because of its low price.”
Later, people start to adjust to new conditions, and sales slowly increase. After the end of self-isolation, everything goes back to normal. That was the case in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, and also in Moscow, Russia. As you can see from the graph, sales in Moscow started falling from April 2020, while sales in St. Petersburg almost didn’t change during the pandemic. That’s because of the self-isolation regime introduced in Moscow and not introduced in Saint Petersburg.
Do you have any insights into who is buying drugs this way? By region or demographics, for example?
I guess this is being done by people of all ages, genders and nationalities. Heroin and methadone are often bought by relatively old opiate users that might be 30, 40, 50 years old. Mephedrone, at the same time, is more of a teen or young people’s drug, used by 20, 25 or 30 year-olds. Alpha-PVP is more popular in the poor regions of the country (and St. Petersburg) because of its low price. Other drugs might be bought everywhere by everyone.
And what about people selling drugs?
If we’re talking about dead-droppers, people who make stashes of drugs, I’ve seen news of both youngsters and elders being caught by the police. If all you need to start working and get illicit substances for stashes is to make a few clicks on the internet, then anyone can become a dead-dropper.
“Single mothers, pensioners, pupils, students, all of them start working on Hydra because of lack of money.”
The real question is in the motivation of those people. Single mothers, pensioners, pupils, students, all of them start working on Hydra because of lack of money, which is a common problem in Russia.
If we’re talking about vendors who sell drugs, then the answer is mostly the same. The opening of an online drug shop is not much harder than becoming a dead-dropper, just more expensive. Shops can be opened by anyone, but their success is a question of the experience and business manners of an owner.
What are your thoughts on the relative safety this route of purchase may offer, whether from criminalization or drug-related harms?
The critical situation for a drug user is to be caught by police while or after picking up a dead drop. That doesn’t happen often. For example, during my previous period of life when I was a regular drug user, I picked up more than 200-300 dead-drops and never encountered police. But that happens sometimes, either because of special operations or just careless drug users.
If you are caught, you still have the chance to get away by paying a bribe. The size of a bribe and the will of officers to take it depends on the volume of drugs with you and their appearance. If you have a lot of unpacked dead-drops with you, you will be defined as a dead-dropper, so the price would be much higher. If it’s only one dead-drop with a small amount of an organic substance (possession of small amounts of some substances is actually decriminalized in Russia), then the bribe would be not that large.
“Because of the dead-drop system, there are a lot of people who try to find hidden stashes meant for other drug users.”
As for the drug-related harms, problems here are pretty common. For example, the low quality of imported synthetic drugs, especially amphetamine. There were cases when dead-droppers put dead-drops with methadone instead of mephedrone or MDMA, which caused deaths or hospitalizations. Because of the dead-drop system, there are a lot of people who try to find hidden stashes meant for other drug users. They might succeed, find a dead drop with methadone, and use it intranasally thinking of it as mephedrone. There also have been some cases like that.
Tell us a little about your personal background, and why you became interested in this project. Are you in any legal jeopardy yourself from frequenting these sites?
I was smoking cannabis with my classmates from 15 to 16; from 16 to 18, I did all the other drugs after discovering a dead-drop system (Hydra wasn’t even popular at that time; RAMP was). So basically, I was a regular drug user.
After the age of 18, I thought of making money out of drugs. But I didn’t want to be in danger because of my activity; I wanted to make money as legally as possible. So the idea of making a statistics-based research project came to my mind and I made a Telegram channel. Firstly, I used to take graphs from EMCDDA and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and translate them; then I started collecting, analyzing, and visualizing information by myself. Since the launch of DrugStat, I stopped using illicit substances and focused on work.
“I want to move my focus from Russia to countries where my work would be useful and could actually change something for the better.”
My work is legal according to the laws of Russia. But in our country laws don’t matter that much. You are not in danger as far as you don’t talk about the policy or try to change something in the country. I decided that in the future I want to focus my work on the whole world, not Russia particularly, and to achieve that, I agreed with the unspoken rules and don’t discuss anything policy-related.
But anyway, I took all the other necessary measures to feel safe. I don’t have accounts on social media. I don’t show my real IP on the net, I don’t show my face or my name in my activity, my computer and phone are encrypted. You never know, so it’s better to be prepared. In the near future, as I said, I want to move the focus of my activity from Russia to countries where my work would be useful and could actually change something for the better.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.
* Aleksey Lakhov has been working in the field of harm reduction, HIV and viral hepatitis prevention for 10 years. He is general manager of the harm reduction NGOs coalition “Outreach” (Estonia), and deputy director of Humanitarian Action (St. Petersburg). He has written about substance use, hepatitis and HIV for Russian media outlets including RIA Novosti, AIDS.CENTER and TJournal. He is in long-term recovery from substance use issues. He lives in St. Petersburg.