Illicit Drug Sales in the Deep Web: Safer Trading for Whom?

By: Isabel Pereira*


The creativity and resilience of drug markets makes drug policy developments immensely challenging. Once law enforcement authorities destroy a manufacturing laboratory or block a shipping route, actors in the illicit business innovate and manage to move around the most recent prohibition. One of the most interesting innovations in recent years are crypto markets, a kind of eBay for drugs, defined as “a marketplace that hosts multiple sellers or ‘vendors,’ provides participants with anonymity via its location on the hidden web, and use of crypto currencies for payment, and aggregates and displays customer feedback ratings and comments.”

Online drug trade emerged in 2011 with the rise of Silk Road, a huge bazaar of drugs located in the deep web. In the aftermath of the crackdown on its founder, Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR) in 2013, subsequent market places have replaced it. Between 2011 and 2013, wholesale transactions in Silk Road were for substances sent from Canada, China, the Netherlands and Belgium, all producer countries of the drugs found in most deep web markets: cannabis, ecstasy/MDMA, stimulants, pharmaceuticals, psychedelics and opioids. Additionally, upon analyzing ratings and comments from drug users in the deep web, researchers found perceptions of higher drug quality, compared to the quality of drugs bought on the street.

Photo by: Gwydion M. Williams

Photo by: Gwydion M. Williams

Crypto markets enable anonymity for consumers and sellers, something sought after in “offline” marketplaces. This anonymity reduces the threat of prosecution for dealers, and benefits consumers by enabling greater drug-quality and dealer accountability. Upon monitoring forums in the deep web, researchers have seen efforts in pedagogy and harm reduction measures from vendors, who recommend safe dosages, safe drug intake methods, and signs for identifying and preventing negative side effects. In this world, vendors serve as allies to consumers.

The question many are asking is whether crypto markets permit drug transactions without violence, or at least with less violence. Research from academics in Australia and the UK, based on data from the Global Drug Survey, concludes that buying and selling drugs online is significantly safer than doing so in offline markets, with fewer threats, intimidation, and violence. While buying drugs online still require some enforcement mechanisms as offline markets do, there are certain mechanisms that act as a safety net to sellers and buyers, such as escrow systems and again, anonymity. The research, while promising, is biased in the same way that crypto markets are: it is skewed toward a predominantly male, young, and educated sub-sector of the drug market located in the Global North.

The deep web is safer for buying and selling drugs, but for whom? As Aldridge and Décary-Hétu (2016) recognize, “the utility of crypto markets as suitable for vendors in producer countries for drugs like heroin or cocaine seems likely to be limited at best.” This is due to the disparities of access in the technologies and infrastructure needed to participate in such a trading scheme, such as internet connection, secure postal systems, and knowledge of crypto currencies. Certainly, these countries are participating in other online markets that require the same infrastructure to a certain degree, but just as the deep web is new to us all, the expertise required to participate in it is just starting to trickle down, and so its effect not yet visible in some places. As a result, producer countries of heroin and cocaine, such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, are not trading in the deep web. These countries’ participation in the market remains limited to shipping merchandise via traditional routes, while vendors in countries where crypto markets are trending take charge of the international trade.

In the Global South, crypto markets are still a distant phenomenon, and the present crisis is the violence associated with offline drug markets. Mexico is the most dramatic with regards to violence, as it was reported that in 2015 male life expectancy decreased due to mounting levels of killings and violence involved in the drug wars. The World Drug Report, and many countries, measure drug related deaths only in terms of drug use (overdose, for example), but we also need to account for deaths caused by violence in the drug markets.

According to UNODC, there is a clear association between higher homicide rates in transit countries, and higher still in cocaine producing and transit countries than in opioid producing and transit countries. The uses of violence in physical markets respond to the demands of illegality: territories must be controlled; discipline must be enforced by non-conventional means, and the constant threat of law enforcement leads to battles and confrontation. In Latin America, for example, 30% of homicides are related to gangs and organized crime, but we lack sufficient information, given that the World Drug Report does not measure solely drug related homicides.

Crypto markets provide a safe space for some sellers and some consumers, without resolving the disparities in the drug markets that have made the war on drugs much more devastating in some countries than in others. The people who produce, distribute, and sell drugs in the Americas are largely absent in the deep web. The people who purchase drugs produced by these countries in the deep web, are, for the most part, shielded from violence due to their pre-existing privilege of living and consuming drugs in the Global North. Moreover, as an illegal system, crypto markets are insufficient to effectively control and regulate psychoactive substances in order to protect personal and public health.

Photo by: Jesús Villaseca P/Latitudes Press.

Photo by: Jesús Villaseca P/Latitudes Press.

The real problem is that there is a huge policy bias regarding the interests of the Global North vis-à-vis the Global South with respect to which drugs should be controlled, and through which means. There is an excessive focus on the plants grown in the Global South (coca, poppy, marihuana), and very little attention to synthetic production, which occurs in the Global North (amphetamine-type stimulants, psychedelics). The creativity evidenced by drug traders and consumers reminds us that prohibition got it all wrong by making “a drug-free world” its main objective. Reducing the social costs of controlling and regulating drugs will need much more than an online marketplace, reserved for a privileged few, as well as abandoning the goal of a drug-free world.


*Isabel Pereira is researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

Featured photo: Manos de trabajo (Coca farmer) by Alejandro Cock-Peláez