Darknet Markets and the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

Darknet drug markets are far larger, more pervasive and more involved in the opioid crisis than is generally realized.

The U.S. Senate recently released a report stating that $800 million worth of fentanyl pills were illegally sold online to customers in the U.S. over a two-year period. Purchases were made from 43 states, with the most orders coming from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Sellers are so sophisticated they accept multiple forms of payment, preferring Bitcoin because the cryptocurrency is hard to trace. But they are also using Western Union, MoneyGram, PayPal, credit cards, and prepaid gift cards.

But the Senate report barely scratches the surface of the online drug market.

Drugs have been available online since the beginning of the internet. Legend says that the first online purchase ever made was for a bag of marijuana in the 1970s in California.

By the 1990s, drug dealers and traffickers had adopted mobile communications to reach buyers and avoid detection, and the Open Vendor Database listed classified ads for a variety of substances.

The rise of Web 2.0 technology and online shopping led to the Silk Road, the first modern darknet market. Silk Road came online in February 2011 and gained immediate attention in the geek community. Gawker published an article about it in June 2011, and Wired.com also covered its increasing influence and ultimate downfall in 2013.

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More darknet markets arose in the wake of Silk Road, including its immediate successors, Silk Road 2.0 and Silk Road Reloaded, as well as Utopia, Agora, and AlphaBay. All relied on internet protocols to anonymize their communications and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin for relatively secure transactions.

The Tor anonymity network was developed in the mid-1990s by the U.S. Naval Research Lab to protect online intelligence communications. It was designed to be highly secure and easy to use, and is still primarily funded by the federal government. Its purpose is to safeguard journalists and dissidents, and to enable U.S. intelligence operations overseas. But because of how it works, it is well suited for illegal activities, too.

In other words, the internet now makes for an almost ideal operating environment for illegal drug markets. The globalization of the industrial marketplace, efficient international shipping and low-cost mobile communications enable some of these markets to function as efficiently and effectively as online retailers like Amazon.

Modern Darknet Markets

The modern darknet is now a major source of heroin, illicit fentanyl and other illegal opioids, as well as virtually every other illegal substance imaginable. The scale of this market is staggering, and its efficiency is stunning. Darknet markets look like familiar online merchants, complete with user reviews, shipping information and promotions, as well as excellent customer service. In practical terms, this means that a person who wants a particular substance can obtain it almost overnight with little more than a few clicks or taps.

The darknet is sufficiently sophisticated to have its own news sites, market information and discussion forums. Activity is tracked and discussed with precision and zeal.

Measuring the precise size of the darknet economy can be challenging. From 2013 to 2015,  Carnegie Mellon researchers estimate that darknet sales volume fluctuated between $100 million and $180 million annually. Importantly, sales volume remained about the same even after law enforcement crackdowns and arrests.

The darknet operates with relative impunity for a variety of reasons. Drugs are sourced from manufacturers in multiple countries, not just China, and substrates for these drugs are also sourced from multiple locations. Thus, the manufacturing supply chain is not vertically integrated and cannot be easily disrupted. Instead, it is highly diversified, making it robust against arrests, takedowns and product interdiction.

Transport and delivery of drugs involve not only the U.S. Postal Service, but every other mode of shipping. This includes conventional approaches like UPS and FedEx, as well as private courier services and livery companies. It extends to tunnels, boats, aerial drones and ad hoc transportation services arranged online.
 
In addition to darknet markets, there are also unlicensed online pharmacies, pill mills, and rogue physicians. It is not clear if the darknet is supplying street dealers, but it seems safe to assume that these illegal operations are interacting in mutually beneficial ways.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced the formation of the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) unit, which is made up of federal agents and cyber experts whose aim is to dismantle darknet markets. This comes on the heels of the newly formed Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, whose focus is opioid-related healthcare fraud.

While these efforts may help reduce the flow of illegal drugs, they will have to be highly innovative in their approach. Darknet markets have quickly recovered from previous law enforcement crackdowns and are more resilient than ever. Many are located outside U.S. jurisdiction, often with people in one nation, technology in another, and merchandise in yet another, making investigation and extradition very difficult.

In other words, defeating darknet markets is akin to eliminating a termite infestation when the nest is not on your property. New approaches will be needed, and addiction prevention and treatment become all the more important when the flow of illegal addictive substances cannot be readily slowed.

Darknet markets are playing an increasingly important role as a source of heroin and illicit fentanyl, the two key drivers in the opioid crisis. This is not surprising given the history of drugs online and the fact that opioid abuse and addiction usually starts with recreational use. A failure to recognize this -- exacerbated by efforts to shrink the supply of legal prescription opioids -- has hampered the response to the opioid crisis and is contributing to rising overdose fatalities.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.