Researchers found that in 2020, 15 percent of GDS participants who reported using drugs in the previous 12 months obtained them from darknet marketplaces—either by purchasing them first-hand or via someone else. This equated to a threefold increase of the percentage of people who reported the same in 2014, when the survey first started measuring the trend.
Over the past seven years that number has steadily climbed, but never as significantly as it did in 2020: jumping by four percent of the total respondents compared to 2019 levels. And the global pandemic is only part of the reason.
Dr Monica Barratt, a senior research fellow at Melbourne’s RMIT University and co-lead researcher of the GDS, told VICE World News that cultural trends, shifting taboos, market innovators and a growing population of people who spend more of their lives online are all likely contributors to the significant increase in dark web drug crime.
“If you’re coming of age in 2021—say you’re 18 or 19 years old—this isn’t that odd to you; there’s been 10 years since Silk Road was founded in 2011, so you’ve sort of grown up with it,” Dr Barratt explained over the phone. “Partly, I think, that cultural difference and generational difference may explain why this is happening.
“If you buy everything online, why wouldn’t you also buy your drugs online?”
It is for this latter reason in particular, she suggests, that darknet drug markets may have attracted more new customers in 2020 than any previous year.
“When you think about it, in the last 12 months there were many people who weren’t really keen on buying things online, but who had to buy things online because they had no choice; the shops weren’t open and they were in lockdown and they needed to use the post to get goods to them,” she noted. “I think once they get over that hump some people will decide that they want to continue not going shopping for clothes and only using the Internet—and they may feel the same way about everything.”
There is some anecdotal precedent for this trend of homebody buyers. In 2017, Dr Barratt sought to find out why it was that Scandinavian countries like Finland consistently reported the world’s highest proportion of drug buyers who were using the dark web to purchase their supply. A local source explained that, due in part to the climate and the prohibitively cold weather, Finnish people are typically “more isolated” than other peoples around the world and “tend to stay home”.
“He said it makes perfect sense to him, culturally, that they would be one of the highest users of the [drug] servers that deliver to home,” Dr Barratt recalled. “And the question is: ‘Well, where else would they buy from?’”
That goes some way toward explaining the cultural patterns. But another factor that’s worthy of consideration is the way in which drug dealers and darknet vendors are diversifying their offering and creating a more reliable service—even in the face of transnational cybercrime crackdowns and rampant fraudulent activity.
Dr Barratt points to a dark web marketplace that introduced multi-signature authentication a few years ago, as a way to insulate buyers and sellers against so-called “exit scams”—when the site administrator runs away with people’s funds—and garner some trust from consumers. Other operators have gone even further, leveraging social media apps and chatrooms to create new channels of illegal commerce: like Televend, the fully-automated system that allows users to buy drugs from bots via the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
“What happens is that everyone innovates: the people who are selling drugs on the darknet, and the people who are producing these new applications, they try to work out what the issues are that mean people aren’t taking up their particular platform,” Dr Barratt explained. “Maybe it’s just a bit too hard to go on the darknet, but people like to use messaging apps. So Televend is sort of like a cross between social media app-purchasing and the darknet. And I’m just fascinated as to whether the future of the darknet might be some other hybrid thing that has only just begun.”
These trends are likely to continue, as online marketplaces become more sophisticated and more people turn to e-commerce outlets to score their illegal products. But this brave new world of darknet drug-dealing is fraught with pitfalls and slippery slopes.
One unsurprising consequence is that it gives consumers unprecedented ease of access to illicit—and oftentimes mysterious—substances. Each year, somewhere around a quarter to a third of GDS respondents say that they’ve consumed a wider range of drugs since using the dark web. The breadth of the darknet’s product offering, combined with the relatively low barrier to entry, creates gateways to novel drug-using behaviours, where people try new substances just because they’ve suddenly been made available to them.
But another worrying knock-on effect is that people who buy drugs off the darknet, rather than through a contact or a friend, may be using those drugs alone. For that reason, Dr Barratt urged darknet drug users to stay diligent and exercise caution—and, wherever possible, to let someone else know what they’re going to be consuming, as well as when and where.
“It may be that a person’s entire experience of using drugs has actually started through the darknet, and may indeed be confined to the darknet,” she explained. “The risk of that is that they may be using alone—so one of the things to consider is ensuring that if you are going to take something for the first time, even if you’re alone, that somebody out there knows you’re about to do this, and somebody out there has a ‘check-in with me in an hour’ and has your details.
“That’s hard, obviously; this stuff is mostly illegal and a lot of people are secretive about what they’re doing. But the concern would be that someone buys something, maybe takes the wrong dose or the wrong drug or they're having a bad time, and they don’t necessarily have someone with them.”