As visceral experiences increasingly make way for virtual substitutions, the underground world of international drug trafficking is rather appropriately going the way of social relationships and Pokémon cards, with real-life transactions now being replaced by digital deals on the so-called dark web. According to the Economist, the approximate value of illegal dark web drug sales rose from around $15-17 million in 2012 to $150-180 million in 2015. Yet just as in the real world, different drugs take up a different share of the market, which is why a new study has delved into the Internet’s nether regions in order to determine which drugs are most commonly bought and sold over the dark web.
Dark web marketplaces – or cryptomarkets – operate using a network called Tor, which scrambles communication through multiple servers in order to make users’ IP addresses untraceable. As a result, many buyers and sellers consider this the safest way to deal in illegal drugs, using sites such as Silk Road, Agora, and Alphabay.
To conduct the study, the Economist used data collected by a researcher who goes by the alias Gwern Branwen, who managed to glean information from around 360,000 transactions on three different dark web sites between December 2013 and July 2015. Though this doesn’t represent the totality of dark web drug deals, it does provide a decent sample, with overall sales equaling $27 million.
Breaking down dark web markets. Gwern Branwen’s dark-web archive; The Economist
From this data, MDMA was found to represent the greatest market share by value of all drugs sold over these cryptomarkets, although marijuana products – which include weed, hash, and edible cannabis items like space cakes – were the most popular, with a total of 38,000 sales.
Another intriguing finding to emerge from this study is that drugs bought over the dark web tend to be pricier than those obtained on the street. A gram of heroin, for instance, costs roughly double when purchased online, while cocaine users can expect to pay around 40 percent extra for drugs bought over the dark web.
The reasons for this are numerous, although the major factor appears to be that drugs bought this way tend to be of a higher quality with less impurities. A study in Spain, for instance, discovered that the average purity of cocaine purchased online is 71.6 percent, while the street equivalent contains just 48 percent of the illicit Andean powder.
According to the Economist, this is largely because the dark web operates much like many legal online marketplaces, where buyers and sellers review and rate each other. As a result, dark web drug dealers are keen to supply high-grade products to their customers, as bad reviews could lead to a loss of business. Street drug dealers, however, don’t have this problem.