Drug dealing goes online
Although online markets still account for a small share of illicit drug sales, they are growing fast—and changing drug-dealing as they grow. A recent article in the Economist reports that sellers are competing on price and quality, and seeking to build reputable brands. Turnover has risen from an estimated $15m-17m in 2012 to $150m-180m in 2015.
The latest Global Drug Survey found that almost in 1 in 10 participants (9.3%) reported ever buying drugs off the dark-net with those reporting last year dark-net purchase rising from 4.5% to 6.7%.
Since the launch of the Silk Road five years ago, dark-web markets have represented a shadowy and much-maligned corner of the internet. And the secretive nature of such sites makes them difficult to study. But last year a researcher using the pseudonym Gwern Branwen cast some light on them. Roughly once a week between December 2013 and July 2015, programmes he had written crawled 90-odd cryptomarkets, archiving a snapshot of each page.
The Economist extracted data from the resulting 1.5 terabytes of information for around 360,000 sales on Agora, Evolution and Silk Road 2. There are, inevitably, flaws in the data. Mr Branwen’s scrapes probably missed some deals. The Economist excluded any sale that was more than a week old when the scrape took place. If a price was absurdly high, it was ignored; such “holding prices” are used by dealers to indicate a lack of supply. Vendors may fake sales (though probably not often, since cryptomarkets take a cut) or reviews (though dissatisfied real customers would soon catch outright fraudsters). The volatile exchange rate between bitcoin and dollars means price conversions are not completely accurate. Yet the data still reveal a lot about the workings of a once-shadowy industry.
In total the deals were worth around $50m. Of those MDMA (ecstasy) sold the most by value while marijuana was the most popular single product, with around 38,000 sales. Legal drugs such as oxycodone and diazepam (Valium) were also popular. A third of sales did not belong in any of these categories: these included drug kit such as bongs, and drugs described in ways that the Economist’s data analysts didn’t understand (I’m not quite sure why they couldn’t use Google to work out that Gorilla Glue is high potency cannabis).
The infographic they produced makes for very interesting perusing: