The dark web, not dark alley: Why drug dealers see the internet as a lucrative, safe haven

More than six years after the shutting down of Silk Road, the world’s first major drug black market, the dark web is still home to a thriving trade in illicit drugs.

These dark web markets host hundreds, or in some cases, thousands, of people who sell drugs, commonly referred to as “vendors”. The dark web offers essential anonymity for vendors and customers, who make use of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to process orders.

Trade is booming despite interruptions from law enforcement and particularly “exit scams”, in which market admins suddenly close down their markets sites and take all available money.

Why are these markets still seen as enticing places to sell drugs, in spite of the risks? To find out, our latest research surveyed 13 dark web drug vendors, via encrypted online interviews.

They gave us a range of reasons.

More Profitable

First, selling drugs online is safer and more lucrative than doing it offline:

Interviewer: So you still sell on dark web markets and prefer that to offline. Correct?

Respondent: YES. Selling offline is borderline stupid. You can make so much more money on the web, the risks [in selling outside dark web markets] aren’t even remotely worth it.

Both of these claims correspond with a previous study showing that the dark web is perceived to be a safer place to purchase and sell drugs.

Less Violent

Encryption technology allows vendors to communicate with clients and receive payments anonymously. The drugs are delivered in the post, so the vendor and client never have to meet in person.

This protects vendors from many risks that are prevalent in other forms of drug supply, including undercover police, predatory stand-over tactics where suppliers may be robbed, assaulted, or even killed by competitors, and customers who may inform on their supplier if caught.

Additional risks, such as frauds perpetrated by customers and exit scams, were taken into consideration unavoidable on the dark web but also manageable.

Some respondents said that being protected from physical risk on the dark web is not only an advantage for existing drug vendors, but might also help to make the activity attractive to people who would not otherwise be willing to sell drugs.

While some of our respondents had previously sold drugs offline, others were uniquely attracted to the perceived protection and anonymity of the dark web:

I hadn’t ever thought about selling drugs in any capability because I hate violence, and it simply seemed impossible to be involved in selling drugs in “real life” without running into some kind of conflict pretty quickly… I was always too scared and slightly nerdy to do that and never really considered it seriously until the dark web.

More Customer-Focused

Some vendors told us the feeling of safety and control lets them focus on providing a more courteous service to their clients or “customers”:

I try to provide the best products and service I can when someone has an issue or claims [their purchase was] short on pills (as long as they have ordered from me before) I generally take them at their word.

This is a stark contrast with perceptions of the street trade, which some of our respondents perceived not only as “small-time” but also rife with danger and potential violence:

The street trade is a mess. I want to provide labeled products, good tips and service, like a genuine business. Not sit in a shitty car park selling US$10 (S$15) bags from a car window all day.

Not Just About Profit

Dark web vendors also pointed out the numerous nonmaterial benefits of their work. These included feelings of autonomy and emancipation from boring work and onerous employers, as well as enthusiasm and the thrill of a criminal offense. One respondent described it as:

Exciting … and nerve-wracking. It seemed so strange. “Drugs? Online? In the post? Naaaah, definitely not.” Plus, if I’m honest, my inner reprobate buzzes from it. The rush of chucking a grand’s worth of drugs into post boxes… unreal, man.

Interviewees rationalized their involvement in the dark web drugs trade in a range of ways. These included pointing out the relative safety and medicinal benefits of some illicit drugs, and the risks associated with drug prohibition.

Let’s face it, a LOT of people like getting high… It’s human nature, but to ban it and make it criminal so that it’s hard to get, then you get poison and people die… I can tell you that the use of dark web protects users from buying products that, during traditional prohibition, would likely kill much more people. It also takes drugs off the street, reducing some violent crimes.

These insights help us understand why the dark web is increasingly attractive, not only to consumers of illicit drugs but to the people who supply them.

For those who are averse to confrontation, and who are sufficiently tech-savvy, the dark web offers an alternative to the risk and violence of dealing drugs offline.

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