Digitally enabled drug markets: signs of diversification

2nd March 2022

Authors: Teodora Groshkova, Andrew Cunningham, Paul Griffiths, Roumen Sedefov, The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), Portugal.

Technology remains a key driver of drug markets, the importance of which is reflected at EU policy level (European Commission, 2020). Through darknet markets, social media and instant messaging apps, communication technology facilitates the sale of drugs (EMCDDA and Europol, 2019).

In 2020, an EU-focused analysis of the darknet ecosystem estimated overall sales of up to EUR 1 million/day (Figure 1). The estimate was based on data from the five largest markets at a given time – Dream, Berlusconi, Empire, Cannazon and Versus. The darknet ecosystem, however, is highly volatile – of these, only Versus remains operational.

Figure 1. Evolution of darknet markets: overall stacked daily sales, 2011-2021 (seven-day moving average)

Source: EMCDDA analysis, based on Hikari Labs global data, estimated minimum values.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced activity on darknet drug markets. In early 2020, we reported an increased number of sales of cannabis products, although with reduced revenues, indicating disruption of business where large quantities (potentially for re-sale) were concerned – but increased interest in direct purchases of small quantities (Groshkova et al., 2020). Research based on self-reported details of drug transactions via darknet markets showed a significant reduction in successful deliveries of drugs purchased on these platforms, coinciding with the initial lockdown (Bergeron et al., 2020).

In 2021, a number of darknet markets exited the ecosystem, through law enforcement take-down, scam or voluntarily exit, including some of the largest such as DarkMarket, WhiteHouse and Cannazon. Numerous new markets also appeared – but were mostly short-lived – creating a highly fragmented environment. At the end of 2021, eight markets were operational – together generating just under EUR 30 000/day (EMCDDA, 2022), a far cry from the EUR 1 million/day seen in 2020. While data gathering is in progress, these early indications suggest that the confidence in darknet markets has dropped considerably, raising questions about the future.

Darknet markets are not the only online drug sales outlet deserving attention. All major social media platforms are also used as a marketplace for illicit drugs. Dealers use captions, hashtags and emojis to enable potential buyers to search. Dealers are then contacted either through the messaging function of the platform or instant messaging apps; other encrypted communication channels are used to conduct the transaction. While some transactions are in person and with cash, others use online payment systems, with the product being shipped to the buyer’s door or a parcel pick-up point (Demant and Bakken, 2019).

Research is beginning to reveal the motivations of users on these platforms, including ease of use, particularly in comparison to darknet markets (van der Sanden et al., 2021). There is a lack of research into the motivation of dealers, but benefits would include access to a large client base and the ability to transact directly. Most research in this area is based on survey data, and more empirical evidence is yet to be generated. There are significant challenges to design and carry out research in this area: social media content may be temporary, can be fragmented and fluid (rapidly changing); and messages are almost always encrypted or otherwise difficult to access. The terminology used changes rapidly, and, unlike darknet markets – which often have a global reach – dealers on social media are frequently more local, with a regional or city focus, and research of their activity may require language processing.

Despite the challenges, it is urgent that successful approaches are identified to monitor drug-related activity on these platforms. In addition to drug sales, social media are also used to promote drug culture and violence and even groom young people for gang membership (UK National Youth Agency, 2021). Monitoring and tackling this requires innovative approaches and collaboration with the tech industry, while respecting data protection and privacy requirements.

Legitimate e-commerce websites are also used as a channel for drug-related transactions. Products sold on such websites may include illicit drugs, although this appears to be rare; others, such as new psychoactive substances, medicines and their precursors, are more frequently encountered. Countering this will require cooperation between e-commerce companies, national and international authorities – to share up-to-date information, including on substances of concern, terminology and vendors. Vendor diversification is such that a single vendor may have multiple outlets across a range of platforms and domains of the internet, enhancing their resilience. Action on the ‘clear web’ may push activity on to other platforms – and therefore a coordinated framework is needed if we are to understand and successfully address this.

The drop in drug-related sales activity on darknet markets at the end of 2021 may be an indication that this sales avenue is experiencing a dip in popularity or even an existential crisis. Law enforcement action and exit scams, may have raised concerns about their usefulness for many users. Downtime experienced due to persistent distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and complicated access routines have not helped. At the same time, drug supply via social media, instant messaging apps and other secure communication channels has emerged and appears to be much more convenient and accessible to users and vendors alike, while presenting challenges for monitoring and response measures, including law enforcement.

It appears that we are at an important point in technology-enabled drug supply and the development of new tools to monitor diverse online environments is urgently needed.


References

Bergeron A, Décary-Hétu D, Giommoni L. (2020), Preliminary findings of the impact of COVID-19 on drugs crypto markets. Int J Drug Policy. 83:102870.

Demant, J. and Bakken, S. (2019), Technologyfacilitated drug dealing via social media in the Nordic countries, background paper for the EU Drug Markets Report 2019, EMCDDA, Lisbon

European Commission (2020), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. EU agenda and action plan on drugs 2021-2025. Brussels, 24.7.2020 COM(2020) 606 final (https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52020DC0606%2801%29).

EMCDDA (2022), Unpublished analysis, based on Hikari Labs data.

EMCDDA and Europol (2019), EU drug markets report 2019, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg (https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/joint-publications/eu-drug-markets-report-2019_en).

Groshkova, T., Stoian, T., Cunningham, A., Griffiths, P., Singleton, N., Sedefov, R. (2020), Will the Current COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Long-term Cannabis Buying Practices? J Addict Med, 14(4):e13-0.

van der Sanden, R., Wilkins, C., Romeo, J. S., Rychert, M., & Barratt, M. J. (2021), Predictors of using social media to purchase drugs in New Zealand: Findings from a large-scale online survey. International Journal of Drug Policy98. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103430

UK National Youth Agency (2021), Between the lines. Available online at: https://s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/assets.nya2.joltrouter.net/wp-content/uploads/20210406100617/Between-the-lines-final-version.pdf

 

This is the latest in a series of blogs commissioned by the editors of Drugs, Habits and Social Policy journal (formerly Drugs and Alcohol Today) to explore the health, social and public safety issues associated with drug use and related policy responses.

Other blogs in the series