Online market ‘is turning drug dealers from goons to geeks’ or sit back, log on and smoke a toke with Mashed Crab….
Drug dealers are turning from goons to geeks in a trade that is increasingly being conducted online, says a report by the European drugs agency.
Research into internet drug markets by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) suggested the self-regulation of online markets such as Silk Road provide a safer environment for users and dealers of illicit substances. Feedback mechanisms similar to eBay mean customers are able to hold dealers to account for the service they provide, the report said, while remote access to the market almost eliminates the risk of violence that has long been an integral part of the black economy.
As a result, online drug dealers are more likely to need good customer service skills and a persuasive way with words than muscles and a tough reputation.
The report, published on Thursday, draws together the most recent evidence from experts on the darknet markets phenomenon that first came to public attention with the rise of Silk Road, which opened in 2011 and operated until it was seized by the FBI in 2013.
Researchers argued that Silk Road and its successors, known as crypto markets or dark net markets, became successful after bringing together four technologies: the bitcoin virtual currency and encrypted internet protocols such as Tor, which allowed anonymity, as well as Escrow and customer feedback systems, which gave buyers and sellers confidence in their transactions.
Products are most often sent through the post, eliminating personal encounters between dealers and their customers.
These market innovations have led to a shift in the kinds of people involved in selling drugs. “Because of the virtual location of online drug markets, in addition to the presence of conflict-reducing features such as Escrow and bitcoin, violence and theft are likely to be reduced. It is probable that these changes will have a deep impact on the skills needed to succeed in criminal markets,” the report says.
“In the drug cryptomarket era, having good customer service and writing skills, and a good reputation, via feedback, as a vendor or buyer may be more important than muscles and face-to-face connections.”
Other findings in the 139-page report include:
• Drugs available through darknet markets tend to be of a higher purity than those available on the streets.
• Darknet markets often act as virtual brokers linking upper-, mid- and retail-level sellers, as well as consumers.
• Users of darknet markets tend to be more sophisticated, recreational drug users.
• A quarter of sales through darknet markets were for wholesale quantities costing $1,000 (£695) or more, suggesting retail dealers use them for sourcing stock.
• The next generation of darknet markets are likely to be decentralised, peer-to-peer networks, making them even more difficult for police to seize.
Judith Aldridge, a criminologist at Manchester University and one of the report’s 30 co-authors, said the use of darknet markets for drug buying seemed to be on the rise, and had the potential for changing the structure of the global drug market.
However, she said, they have their limitations. Given their reliance on postal systems for delivery, darknet markets are unlikely to be useful for large-scale drug supply and importation.
She added: “Despite the growth and popularity of these markets, they tend to be short-lived, and their success substantially hampered by the growth of mistrust amongst market participants due to scams and, to a more limited extent, law enforcement activities.”
The analyst Steve Rolles from the Transform drug policy foundation, a pro-reform group, said the advent of the darknet trade highlighted the adaptability of drugs markets. He said: “If half a century of drug enforcement shows anything it’s that whilst demand remains, the market will always find a way to meet that demand while a profit opportunity exists.
“The best enforcement can achieve is to displace markets, it can’t eradicate them. The darknet is just the latest chapter in a 50-year game of cat and mouse – that the drug warriors can never win.”
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, said: “The illicit market is evolving, and so should our efforts to eliminate it. We should stop the abuse of the internet by those wanting to turn it into a drug market.
“Technology is offering fresh opportunities for law enforcement to tackle online drug markets and reduce threats to public health. Let us seize these opportunities to attack the problem head-on and reduce drug supply online.”