The days of the Silk Road and Dread Pirate Roberts may be behind us, but darknet drug markets appear to be as prevalent as ever. With the collapse of the Russian Hydra marketplace in 2022, we explore the state of darknet drug markets in 2023.
What is the darknet and how does it work?
For those less familiar with the workings of the darknet and its various marketplaces, allow me to explain…
If you picture the internet in terms of an iceberg, then the surface web, where we are right now, would form the tip of that iceberg. Accounting for just 4% of the entire web, the surface web is the portion with which people are most familiar. The surface web encompasses the parts of the web that are accessible via search engines, such as google. However, many don’t realise that the web extends far past this.
One step below the surface web is the deep web. This part of the web isn’t accessible by traditional search engines, and so isn’t picked up by web crawlers. To access pages and information within the deep web, users require the correct authorisation and credentials.
However, just because a webpage exists in the deep web doesn’t mean it’s harmful. A lot of harmless items exist within this layer, such as unpublished blog posts, archived news stories and articles with paywalls.
Below the deep web is the darknet (or dark web), which is even harder to access due to its unsearchable, encrypted and private nature which affords users complete anonymity.
The darknet does have some legitimate uses including private communication and the protecting of confidential resources. Despite this, the darknet is probably better known for its hosting of drug marketplaces, such as the Silk Road, black markets and cyber attack services to name a few. Its very design makes the darknet a hotspot for criminal activity, and so this has become synonymous with this section of the web.
As it’s inaccessible via the surface web, users require a software known as The Onion Router (or TOR) to get to the darknet. Originally created by the US Government, TOR is an anonymising browser that allows users to enter the darknet and blocks their identity. Adding to this layer of security and anonymity is the use of cryptocurrency to make transactions on the darknet.
Darknet drug markets
Perhaps one of the most well-known functions of the darknet is its hosting of large-scale drug markets. This was no more visible than with the rise of the Silk Road marketplace in the early 2010s. Founded by Ross Ulbricht (aka Dread Pirate Roberts), the Silk Road sold a large variety of items, but was an infamous drug marketplace – with drugs accounting for 70% of the drugs sold in spring 2013. At its height, Silk Road was estimated to be worth $34.5m. Silk Road was eventually shut down by the FBI in October 2013, following the arrest of Ross Ulbricht.
More recently, 2022 saw the fall of another prominent darknet name. Launched in 2015, the Russian marketplace, Hydra Market, was known for its trade in drugs among other things. The Hydra Market grew to become one of the biggest marketplaces on the darknet, accounting for around 80% of darknet activity and amassing 19,000 seller accounts and 17 million customers. In terms of drug sales, Hydra Market became the largest narcotic market among the former countries of the USSR. Hydra Market met a similar demise to the Silk Road when it was shut down by German police in April 2022.
The state of play in 2023
Following the demise of Hydra Market in 2022, dozens of new darknet markets emerged – a number of these being darknet drug markets which targeted former Hydra customers and vendors.
According to research from various security sources, a number of markets reared their heads as key players after Hydra’s shut down, each taking it in turn to lead the market. By the end of its first month in operation, OMG! OMG! Market had already gained around $12.15 million in sales. Similar to Hydra Market, a number of Russian darknet markets have risen up the rankings, the largest of which appears to be Mega Darknet Market, which received $40m in March alone. This is followed by Blacksprut, with around $20m.
As encryption, anonymity and privacy are central to the design of the darknet and its various drug markets, up-to-date information on drug trends is difficult to come by. Analysis from the World Drug Report 2023 suggests that whilst the average buyer is spending more on drug transactions (rising from $100 per transaction in 2018 to $500 in 2021), the number of active buyers and transactions have notably decreased.
Interestingly, the rise of social media as an emerging drug market has also impacted purchasing trends. Self-reported data suggests that social media platforms have become favourable for low-level transactions of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, whereas new psychoactive substances are still sold to a greater degree via the darknet.
When it comes to who darknet drug markets sell to, there also appears to have been a change of tack. For most marketplaces, the traditional buyer has ultimately been the end user of the product sold – however, experts suggest that darknet drug markets are beginning to shift towards wholesale. The decline in the number of active markets, participants and transactions, contrasted with an increase in overall darknet sales and average transactions indicates that vendors may instead be selling to drug distributors, or may have widened their array of products and services.
So far, 2023 has presented darknet drug markets with a number of challenges – however, their ability to bounce back despite these clearly shows they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. The rise of social media for ‘low-level’ drug transactions suggests that darknet drug markets will continue to adapt their response, focusing on wholesale drug distributors, rather than the end consumer.
This piece was written by Volteface Content and Media Officer Megan Townsend. She is particularly interested in the reform of drug legislation, subcultural drug use and harm reduction initiatives. She also has an MA in Criminology from Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.