Discussing Drugs on the Dark Net

March 3, 2015

Drugs aren't just being bought, sold, and fought over in the terrestrial world. In recent years, illegal drug sales have flourished on the so-called Dark Net, part of the Internet that is only accessible via special software. U.S. and UK law enforcement agencies have shut down well-known suppliers and perhaps the Internet's most notorious peddler of illegal goods, Dread Pirate Roberts (Ross Ulbricht) of the defunct site Silk Road, is now behind bars and facing a life sentence in the U.S. CEU School of Public Policy (SPP) Professor of Comparative Politics Julia Buxton's research on Dark Net drug transactions will be presented as a policy brief as the UN General Assembly (UNGASS) prepares for the 2016 special session on drug policy in New York City.

The UNGASS meeting was set to take place in 2018, in line with the normal decadal schedule. However, after Mexico's war on drug trafficking claimed 67,000 lives and tens of thousands more in other Central and South American countries in just six years (during presidency of Mexico's Felipe Calderon), the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico called on the UN to accelerate the drug policy discussions to 2016. Knowing that the use of drugs will not abate despite any governments "war" on them, entrepreneurs, in part to avoid the human interaction that can sour drug deals, moved underground to the Dark Net. The free Tor (The Onion Router) software used to access the Dark Net was initially "intended to create a safe environments for dissidents and whistleblowers," Buxton said. Regardless of the intent, Tor has enabled web users access to dozens of illegal stores where anything from cannabis to methamphetamine can be purchased. "Tor leaves no digital footprint – the Internet address is bounced around and they can't locate you. This was a significant advance for social movements." People were selling before the advent of the Dark Net but they were quickly shut down, Buxton, who is also the associate dean of academic affairs and programs at SPP, noted. The birth of Bitcoin similarly allowed buyers to use an anonymous payment source.


CEU School of Public Policy (SPP) Professor of Comparative Politics Julia Buxton speaks about drug transactions on the Dark Net. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

The inherent safety in the anonymity of Tor allowed sites like Silk Road and The Hive to become essentially the Amazons of the online drug trade, complete with user reviews. In fact, the reviews are key as sellers on the Dark Net want to keep their business healthy and that is based on the quality of their products. "We have seen the professionalization of drug markets," Buxton said. "If you are a serious seller, you want to build up a good market base." The Dark Net even hosts "Black Friday" sales on the U.S.'s traditional post-Thanksgiving shopping day and Dark Net shops use social media to market themselves. That sounds very mundane but, perhaps fitting, as Buxton commented, "the kind of people who buy drugs from the Dark Net are stable, recreational users looking for niche drugs like MDMA and cannabis. Meth addicts are not using the Net." The reviews and comments are vital to the community of users and could actually mean the difference between life and death. "In the Netherlands, there is open talk about drug use that serves as an early warning system about bad batches of drugs. If we had a regulated system, people would know what they're consuming. On the Dark Net, the whole quality control/comments system is life-saving."

So how is Dark Net research important to upcoming policy discussions? Not only have traditional means of dealing gone underground, but traditional mean of law enforcement have proved ineffective and UN drug policy is currently operating under rules agreed upon in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. "Traditional law enforcement strategies and policing techniques are inadequate to confront the full range of Dark Net and hidden services available, and that poses challenges in terms of locating servers and uncovering encrypted, anonymized identities dispersed internationally among individuals rather than hierarchically organized criminal gangs," Buxton writes in her policy brief. New global policy and law enforcement questions then arise: "Have the police got the resources to put into policing the online markets? Who is responsible? Is it the responsibility of the country where the server exists? Do they know where the server is? It's the classic problem of dealing with transnational crime, where exactly does the offense take place, is it at the point of transaction or at the point of possession?" 


CEU School of Public Policy (SPP) Professor of Comparative Politics Julia Buxton speaks about drug transactions on the Dark Net. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

Once the FBI finally did take down the original Silk Road, another version, Silk Road 2.0, popped up in its place. When the 2.0 version was shuttered, other stores opened. "Silk Road was a monopoly but its interdiction and closure made the market more competitive," Buxton noted. And, the FBI "has inadvertently been the most brilliant advertising for hidden web drug markets. The FBI has acted as the most creative marketing and advertising agency that the hidden web drugs sector could have possibly have hoped for." Like other war-on-drug failures, just shutting down one source seems to be the equivalent of putting a plaster on a bullet wound. "No drugs are risk-free but our argument is to look at how we can use these innovations to reduce harm. The chat rooms are pretty amazing. People are giving advice and you can talk about use and addiction on the Dark Net anonymously without fear of reprisal, unlike you could with your doctor. We need to make this an entry point; we can maximize the opportunities it presents. The challenge we have at the moment is that if the FBI is going to come in and shut the thing down and take all email addresses, the people (in chat rooms, for example) who are trying to reduce harm could get in trouble." Buxton also notes that a "harm-reduction approach" would allow the massive law enforcement resources that are now being used to fight online drug markets to dedicate themselves to heinous and pervasive online crimes such as: child sexual exploitation; networks for weapons trafficking; financial hacking and identity theft; and cyber-terrorism.

With countries, including the U.S., increasingly legalizing the use of marijuana, the issue becomes even more fuzzy. There has been a significant increase in the manufacturing of synthetic drugs in the global South – including Central and South America as well as Southeast Asia and many of those countries have followed the U.S.'s lead in harsh prosecution for drug crimes. With 80 percent of the U.S. prison population behind bars on drug charges, perhaps the "prohibition model" is not the best to follow. The 2016 UNGASS meeting will present the chance to update and, hopefully, tailor drug policy to the unique needs of nations. There is no one size fits all solution, according to Buxton; what works in Jamaica might not work in France and what works in France might not work in Australia. "This has been the largest public policy failure of the century," Buxton emphasized. "We have more people doing a larger variety of drugs than ever. It's an utterly failed system."