The Dark Web and Drugs

The Dark Web and Drugs

How Narcotics Traffickers Use Modern Technology
Matthew Donnelly

The Dark Web has become a common method of drug trafficking, making the creation of effective initiatives that stop the online distribution of narcotics a top priority for law enforcement and policy makers. The “Dark Web” is an often misunderstood and romanticized part of modern day crime. TV shows with vague references to Dark Web black markets, urban legends of red rooms, and other fictitious stories have caused the general public to perceive the Dark Web as a mythical net of mystery and danger. While the romantization of the Dark Web is harmless for the general public, lawenforcement and legislators need an accurate, practical understanding of the Dark Web’s function if they are to counter the epidemic of the underground internet: illegal narcotics trafficking. The anonymity of the Dark Web allows dealers to avoid many of the dangers of street dealing and reach a much broader audience, which has encouraged many drug traffickers to open shop online. [1]

In order to understand the Dark Web, it’s necessary to understand the Deep Web. The deep web represents all the web content that cannot be reached through search engines.[2] Non-public social media content, paywalled websites, and private chat rooms are all part of the “Deep Web.” Even though these pages cannot be collected by search engine “crawlers,” they still exist on the World Wide Web and can be accessed by anyone who knows the exact URL or uses a Dark Web search engine. Research estimates that the deep web is much larger than the public internet, containing 96% of all network pages.[3] Hidden among the billions of webpages is a community of illegal websites that can only be accessed with anonymizing software called the “Dark Web.”[4] Narcotics suppliers use websites on the Dark Web known as “cryptomarkets” to offer their products to anonymous users. [5]

These cryptomarkets are set up to offer their narcotics products online through a website, much like eBay or Craiglist. A cryptomarket is defined as “a marketplace that hosts multiple sellers or ‘vendors’, provides participants with anonymity via its location on the hidden web and use of cryptocurrencies for payment, and aggregates and displays customer feedback ratings and comments.”[5] Cryptomarkets function as virtual brokers, connecting the buyers and suppliers through a retail-like process. Cryptomarkets “share the same look and feel of ‘clear web’ marketplaces like eBay and Amazon by allowing their customers to search and compare products and vendors.”[6] Instead of using real money, drug traffickers will use cryptocurrency, such as bitcoin, for greater anonymity.[5]

A famous example of how cryptomarkets function is the rise and fall of the infamous Dark Web site, “The Silk Road.” The Silk Road was a cryptomarket created in January of 2011 by Ross William Ulbricht, also known by his online name “The Dread Pirate Roberts.” The Silk Road quickly grew into the world’s biggest drug trafficking site used by several thousand drug dealers to distribute illegal narcotics to over a hundred thousand customers. The Silk Road was estimated to have generated $1.2 billion in sales between January 2011 and September of 2013.[7] According to the FBI, in September 2013, the Silk Road had over 13,000 offerings of controlled substances.[7] That month, The FBI seized the Silk Road, establishing a new precedent of law enforcement on the Dark Web.[2] Shortly thereafter, Ulbricht was arrested, eventually being sentenced to life imprisonment. The seizure of the Silk Road marked the beginning of a new age for law enforcement and national countertrafficking initiatives.

The migration of narcotics distribution from physical locations to a web address has added challenges for law enforcement. First, an online marketplace means that the problem of jurisdiction becomes even more complicated. If the packages are being distributed from a location outside of the U.S., it requires international cooperation to identify, apprehend, and prosecute the suspects. Cryptocurrency is another recent invention that makes cryptomarket take- downs more difficult. Because of the anonymous nature of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, it is hard for law enforcement to link an identifiable individual to cryptomarket transactions without secondary evidence.[8]

Despite these difficulties, law enforcement has still recorded great success in combating online narcotics trafficking. The FBI launched Operation Disarray in coordination with national law enforcement in March of 2018 to counter the epidemic of Dark Web narcotics trafficking.[9] Operation Disarray was a great success. It was a mobilization across all fifty states by multiple departments, including the Department of Homeland Security, Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The mass operation lead to “knock and talks with more than 160 individuals known to have bought or sold drugs through the marketplaces. Leads from the investigation identified 19 overdose deaths of persons of interest.”[9]
Many in Congress are working to update current law and statues to streamline the prosecution of online narcotics traffickers. Currently, online narcotics distribution is punishable under state and federal law. On September 25th, 2018 the joint committee of House and Senate agreed to H.R.6 – SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act.[10] This bill enacts legislation specifically designed to counter the proliferation through the U.S. Postal Service. SEC. 1305 of the bill says:

(a) In General.—The Secretary, acting through the Commissioner of Food and Drugs, upon discovering or receiving, in a package being offered for import, a controlled substance that is offered for import in violation of any requirement of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.), the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act (21 U.S.C. 951 et seq.), the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. 301 et seq.), or any other applicable law, shall transfer such package to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. If the Secretary identifies additional packages that appear to be the same as such package containing a controlled substance, such additional packages may also be transferred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection shall receive such packages consistent with the requirements of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.)[11]

In the future, legislators and law enforcement can be expected to take two major actions:

1) Development of de-anonymizing cryptocurrency software.
Since so many Dark Web drug sites use cryptocurrencies to keep anonymity for buyers and sellers, we can expect law enforcement to develop technology that calculates the millions of blockchain connections to find personally identifying information.
2) The creation of new taskforces and additional resources for narcotic enforcement agencies. The rise of new criminal methods necessitates innovative, well supported law enforcement responses.

  1. Kristy Kruithof, Judith Aldridge, David Décary Hétu, Megan Sim, Elma Dujso, Stijn Hoorens, “The role of the ‘dark web’ in the trade of illicit drugs,”, 2016, research_briefs/RB9925.html
  2. Finklea, “Dark Web,” Congressional Research Service, March 10, 2017, https://
    3. whitepapers/covert/ocean-internet-deepweb-37012
  3. Richet, “A Strategic Approach to the TOR Network,” Harvard Journal, January 10, 2017, cybersecurity/tag/deep-web
    5.. Barratt & Aldridge, “Everything you always wanted to know about drug cryptomarkets* (*but were afraid to ask),” International Journal of Drug Policy, September 2016, article/S0955-3959(16)30227-4/fulltext
  4. Aldridge, “Hidden wholesale: The drug diffusing capacity of online drug cryptomarkets,” The International Journal of Drug Policy, September 2016, article/S0955-3959(16)30133-5/fulltext
  5. Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Seizure of Additional $28 Million Worth of Bitcoins Belonging to Ross William Ulbricht, Alleged Owner and Operator of “Silk Road” Website,” NY Field Office Blog, October 2013, https://
  6. Kristoufek, “What Are the Main Drivers of the Bitcoin Price? Evidence from Wavelet Coherence Analysis,” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, April 2015, PMC4398561/
  7. Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Operation Disarray: Shining a Light on the Dark Web”, April 2018, stories/operation-disarray-040318
  8. Demko, “Opioids package finalized”, Politico, September 2018, https://
  9. Walden, “H.R.6 – SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act,”, September 2018, bill/115th-congress/house-bill/6/text

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